By Suzi Parker

BARTENDING TRICKS, just like those of a magician, tend to be sacred, but signing up for a bartending course can get just about anybody conversant with blue liqueurs, exotic aperitifs, fruit-flavored mixers and a variety of bar equipment -- enough to keep the party going.

Two out of three. Not bad.

Grabbing the neck of the bourbon bottle, I poured the mock liquor into a highball glass. One shot in each glass, I eyed the liquor with the accuracy of a grizzled bartender who has mixed thousands of drinks in his day. No jigger was needed for this test.

Jerry Citti, instructor and owner of The Bartending School on Arkansas Valley Drive in west Little Rock, doesn't believe in using jiggers to measure liquor. Who, he asks, has time for those?

"Just eye it. Get to know it by feel" -- that's his motto.

So I did it by feel, and two of the three shots were perfect. This was my first time to pick up a liquor bottle with a fancy spout and pour it smoothly into a rocks glass. It was a thrill compared to none. After four days in bartending school learning Arkansas' liquor laws, inventory techniques and bar terms, I was ready to concoct blue drinks with funky names like Windex and pour lethal shots of Drambuie and Chartreuse.

It's odd that I ended up in bartending school. I have a full-time job. I don't need to finance a college education. I don't like to drink. My family never possessed a love for alcohol. And I don't really need another degree on my wall. Yet fancy liquor in decorative bottles has always caught my fancy. As a child peeping into hotel bars, I'd spot highballs and cocktails sitting on sleek tables. I'd watch bartenders making five drinks at a time and dressing them with cherries, pineapples and olives. I'd dream of being a mixologist, able to whip up a mai tai, Harvey Wallbanger, mint julep or classic martini at a moment's notice.

One day this spring, while drinking a cup of cappuccino, I decided to enroll in bartending school. I figured I could make a few extra dollars catering parties while impressing family and friends with slick bartending tricks.

Looking in the Yellow Pages, I spotted The Bartending School, the only licensed professional bartending school in Arkansas. Jerry, the school's founder and teacher, gave me the lowdown on the four-week course: $400 for 36 hours of professional bartending lessons. All supplies were provided, including notebooks, pens and paper; night and day classes were available and one class consisted of no more than eight people. I signed up, paid my $100 deposit and was on my way the next day to learning the tricks of the trade.

Tattoos in the mix
An eclectic mix of seven would-be mixologists, including me, rolled into class on that sunny Tuesday morning in July. One guy with tattoos never came back after the first class. Another guy who drove down to Little Rock from West Plains, Mo., dropped out after a few weeks when he injured his back. But his friend, Kenneth, who also lived in Missouri but stayed in Conway during the week, stuck with the class. He was looking for an escape from a Captain D's managerial position in the Ozark hills. Kenneth believed bartending school would be the key to that new life.

Everyone else was looking for a new life, too.

Nina, an outspoken Asian woman with a different hairstyle every day, enrolled in bartending school because of an impending move to Cleveland.

"Home of the rock 'n' roll hall of fame," she told us with excitement.

Love propelled Nina into bartending school. A hair stylist in a mall here, and an alumna of nursing and beauty schools, she had fallen in love with a man from Ohio. She planned to move to Cleveland and mix drinks for a living. This was a stop-off adventure for Nina, a woman who had art painted on her toenails and hated city government officials.

Two guys named Kelly needed jobs. Kelly No.1, a hefty and happy guy, joked and aggravated Nina from the moment they met. He entertained the class and we all knew Kelly No.1 would never have an empty tip jar. He oozed with humor, personality and pizazz behind the bar, even if he was just squirting Coke from the soda gun. Kelly No.2 earned the name because he joined the class a day late. Despite a degree in mass communications, Kelly No.2 had been unable to find a job. Now he planned on attending law school and needed fast money to finance it. Shy and introverted, he planned to fall back on his mixology degree.

"I need a job as a law clerk," Kelly No. 2 said nearly every day.

Only Roger, a tall lanky guy from El Paso, Texas, had any experience behind a bar. In the past few years, Roger worked as a barback, or assistant to a bartender, in Houston and El Paso clubs. He toted ice bags and cases of beer. The job wasn't glamorous, and every night Roger watched bartenders rake in tip after tip. Now he wanted to be the bartender. We all did.

Liquor scholars
How do stacked cocktail napkins get swirled? And how do some frozen drinks come to the table iced with flames? Now I know.

Jerry, who has 20 years under his belt in the bar and restaurant business, turned us into liquor scholars in just a week. We even learned how to catch bartenders who double as thieves. We learned the difference between "neat," a term associated with Scotch served straight, and "straight up," any other base liquor served without ice.

We learned that gin is infused with juniper, that tequila is distilled from cactus. We learned that bartenders always carry two things in their shirt pockets--pens and matches. They also study customers and know when to cut off the liquor to drunks at the bar.
Jerry, who's savvy to nearly every trick in the trade, taught us the cardinal rule about earning tips: know customers.

"Know their first name, associate them with what they drink and a crisis they are having," he said. "People like service and that's service."

Bartending tricks, like a magician's, tend to be sacred. Flaming a drink is one of the best-kept secrets in the business, an act consisting of rum, sugar and the skill to burn it properly on a frozen drink. As for those cute napkins, a glass turned on the stack swirls the napkins into a spiral while mesmerizing those at the bar.

After just a week, I had already learned the answers to some mysteries. And an array of juice, dessert and frozen drinks as well as standard highballs and cocktails waited for me.

Sip vs. slam
Drinking in the 1990s isn't what it once was, say, in the 1950s. The days of classy cocktails--martinis, Gibsons and old fashions--served in dainty glasses have been replaced with lethal concoctions called Silk Panties, Hop Skip and Go Naked, Liquid Cocaine, Steel Curtain, Woo Woo and Poppa Smurf that are served in test tubes, funky shot glass necklaces or any other container that hints of creativity (and maybe stupidity).

And today, you simply don't sip. You slam back these drinks with powerful gusto like the grandfather of all shooters--a straight shot of tequila. Also known as slammers and tooters, shooters are created with any spirit and mixer that happens to be available and then shaken or flash-blended. Usually low in alcohol content, these drinks, sometimes layered with neon-colored liqueurs, have found popularity with college-age drinkers who have just started experimenting with fancy drinks. And because of the shooter rage, bars host specials with shooter waitresses who carry the drinks in holsters or glow-in-the-dark test tube trays. Shooters, like kamikazes, are to the 1990s what pina coladas were to the 1970s. But, unlike the slow gratification of a frozen tropical fantasy, shooters are fast drinks for fast times with the power to give instant buzzes, the drinking worlds' answer to the Internet.

I didn't graduate valedictorian of my bartending class. Kelly No.1, with his twinkling eyes and jolly demeanor, received that honor. Instead, the title of salutatorian was bestowed upon me.

The Suzi Q
A few Friday nights ago, I bartended my first party for co-workers, who rented a portable bar and a blender for my debut. Everyone who was invited brought their favorite liquor. Excited to show my skills, I didn't charge an hourly rate but brought a tip jar-- just in case anyone wanted to show their appreciation-- and a magic wand swizzle stick that had a star on its end.

My first drink was an old standard, the Bloody Mary. I poured the vodka and tomato juice with complete ease, mixed in the Worcestershire sauce and laced the drink with salt, pepper and a few drops of Tabasco sauce. I handed it to my victim, who smiled politely and then said, "Wow, this is good. Really good. I'm impressed."

By midnight, I was stirring and shaking like a mad mixologist who was better than Tom Cruise in "Cocktail"--and gleefully watching as my tip jar filled with dollars. As liquor became low, I improvised and created my own drink, The Suzi Q, a fruity sweet shooter that resembled Hawaiian Punch but could easily pack a meaner punch in the morning.
One nice man with intense blue eyes ordered The Suzi Q and was veryimpressed. "You are lucky tonight because I like this drink and this is all I have," he said. With that, he stuck a five-dollar bill in the jar.

That evening I made nearly $30 in tips plus a beer bottle cap that some smart aleck dropped in my jar. I also heard stories from co-workers who spilled their heartbreaks and fantasies at the bar. Since then, I've decided to keep a journal of my experiences and everyone else's confessions. A good bartender remembers her customers and their problems. You never know when that one little secret told over a blue drink could become a five-dollar bill in your jar.

Copyright 1999 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved