Where are not many institutions of higher learning like the AAA Bartenders School. The “classroom” is a stunningly realistic recreation of a neighborhood tavern. The “professor,” Don Oswald, is a veteran bartender with a gift for teaching. Students “study” by pouring drinks until they’ve memorized 180 different recipes.
The only things missing from this bar-like “laboratory” are a liquor license and a saloon’s most important ingredient: alcohol. That’s because the school is located in Riverside, a town completely devoid of taverns.
That may look like real alcohol in the bottles behind the bar, but they are filled with water, dyed to the appropriate shade with food coloring. Even the slices of fruit that students use to garnish glass rims are artificial.
The closest thing to an intoxicating substance is the O’Doul’s beer on tap, which has tiny traces of alcohol. There is also a small bottle of rubbing alcohol for frozen drinks that require alcohol in order to freeze.
With 1950s rock ‘n’ roll pumping out of the speakers and a TV mounted above the mirrored bar, the only other ingredients missing from a real tavern are the stink of cigarette smoke and maybe a sad-faced regular.
As for the school’s location in a suburb that just recently got its first-ever liquor store, Oswald doesn’t see much irony in that. The school day isn’t supposed to be some kind of happy hour, but rather a sober study on how to mix drinks, serve customers responsibly and act like a professional.
The Riverside school is but one “campus” for the AAA Bartenders School. They also have schools in Calumet City, Schaumburg and Villa Park. The school’s original location on South Wabash Avenue in the Chicago Loop was founded in 1951, and AAA prides itself on being the “world’s oldest” bartenders school. Tuition is $595 for the 40-hour course. The only textbook is a 336-page “Guide to Expert Beverage Service.”
This invaluable book contains hundreds of drink recipes divided into chapters with titles like “Tropicals and Exotics” and “Shots and Shooters.” The book gives students a comprehensive history of mixed drinks, as well as diagrammed instructions on how to tap a beer keg.
Wine and liqueurs are covered, as well as “Garnish Preparation” and “Cash Handling.”
It’s enough material to make a student’s head spin, as they learn to pour the stuff that will make a bar patron’s head spin.
Thankfully, they have a wise instructor, adept at acronyms and other memory devices to aid his students in preparing the proper mixtures. Oswald was a bartender for 27 years at the Pheasant Run Resort. He doesn’t just teach the “chemistry” of bartending, he instructs students on what to wear and how to act behind the bar.
“No drinking on duty for bartenders and bouncers” is one of his hard and fast rules. At the completion of the course, students receive a diploma certifying them as mixologists. They are also given a guidebook called, “Secrets of Finding A Job.” The school’s placement office helps its graduates find jobs.
Much has changed in American drinking habits since Oswald started professionally pouring in 1968. For one, the variety of drinks has multiplied 20 times over. For another, tastes have changed, or gone in cycles. Who would have thought the martini would make such a strong comeback? Oswald believes the popularity of drinks is powered by the drinking that takes place in movies and TV shows.
For instance, the Cosmopolitan (vodka, Cointreau, Rose’s lime juice and cranberry juice) has been a hot drink ever since it was sipped on the TV series “Sex and the City.” As for movies, Oswald told the story behind James Bond’s famous “shaken, not stirred” vodka martini.
In the Ian Fleming novels, Bond drank the traditional gin and vermouth martini. He asked for the drink “shaken, not stirred” because the spoon would react with the juniper berries in the gin, causing the drink to become cloudy.
The super spy was content with beautiful women, adventure and gin martinis, until the Smirnoff company approached the author.
“They were trying to get Smirnoff vodka into the U.S.,” Oswald explained, “So, Ian Fleming agreed to have James Bond drink vodka martinis.”
Vodka broke into the American market in a big way and shows no sign of losing its popularity.
Oswald listed the general categories of alcoholic drinks: Martinis & Manhattans; Two-Liquor Drinks (Black Russian anyone?); Sours (“Long Island ice tea can taste terrible if it’s not blended,” Oswald said); Tropicals (“Do you like pina coladas and walks in the rain?”); Shots & Shooters (Sorry, some of the names are too provocative for a family newspaper); Cream Drinks (Can you picture a really tough guy ordering a Pink Squirrel?); Beer & Wine (“For draft beer, always pull the handle forward quickly to avoid foam,” Oswald said); Liqueurs (“Absinthe was banned in the U.S. because it contains wormwood, which is a hallucinogenic,” the professor said); and Hot Drinks (Irish Coffee can make you wide awake and intoxicated at the same time).
Speaking of being in this condition, drinks that combine alcohol with energy drinks are very popular right now. Oswald has heard that the Illinois Liquor Commission is trying to ban drinks like the Jager Bomb (Red Bull and Jagermeister ) because they may be hazardous to the public. Oswald, for one, doesn’t have any need for energy drinks. This is a man who works in a machine shop from 8:30 a.m. to noon, then teaches bartending from 1 to 10 p.m.
When he’s conducting class, Oswald teaches his students the “four-count pour.” It takes four seconds to pour an ounce and it doesn’t matter whether the bartender adds a flourish like the “high pour.”
During his lesson, the students sit on the customer side of the bar, while Oswald cuts the music. Today, he is teaching sours, which come with a lime garnish always squeezed first. As he’s preparing a Long Island Ice Tea, Oswald gives out little bromides:
“A straw goes in all drinks with ice.”
“Always wash out the mixing cup between uses.”
“Always ask if they want salt on the rim of their Margarita, some people are trying to cut down on their sodium intake.”
Besides his words of advice, Oswald gives a running history on the consumption of alcohol.
“Cavemen used to store grapes in animal skins and later found the grape juice had fermented. Even cavemen got loaded.”
“Beer was invented in Egypt.”
“Champagne was accidentally invented by a monk named Dom Perignon.”
The textbook he teaches from also chronicles the colorful history of cocktails in sections like the “Martini Timeline.” And it contains humorous quotes like the one from W.C. Fields: “A woman drove me to drink, and I didn’t have the decency to thank her.”
Or the contribution by comedian Stephen Wright: “Twenty-four hours in a day, 24 beers in a case. Coincidence?”
Oswald, however, takes his job of teaching responsible bartending very seriously. He tells his students that a bartender can be arrested for serving a minor or over-serving a patron. He explains the Dram Shop Law, which allows a victim to sue a tavern if they are injured by one of its intoxicated patrons.
He discourages giving out free drinks, because the alcohol belongs to the owner. Besides the warnings he gives his students, Oswald has taught an Alcohol Awareness class for nine years. Some suburbs require its servers to be certified in the six-hour program.
As Oswald teaches, his students don’t act like some of their counterparts at other institutions of higher learning. They are quiet and attentive. They take notes, compose flash cards with drink recipes and study for quizzes.
The consensus was that this was a school they wanted to attend and they were determined to learn how to bartend. Oswald still remembers the day a Riverside resident wandered into the school looking for a drink.
“He thought the drinks might be discounted like beauty school haircuts,” he said.