Cocktail classes: how to mix with the best

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE evening is just beginning on New York's 29th Street and in every corner of the room bar staff are swinging their hips in the darkness to "Let's Talk About Sex". Ice clinks into glasses, thick creamy spirits are poured out to the count of four, and complicated cocktails are arranged on the spill-mat with their decorative stirrers jauntily angled in the alcoholic soup.

Suddenly the music stops, the lights are turned up and everyone peers around at the colourful concoctions. "Yes!" shouts Michael Agostinelli, stabbing his sentence with emphasis as if this had never happened before. "Come on graduates! Give it up for the beginners! They have memorised their cream drinks!" The room is filled with whoops, applause and shy smiles of victory, all from the bar staff, for there are no customers in this 10-bar establishment, only apprentice bartenders sacrificing their weekday evenings and $800 (pounds 500) each to learn the tricks of this potentially lucrative trade.

Agostinelli, the chief instructor of the American Bartending School, which deals with about 20 trainees at a time on the fifth floor of this dingy office block, learnt his skills working the bars of Fort Lauderdale, Florida where he claims to have been making $1,500 a night: "You'd better believe it," he nods seriously.

The ambition of "graduates" is to work at high-tipping touristy places like Planet Hollywood, the Harley Davidson Cafe or the Russian Tea Rooms. On the notice boards decorating the fluorescent-lit hallway are hundreds of "Jobs Found" cards showing the whereabouts of the successful scholars. The bulletins are decorated with martini glasses and dollar signs. "Martinis," says Agostinelli disdainfully, "should always be stirred not shaken. I would tell Mr James Bond as politely as possible that I could not shake a martini - it is against my religion."

Now that the speed tests are over (12 drinks in six minutes) the instructor calls a break to discuss personal hygiene. He is decked out in black with neatly cropped hair, a lot of silver jewellery, a little eyeliner and sharply pointed shiny shoes. He looks scrupulously clean and has a caress of clear nail varnish on each spotless finger. "We gonna do this proper," he explains. "I don't wanna see any dirt on your person. I wanna see neat ponytails, I wanna see a dress shirt and a cumberbund [sic], I don't wanna see dirt behind your nails. Geddit?"

He tells his captivated students that although some of the men may not like the idea it is a good plan to go and have a manicure once a week. Glancing around the room at the large Hispanic man with his hairy chest exposed and the young black guy with the gold tooth it seemed likely that they might well not take kindly to the suggestion. Zixella, a 24-year- old from the Bronx who works for the housing authority, glanced down at her two inch long decorated nails and held them up to the light. "One of my graduates went into a bar near her home last week," shouts Agostinelli, "to see an unclean man putting ice into the glasses with his hands. You know what? I tell you what. Darlene, she nearly threw up right there. Darn right."

Agostinelli, by day a cardiac nurse at Our Lady of Mercy hospital in Westchester, is not just talking about actual hygiene. He is talking about "dirty bar habits". Under the intense gaze of his eager students, who include a junior accountant, a "resting" actor, and a Wall Street secretary, he casts his eye over the hundreds of bottles of imitation spirits, swizzle sticks, wooden olives and smoking ice-machines and explains how not to spill and how not to get involved. "Nobody wants to hear what you think of the OJ verdict. You wanna talk about the Knicks game? Fine. You wanna talk about the weather? Fine. But if an issue's hot, leave it alone." He teaches them to serve the woman first whatever the circumstances and how to deal with an argument about who's paying. "If the female does not want her drink bought for her by that man you ask her if she's sure and then you charge them separately. And ladies, you always serve the female first -I don't care how fine that man is!" The women mutter irritably at this until Nicole, who works on Wall Street and is on the course because she is single and wants to meet more people, says: "Hell! I just want my tip, you know what I mean?"

Nearly all the people who had parted with their money to train into the night seemed genuinely taken in by the false glamorisation of this stressful job - they didn't mind being yelled at by the super-sincere Agostinelli who treats barwork like a religious vocation, nor do they mind the idea of mixing drink after sickly drink for an ungrateful public. Vera Green, 38, is a graduate of the school who had even come back to practise. She is a single mother who works in a drug store during the day and has a 15-year-old son to support. She already has a weekend bartending job in her local bowling alley in Queens ("I wanted to start off nice and easy") but likes the people at the bartending school and comes back to help out during the week. She is working on her Quaalude (really) and her Banshee, which involves what Michael calls Creme de Banana. "Of course nobody drinks them at the bowling alley," she laughs. "I kinda like them myself though."