Setting the Bar High – Richard Linden of The Dublin Bar Academy
I enter the room to a flurry of colours, hands and bottles. Behind a bar, extending the length of the room, are 12 bartenders, mixing, shaking and pouring at top speed. A cacophony of sounds, whoops and cheers of excitement, crunching ice, and clinking glasses, competes with the upbeat music that is being pumped into the large warehouse style room, where the mix of nationalities is as varied as the rows of colourful bottles behind the bar.
No, this is not a Saturday night at an exclusive rooftop cocktail bar in Manhattan, but instead a Tuesday afternoon at the Dublin Bar Academy, in Dublin’s Smithfield. What I had just witnessed was an average session on their professional Bartender Course, where over four weeks owner Richard Linden and his team of instructors provide the training to become a knowledgeable, efficient and highly skilled bartender.
The DBA’S flagship course, run in partnership with the European Bartender School, attracts students from all over the world. “In general, on the 4 week course we have 80% international and 20% domestic students. We’ve got Italians, French, Brazilians, English – everywhere!” says Richard, chatting to me in the quieter study area, though the din of cocktail making, music and table tennis on the other side of the partition is hard to ignore.
But why chose Dublin with European Bartender Schools in places such as Sydney, Milan and Las Vegas? “Of all the EBS schools we have the most bells and whistles thrown into the package,” explains Richard.
“Dublin has a great reputation for hospitality, and we take them on a VIP day tour of Tullamore Distillery, to the Guinness Storehouse, and they have all the Masterclasses we do here; wine, whiskey tastings, barista courses – they get so much more from the course. I guess we have to do something because our competitors are the likes of Barcelona that has a beach to offer!”
Currently training 250 aspiring bartenders per year, Richard has a target of 400 students. “We can have a really big group in here,” says Richards of the state of the art facility, which recently won Best Designed School at the EBS Awards in Barcelona. “How it works is, it’s a rotation system. We have 12 cocktail stations, so we can have 12 people behind the bar at one time; there can be 32 people studying in here; we have all the flaring with bottles at the end of the room, and we have two bar counters for free pouring.”
Training to be a bartender is a fun and unforgettable experience, but equally the process is demanding, challenging and intense, much like their future careers behind the bar. “We basically have to get this book into their heads,” says Richard, waving a thick red EBS manual. “It’s about 80 cocktails, and a lot of theory; how is whiskey made, how is vodka made, what’s the history of gin – all that stuff.” “But what helps is there is this big bunch of people all living and working together, and after three weeks all they talk about are cocktail measures. You have to get the right balance between fun and professional – but it we try to keep people excited for 4 weeks.”
Hailing from Stockholm, much like his students Richard aspired to be a bartender so that he could travel the world. “In 2000 I really randomly got a job in Park Hotel Kenmare, with the two Brennan brothers,” he says. Expecting a grilling, after a hard hitting interview with a place in London, Richard had list in front of him of how to ‘survive’ the telephone interview, but his list proved redundant when Francis Brennan answered the phone. “Can you be here on Thursday?” asked Francis, Richard mimicking his accent impeccably to hilarious effect. “To come over for an interview?” Richard responded, “No to work, you’ll be grand!” said Francis, just adding minimal instructions to go to Cork before hanging up.
“I was so confused by the conversation, and I didn’t want to repeat myself and seem stupid. A grand? Bring a thousand euro? I had no idea what he meant, it was my first time talking to an Irish person. Then they forgot to pick me up in Cork, so I was completely sure this was a mistake – but I got there and stayed for three years, and it was the most incredible time of my career. They had so many characters, and American movie stars staying there. It was this secret world! It was such a culture shock coming from Stockholm and entering this old school world.”
At the Park Hotel Richard learnt the tricks of the trade from bar manager John Moriarty, who Richard describes as his “first boss and mentor, who trained me for three years and has been a really close friend ever since. He also hosts whiskey master-classes at DBA every month, and was a huge help setting up DBA.”
After gaining crucial experience in Kenmare, Richard secured a much sought after job in the Martini Bar at Chewton Glen Hotel, a 5 star luxury country house hotel in New Forest. Working his way up to bar manager he stayed five years before he got a phonecall from EBS asking would he open a branch of EBS in Phuket, Thailand. This was his first introduction to EBS, and he became hooked on their concept. After a travelling back to Ireland to work at the Cliff House Hotel in Waterford, Richard established the DBA in 2012, originally on Francis Street.
“What we do is a little bit different; less formal, but just as professional,” says Richard, though he is keen add that training of a different variety has always been available in Ireland.
“I came to Ireland without any experience and I was trained by all these amazing people. You had hospitality schools, but more than anything you had all these fantastic staff that are continually training people – it’s a culture within the Irish hospitality industry.”
Alongside educating in the craft of professional bartending and barista skills, the DBA offers courses for amateur enthusiasts, in wine, beer and whiskey appreciation, as well as coffee and cocktail making; all with a sip as you learn policy. Richard says that the uptake for these fun and social courses has been massive. “When you sit at a dinner table, be it corporate or with friends, it’s kind of cool to know a lot about alcohol.”
DBA’s Craft Beer Course, hosted by brew master James Winans, is just as popular as a gift for Father’s Day, as it is with young couples, and Richard says the craft beer trend is here to stay. “It’s all to do with flavour. I was talking to someone the other day who says that we have reached the peak craft beer and we are going to see it fade – I think that’s a crazy comment to make. Try telling people who have been only drinking IPAs for the past few years to go back drinking mainstream lager, it would taste like water to them.” “Any publican who thinks craft beer just a trend and doesn’t stock it – that’s a crazy business decision to make,” adds Richard.
With consumers more discerning and knowledgeable than ever before, Richard says bartenders have to constantly “up their game”.
“As a bartender, you might have a lovely looking girl at the bar, and you are thinking a Spritzer or a Sauvignon Blanc, and if she says ‘can you make good Old Fashioned?’, you know you have to perform a little bit different, here is someone who knows their stuff.”
Keeping bartenders up to date, the DBA also offers on-trade training. Richard’s preferred approach is 3 day package providing comprehensive training. “We have done three hours of training, but to truly create a cocktail culture within a bar or hotel you have to work pretty hard, and start from the basics.”
The DBA hosts private and corporate events too, for the likes of Google, such as their Cocktail Bootcamp. “They get a cocktail on arrival, and then straight away we get them into practising techniques, doing all the stuff they have looked at behind bars but never got to try before,” Richard explains. “We split the group into teams, and at the end each team gets a mystery box, and the best cocktail wins. It’s a hysterically intense two and half hours, and we just have so much fun. When you do corporate events it’s all about breaking the ice.”
Despite being asked ‘what is your favourite cocktail?’ often, Richard still struggles to choose just one, and says ultimately it depends on “where I am, who I am with, and what time it is”. “An Old Fashioned, or a Manhattan, are classics that I really love, but there is a time in the day when a Daiquiri is just perfect – the old school way; just rum, lime and sugar. But I love Negroni’s for their bitterness, and I love Martinis, which is one of the most sophisticated drinks; but then they are very boozy so it’s hard to stay sophisticated while drinking them!”
For more information on the Dublin Bar Academy visit www.dublinbaracademy.com.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.