Passing the Bar

Jeff Hoferer moseyed on down to Fort Lauderdale's ABC Bartending School from Dallas, Texas, to learn how to make a mean cocktail
Joshua Prezant

Tuesday, July 3, 2001
11:48 a.m.

American Airlines flight 2042 from Dallas, Texas, has just arrived at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. Pale, pasty Southwesterners file out like a flock of happy sheep, wide-eyed and excited at the prospect of trading the prairie for the beach.

But one new arrival lacks his fellow travelers' enthusiasm. Jeff Hoferer shuffles listlessly down the Jetway, dragging his New Balance sneakers across the carpet, clutching his copy of Mötley Crüe's The Dirt: Confessions of the World's Most Notorious Rock Band as if it were scripture. His half-closed eyes tell the world that he's not just reading it, he's living it: Nikki Sixx never looked half this wasted staggering off a tour bus.

Yet given his destination, Hoferer's stupor could almost count as research. For the past two years -- ever since he graduated with a marketing and international-business degree from Kansas State University in 1999 -- the 24-year-old Hoferer has worked as a bar and concert promoter in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. And like many people who have been doing the nine to five for any prolonged period of time, he's burned out. His prescription for his sad state has, until recently, consisted of large amounts of liquor -- mostly vodka -- and aimless dreams of a career change.

A few weeks back, though, he had an epiphany. Staring down the barrel of a shot glass he had just drained of Jägermeister, Hoferer saw his future: He'd move to Los Angeles and make it big as an actor-model, but not before jetting to South Florida to earn his license to kill... brain cells, that is.

Yes, Jeff Hoferer is here to attend Fort Lauderdale's ABC Bartending School, the Harvard of mixology. Sure, there are other bartending schools, but this is the big one -- and besides, it's close to all of South Florida's great tourist attractions.

"I heard Miami has a great zoo," Hoferer begins, then lets out a snort of laughter. "Fuck no, I came here for the chicks!"

Wednesday-Sunday, July 4-8, 2001

Hoferer has a few days to kill before the first day of his one-week course; he spends that time (and altogether too much money) at various watering holes between Delray Beach and Key West (including, but not limited to, South Beach). Night after night he and his South Florida host reprise Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin's "Swinging Czechs" sketch: stumbling around South Florida, drinks in hand, catcalling anything in heels. But Hoferer's tippling is not all in jest. With each new drink he orders, he carefully notes the amounts, the counts, the sights, the smells, and the tastes.

When there's a lull at the bar, Hoferer quizzes his barkeep. "Pardon me, but why'd that Crown and Seven get a four-count of liquor, but my Jack and Coke only got a three-count?" he inquires of one, referring to the length of time the bartender keeps the alcohol bottle tipped. (Four counts equals one ounce or one shot.)

"How the fuck should I know?" the bartender responds.

"Does this place not have a standard pour?" Hoferer retorts.

"Yeah, the standard is you eating a dick, how's that for a standard?"

Hoferer files this guy's behavior under "bartending don'ts" -- and stiffs the jerk.

Such episodes notwithstanding, he does pick up some rules of thumb to take into his first day of school: The more drinks you serve, the more tips you earn; a guy on a date is a bartender's best friend; and no real man ever orders a Tom Collins in public.

Monday, July 9, 2001
8:32 a.m.

By the first day of school at ABC's North Dixie Highway location, Hoferer's "research" has begun to take its toll. Instead of resting up, he spent the night before at Dada in Delray Beach, checking out the local ladies and slamming high-octane concoctions with a water back. But at least this former economics student understands the demand side of the equation.

ABC has been schooling the supply side since before Hoferer learned to read. The largest chain of bar schools in the country, ABC boasts 13 schools nationwide (and five more on the way). It's a multimillion-dollar venture, granting 7000 degrees a year in cities coast to coast -- and Broward County is where it all began.

When Tony Sylvester opened his first bartending school in Broward County in 1977 on the corner of State Road 7 and Coconut Creek Parkway, he knew there was no guarantee. "It was a gamble," Sylvester says from behind his desk, resplendent in his great tan, gold ring, gold bracelet, gold crucifix, gold Rolex, khaki Dockers shorts, boat shoes, and well-manicured chest hair showing through the half-open front of his martini-glass-and-shaker- print silk shirt. His desk sits front and center of the establishment, flanked by framed thank-you notes from various bars around the country. "But just like the American Dream, a little hard work still pays off in this country," he adds.  

This Bill Gates with a twist of lime grew up in an orphanage; his father was in prison before Tony Sylvester had reached barstool height. He has no more than a ninth-grade education, but despite his accomplishments he keeps his ego mostly in check: He doesn't want to forget his Passaic, New Jersey, roots. He keeps his reminders close at hand: His GED, crusty and faded, dated December 19, 1975, stands on a filing cabinet behind his desk, while a picture of him in the orphanage graces his desk at home. He still works ten hours a day, seven days a week.

"Hey, this is my life," he says. "I eat, sleep, and breathe this stuff. And because of that, we make this experience enjoyable for the students."

In the next room, the "classroom," Hoferer is undergoing a baptism by fire. The lecture hall is a mock bar, stocked floor to ceiling with every brand of booze you can imagine and some you've never heard of. It's all colored water; these neophytes can't be trusted with the good stuff yet.

In college Hoferer's stuffy professors prepared him for a career among the suits in the real world with business savvy. In bartending school Professor Rod (also known as Rodical or Rodzilla) prepares him for a career in a smoky nightclub among bottle-weighing managers, flirtatious waitresses, juiced-up bouncers, and Spanish-speaking barbacks.

At K-State Hoferer learned the Pythagorean theorem with kids his own age. At ABC he learns pouring and mixing techniques (and how to hustle tips) next to a surgically hyperenhanced stripper, a homemaker with fried-blond hair in the middle of a midlife crisis, and one guy who used to tend to the wounds of fighters managed by Don King.

By 5 p.m. Hoferer is spent, having forgotten more drink recipes than he'd ever known, except for his favorite of the day: the Zombie -- which is what he looks like as he stumbles to the parking lot.

Tuesday, July 10, 2001
8 a.m.

This is his first hangover-free morning in nine days. And this will be his first day actually behind the bar. He learns how to make rumrunners, tequila sunrises, piña coladas, and the boat drink of all boat drinks, sex on the beach.

"There is so much sex involved in bartending," Hoferer says, bar rag over his shoulder and a bottle in each hand. "From the literal act of intercourse to the drink names, it's just a sexy business. When you think about it, our lessons consist of learning how to serve up a quality "blowjob' and "hummer.' I'm not only alert but damn near excited. I mean, when I learned how to make a "screaming orgasm,' that was one of the highlights of my adult life.

"These girls are going to be offering me money in exchange for a "sloe comfortable screw against the wall,'" he muses while mixing the drink with that affectionate moniker. "I feel so cheap,... but I'm sure I'll get over it."

Alan is the instructor today. He's a clean-cut, boy-faced bartender, the kind you find at a Caribbean resort. His mild manner and positive reinforcement keep the students from being overwhelmed with the blitzkrieg of information. Hoferer is not paying attention, though. He's too busy staring at his exotic-dancer classmate, who today sports a flattering shirt and tight jeans.

It's not all fun and games, this ABC Bartending School. Students do have a final, and if they don't know their drinks forward and backward, won't get their certification in mixology. They can come back and retake the course (for free if they fail, and even those who pass are always welcome to come bone up), but failure means they're not eligible for ABC's placement program.

Hoferer knows this, so at 5 p.m. he's back at his host's home, making flash cards until 11 p.m. He proceeds to not study them -- he's got a powerful thirst, and Mulligan's Bar and Grill on A1A has a rumrunner with his name on it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2001
8:50 a.m.

Waking to a cold glass of water heaved in his face by his host, Hoferer scrambles to compose himself. He throws on the same pants he wore the day before and an ugly green shirt that reads, "The Kid." It's on backward.

He gets to school at five minutes past nine; lucky for him the instructors are running late. The students gather in the hallway that leads to the back of the school where the bar/classroom is located. They're flanked by all sorts of bar art: pictures of different pubs. There's the classy New York jazz club, the festive happy hour, the classy restaurant bar.  

But larger than life is a framed poster of the world's greatest celebrity bartender -- none other than Brian Flanagan (as played by Tom Cruise) leaning over a bar, baby blues glistening in the pink neon light of the sign that hangs above him: Cocktail.

As class gets under way, Hoferer chooses a seat next to his favorite dancer.The morning session covers shots, the afternoon, interviewing skills. Hoferer takes mental notes instead of written ones because today the dancer is displaying a lot of... talent. She catches him trying to look down her shirt and responds with a smile and a giggle. The instructor chuckles to himself: He has the same wandering eyes, but he didn't get caught. The Kid will learn.

Thursday, July 12, 2001
7:30 a.m.

Hoferer wakes up first and returns the favor of a cold-water dousing to his host. Last night he studied -- because he recognizes that yesterday's class was worthless.... Damn that stripper.

School is going to be serious today, for tomorrow is the last day of class and the dreaded final exam.

On the drive to school, Hoferer gets hazed by his host for not being Tom Cruise enough. The host has Hoferer's flash cards in front of him and gives him a shotgun quiz. Hoferer has his tequilas nailed but can't keep his gins and vodkas straight.

"I'm ready to be a rock star behind the bar," Hoferer retorts to his host's needling. "You know I've had the personality all along; I just need to learn this shit. When I get done, I'll dethrone Cruise as King Cocktail. He's a little bitch anyway."

Class flies by yet again; it's not hard to lose track of time when that stripper keeps leaning over the bar to grab stuff. When the whistle blows, Hoferer bolts for the door. He has a thirst yet again, and Dada is the spot. He picked up what Vince Vaughn might dub a "beautiful baby" on his last outing up north. He does the same at around 2 a.m., convincing his new best friend to come back to his host's apartment.Friday, July 13, 2001
8:58 a.m.

Yet another dousing for young Hoferer. He's late to his own final, and he smells really bad.

When he arrives, most of the students are quizzing one another. But Hoferer doesn't participate. He doesn't need to. Last night at Dada, he learned his drinks by staring at the cute bartender the whole evening.

For the test Hoferer has to make four randomly chosen drinks in front of the entire class of ten. (His assigned drinks turn out to be a Singapore sling, an Absolut martini straight up with a twist, a "perfect Manhattan" on the rocks, and a Bacardi seabreeze.) Crossed eyes, stinky breath, and all, he pulls it off. Congratulations are heard all around.

Everyone in the class was asked to bring in a photo of him- or herself. It will help with networking, an easy way for the school to show a prospective employer your face. As a standing joke, Rodzilla told female students that, if they wanted to bring in a nude photo, it wouldn't hurt their chances of receiving gainful employment. He was joking, of course.

But for at least one of his students, total nudity is no laughing matter. The stripper's boyfriend, a jacked, good-looking boricua, shows up with a picture of his lady in the buff. You can almost hear Hoferer's heart strings snapping. Don King's cut man, too.

Jeff Hoferer is awarded his sheepskin and carries it back to his host's house proudly. This is Hoferer's last night in South Florida, then it's back to Dallas -- and beyond. On the drive home, the host asks his new personal bartender about his recently acquired knowledge.

"My biggest problem, and I'm going to sound like a hoser, but I can't remember which fruit garnishes what drink," Hoferer says. "I know I can make this great looking rumrunner, but I can't remember whether to throw a cherry or an orange on it."

A rumrunner, of course, doesn't get a garnish, but by now Hoferer doesn't care. "Fuck it, let's go to Dada," he declares. "Dada, baby!"

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