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Mix masters

Is "Cocktail" your favorite movie? Do you watch "Cheers" reruns every chance you get? If so, the Maryland Bartending Academy might be the ideal place to hone your interests into skills.

Maryland Bartending, located in Glen Burnie, has been educating Sam Malone-wannabes for more than 20 years. In 1980, owner Mark Russell opened the school in Glen Burnie's Village Shopping Center after becoming weary of instructing evening bartending classes in chemistry lab setups at community colleges. (The Academy moved to its current location, on New Jersey Avenue, in the mid-1990s.)

Because of cramped teaching quarters, the classes were "just lecture and demonstration," the Baltimore-bred and California-educated Russell says. "There was no hands-on practical aspect for the students."

Founded on Russell's belief that "teaching is repetition," the Academy seeks to give its bartending students a do-it-yourself-until-you-get-it-right experience with a state-of-the-art barroom simulation, which features cash registers, draught beer dispensers, ice dispensers and sinks.

Russell picked Glen Burnie as the Academy site because of its location: "It's right in the heart of Maryland, so we're able to really take care of folks from Baltimore to Annapolis to D.C."

Part of each four-and-one-half-hour class -- which meets in afternoon and evening sessions 10 times over two weeks -- is devoted to lecture and discussion. Then, Russell encourages his students to practice the recipes, methods and techniques they've been studying.

Prospective students are allowed to sit in on one class as an observer free of charge so they can see if the Academy is to their liking.

The classes average 8 to 12 students, most of whom fall into the 21-to-30 age range. Because 18-year-olds are permitted to take the course and the Maryland drinking age is 21, no real liquor is used in the drink simulations. Instead, non-alcoholic beer is used and substitutions are made for the liqueurs based on color. Teachers monitor measurements and technique.

Not all of the Academy's students are in their teens or early 20s. "We're getting a lot of retirees who plan to go to work at country clubs and things like that," Russell notes. "Our oldest student was in his 80s. We've come to the realization that there's a bar out there for everybody."

The age difference among the students creates an interesting learning environment. While college kids and recent grads may be more accustomed to the studying and testing process than retirees, Maryland Bartending is prepared to go the extra mile for students who may need another crack at a particular exam.

"Students are really able to learn at their own pace," Russell says. "We've got it set up to where we're not going to force them out at the end of two weeks. We'll bring them back for additional training."

The course is challenging -- the tests encompass recipes, bar operations and liquor identification, and the final exam requires students to make 20 randomly selected drinks in 10 minutes -- but it's not impossible. Russell recalls that one student made a school record by creating 39 drinks during the final.

Tuition covers everything from materials and registration to certification and job-placement assistance locally and nationwide. Some students have reported earning the fee back in a few busy nights of working.

"The drink industry has gotten pretty sophisticated lately," says Russell. "Nowadays, you can't know just a handful of drinks. We try to keep up with all the latest trends and drinks that are happening throughout the industry."

This means even aspiring bartenders who know their classic whiskey sours from their amaretto sours could get a career boost from Maryland Bartending.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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