Booze School

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by Raul Faria
The Academy of Spirits and Fine Service put on by Southern Wine and Spirits is focused on booze and everything about it. As simple as that explanation sounds you will spend a few hours each week tasting and learning about what I just said, booze. The who, what, why and where of Spirits, from Bourbon vs Rye, to what makes a wheat vodka different in flavor from a rye, detecting the various herbal notes in a particular Amaro, Mezcal vs Tequila, Cachaca vs Rhum Agricole, Cocktail Classics and Cocktail menu creation. In one of the final lessons of the program you will learn how to compete in a cocktail competition and then create an original cocktail to compete with your classmates! As part of the program you will also be tested along the way and it will culminate in a final exam. By that time however you will have the knowledge, confidence and preparation to pass. You will return to your bar, your brand or your home with knowledge and experience that will help you achieve broader understanding of whats in those bottles and you will be able to share that with your guests or customers. I got a chance to speak with Francesco Lafranconi director of mixology and education at Southern Wine and Spirits about the program and what its all about.

Why did Southern Wine and Spirits start the Academy?

The Academy of Spirits was started with the intention to specifically educate the local bartenders of the Las Vegas bar industry scene. It happened back in the days in 2000, through the visionary skills of my boss Mr. Larry Ruvo, who runs Southern Wine and Spirits here in Las Vegas Nevada, for the whole state. When he met me in Venice, Italy he started talking to me and found out about my passion and product knowledge for the liquor industry, he saw a great opportunity to share my knowledge with the local  bartending community. The purpose is really to bring information and awareness about our wonderful industry, because we truly believe knowledge is power and the more you know, the more you sell.

What are the benefits of the Academy for the Novice, the Professional and the Enthusiast?

I think one of the common denominators for the three different skill levels is imparting a great sense of humbleness towards our industry. Each segment of our trade whether it is a skillfull bartender or a spirits writer or the liquor salesperson, one of the true benefits is to allow this individual to be exposed to the wonderful world of alcoholic beverages and cocktail mixology. Through the Academy each individual will be able to appreciate the craftsmanship, the industry commitment to the heritage of each individual spirit brand or liquor brand. Its such an incredible industry that is so intertwined with the history of civilization and will benefit every individual who is exposed to this lifestyle of consuming alcoholic beverages and to also be able to play around with them in terms of mixing and creating new flavors. Its basically education, its giving the individual the ability to be aware of the products that he or she is dealing with on a daily basis in their line of work.

Is there an advanced class for those who want to learn more?

Its our intention to take the Academy of Spirits to the next level, which means offering a second course which would be more advanced, there will be fewer attendees because its going to be much more intense, also the set up requires much more time. There is already a successful platform from my dear colleague Bridget Albert in Chicago shes started the level two advanced and when she puts out seminars or trips to distilleries nationwide or internationally she sells out within minutes. The advanced class will be possible after the new facility is built by the end of spring 2014. The purpose of the advanced class is to dig deeper in the manufacturing process, a little bit more chemistry involved, identifying the central factors that will differentiate one brand of whiskey from another or vodka or whatever the case may be, but also its about taking the student to go on site and experience for themselves how the product is made. So going to distilleries whether it be Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy or even Peru for Pisco not only will allow the individual learn how the product is made, they’re also going to immerse themselves in the local culture so they will understand how the locals are appreciating the spirit or liqueur and will see how these spirits and liqueurs can be a true embodiment of a nation.

That’s what these advanced programs are doing, actually taking the students on site to locations like these?

For Southern Wine and Spirits of Illinois, Yes. Have glass, will travel.

How has the environment in regards to the desire to learn changed in your time in the industry? Has that hunger always been there at this level or is it emerging?

Its definitely emerging, you know when I started probably over 20 years ago, actually counting hotel school 25 years ago, and without the help of social media and modern technology, it would probably take you 10 years to learn what someone can now learn in year and a half to two years because of the overwhelming amount of information available to them on the internet. For the Bartenders approaching the industry now, they are much more facilitated to be able to learn the right way. However it is not only about product knowledge that you need to work behind the bar, its people skills. With people skills there are no books that can teach you that. You must have great mentors that can give you clues on how to read and interpret your bar patrons or guests but above all its really about practice, and you know practice makes perfect. Its experience that you need. There is only so much you can learn from the books, however when it comes to blind tasting you have to taste, taste, taste and when it comes to finding the right balance in cocktails you just need to mix and go through different tries and experiment. In this decade we have shortened the amount of time it takes to be able to gain information on the Backbar products so to speak but when it comes to the human aspect we all still require to go through the length of time necessary to be able to master the hospitality aspect.

When will the next class be held?

We were supposed to start the renovation in December unfortunately due to permit issues its going to require more time because we totally flipped the room and it will be on a different side now. Its going to be a fantastic state of the art facility with hundreds of thousands of dollars in audio visual features, I designed the wells and there are no wells like the ones we are building in the whole world in terms of what the artisans brought to the project, to the quality of the steel, we are going to have a different approach to freezing and refrigeration, in the jockey station we are improving, from the bartender perspective, the ergonomics and we are speeding up service by increasing output through functionality. There are a lot of elements here that the Academy is going to become the benchmark for the industry not only in the United States but around the World. We should be able to have the new facility ready at the end of spring, beginning of summer however we will try to do our best to figure out if we have a temporary location for the next level 1 Spirits Academy. The advanced class will only take place in the new facility due to the logistics.

How many do you estimate have graduated from the academy?

If we are looking at how many bartenders and industry professionals that we’ve touched we are definitely in the couple thousands. Fully graduated, a conservative number, would be between five to seven hundred. The good thing is some of these graduates, they move out from Las Vegas and end up in Atlanta, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami and they were so influenced that they started little sparkles all around the country so I see my students reaching new heights and great career opportunities.

How many cities have a Spirits Academy and are there any plans to expand the program?

As of now there are about fifteen Southern Wine and Spirits of America Mixology Educators and besides Las Vegas who started the academy in 2000, the second one is Illinois in Chicago with Bridget Albert. She’s doing an amazing job, very organized, She’s also the only advanced class and that’s been running for two years. Then Orlando, Florida is starting an Academy with Armando Rosario who left Las Vegas but had been teaching the Academy with me. David Nepove, who is also the president of the United States Bartenders Guild National, is going to start an Academy in San Francisco  coming soon. We have Arizona in Tempe and Pheonix. New York is still more challenging due to permits and regulations in regards to consumption and sampling. Around the country we are reorganizing and trying to create a calendar will organize and set up the openings for the next year or two. I think that right now Las Vegas and Chicago are the strongest reference points.

I’ve graduated from the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service and I simply cannot recommend it enough for anyone in our industry who wants to know more. For more information on the Academy of Spirits and Fine Service contact Southern Wine and Spirits via their homepage. Be sure to look out for the interview of Francesco Lafranconi with Adam Rains at Las Vegas Cocktail Weekly Podcast coming soon. Adam and Francesco discuss the evolution of the American palette. As Francesco says “We are not drinking, we are learning.”

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