Raising the Bar

Philly mixology gurus push a pro-booze credo.

By Mara Zepeda
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 18, 2007

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Absolut-ly fabulous: Instructor Alex Garrison III shows how to make the perfect vodka martini.

Inside the Mixology Wine Institute on City Line Avenue the first things you notice are framed photographs of Institute graduates tending bar. Their places of employment are written beneath their beaming faces: T.G.I. Friday's, Applebee's, Airport Bar, Wyndham Garden, Embassy Suites ... Tom Cruise's Cocktail this ain't.

Philadelphia's more upmarket bartenders are a famously motley cast of characters: Flirtatious Guy with Excessive Pomade, Emaciated Brusque Busty Blond, Gastropub Hipster--we know them well. But what about the vast legions of bartenders outside the Old City bubble? The unsung foot soldiers who steadfastly service Philadelphia's chain restaurants and less swanky salons? What about Albert the Lawyer who does it to relax? Or Wanda the Nurse who mixes drinks between shifts? Who is there to sing the praises of these more workaday mixologists--the real heroes of the Philly bar scene?

Kate Greebel, 24, is a paralegal hoping this part-time career will help her become more financially stable. She's one of a dozen students at tonight's class, which is being schooled in the art of martinis and Manhattans.

After his lecture instructor Alex Garrison III turns up the Missy Elliott, directs students to the four bar stations and throws out rapid-fire drink assignments: "Singapore sling!" "Desert dry martini!" "Tom Collins!" A flurry of hands mix, measure, shake and pour from liquor bottles filled with colored water, topping the drink off with a plastic cherry or olive.

"They make it really enjoyable. It's a barlike atmosphere," says Greebel, as she adds to a mountainous pile of beverage flash cards.

If Mixology sounds like the ITT Tech of bartending, it isn't. Behind the establishment are the highly intellectual Ariel Geshury and her 24-year-old son Ori. Oozing charisma, the two can recite a dizzying combination of statistics, historical precedents and literary references (Iliad through the present) to convince the staunchest skeptic that Alcohol Is Good (the title of their forthcoming book).

When Ariel started bartending, she realized she was ashamed to tell people what she did. So she made it her life's mission to "bring honor to the alcohol industry and help people release the shame."

"It's time to put it out and in the open, and talk about it for what it is. There's no respect for alcohol."

As the Geshurys spoke of the stigma connected to drinking (citing the DARE program, MADD, puritanical liquor laws, etc.) I couldn't help but picture the shameless, cavorting, near-naked throngs that plague Old City like locusts. The Geshury's are having none of it: "Only 14 million Americans abuse alcohol, and yet nearly 200 million drink it," says Ariel. So why punish the majority for the sins--vehicular manslaughter, domestic abuse, sexual assault--of the minority by overcompensating with an atmosphere of hysteria and fear? You see?

The Geshurys' second goal is to teach Americans how to properly enjoy a good drink with sophistication and self-control, savoring the flavors. But it remains to be seen how their noble crusade will unfold in the suburban hotels and wedding receptions, where many of their students end up.

Ariel's betting her optimistic, motivated alumni will always be able to find gainful employment. After all, she says, "You may not find a supermarket in the middle of the desert, but you'll always find a bar."

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