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Mixology Teacher Sheka Benson Talks the Ins and Outs of Bartending

The owner of Detroit Mixology Professional Bartending School is passing along 10 years of wisdom.

Photo by Sydney Kispert-Bostick

If you're one to indulge, then the first to-do on a Friday night out is a trip up to the bar. Whether you're more martini smooth or margarita strong, we can all agree that there's a science – and art – behind the perfect cocktail. Mixologist Sheka Benson is passing on 10 years of bartending knowledge at Detroit Mixology Professional Bartending School. Opened in January, Benson offers courses in mixology, at the end of which, students walk away with a certification and a potentially lucrative set of skills.

Before students get to shaking and stirring drinks – colored water and juices, actually – Benson takes them through some of the decidedly less buzzy particulars like equipment, terminology, safety, professionalism and customer service which she calls, "very important." She says, "We have to teach them how to interact with people, especially when dealing with alcohol. They have to know that they can't just take someone's keys and say, 'You're intoxicated, I'm cutting you off.' There are ways to do it. Be a professional at all times – stand up straight, don't slouch or lean. That's things they need to know because if no one ever tells them and they see the other staff doing it, they're going to think it's OK, and it's not."

Benson says she gets a mix of people who've always looked on bartending with interest, folk who really want to make a career out of it and college students. She says, "It's good for them to do while they're in school, as long as they're 21." Students enrolled in her course can choose between either a two-week curriculum, held on weekdays ($299) or take classes on four consecutive Saturdays ($349). The cost includes the lessons, book and certification. "You don't have to be licensed in Michigan to be a bartender, but if you're going to work at nicer places, they're not just gonna let you come behind their bar and (you) don't know anything," Benson says. She takes care to go over the differences between working at higher-end establishments versus a nightclub or neighborhood joint. For instance, a chicer spot will be less vodka-Redbulls and more martinis, Manhattans and "you'll be dealing with different types of scotches."

After working as a bartender for some time, Benson enrolled in Crescent School of Gaming and Bartending in Las Vegas five years ago, because she wanted to teach. "Another reason I got into this is because I did see a lack of professional bartenders in Detroit. A lot of bartenders know how to make drinks, but it's more things to that. It's important to know that there are four different types of whiskey. It's important to know that bourbon isn't a spirit all on its own – bourbon is just an American whiskey – and so on and so forth."

Along with the ongoing courses, Detroit Mixology offers what they call Mixology 101 classes, one-off affairs where for a girls' night, birthday party or just to do something different, come to the school and Benson will teach you how to make two "fun" cocktails, focusing on one spirit – vodka or tequila, perhaps. The colored water is shelved on these nights. After she shows you the recipe, then it's your turn to get behind the bar. Especially with a new bar or restaurant seeming to pop up every other week in Detroit, Benson contends that there's legitimacy and longevity in mixology. "People say you can't do bartending for a very long time, it can't be a real career, and that's not true. The lady who actually trained me was about 60. She couldn't bend down and get anything – I always had to get down and get her beers – but she was there and every customer at the bar was hers." Benson stays abreast of the hip, new trends happening in mixology for her younger students, but personally, she says, "I love just following standard, straight, old-school bartending."

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