Cover and feature photos by Audrey Dempsey • Infinity Photo

Las Vegas’ newest USBG Accredited Master Mixologists: J.R. Starkus and Michael Przydzial of Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirts of Nevada.

During the last two decades the beverage industry has seen an unprecedented amount of changes. More than ever before, we have an abundance of products, information and a proliferation of beverages from behind the bar and beyond. 

The two driving forces have been the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG), and Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits.

The USBG was incepted in 1948 in order to advance the profession of bartending. This is done by partnering with producers and distributors to help members to advance their careers, which is achieved through competition, travel and above all, education.

One of the USBG’s main partners has been, and continues to be, Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits. Their mission helps bring together many of the brands that support beverage education, bartenders, aspiring mixologists and the community as a whole. With this in mind, SGWS instituted the Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits Academy to help teach local beverage professionals to compete with the best in the world. 

Always changing and adapting, SGWS recently added a vital new team member, Brian Van Flandern, the new Director of Mixology, Spirits Education and Special Events, whose Michelin-star background promises to introduce ultra-fine dining standards to the SGWS Academy curriculum and will bridge the gap between service/special events and the mixology team. (Editor’s Note: For more on Brian’s background see the cover feature of our August 2018 issue.) 

In his new role, Brian is taking over some of the responsibilities from longtime USBG member and Accredited Master Mixologist, Francesco Lafranconi, founder of the SGWS Academy of Spirits who has taught many of Las Vegas’s finest beverage professionals. Although Francesco will later this year be opening up his own mixology bar in the Palms, he will continue to instruct, even as he spends more time at his new venue.

Also integral to the SWGS Southern Nevada team is Livio Lauro, who pioneered the resurgence of the USBG, was the founding President of the USBG Master Accreditation program and co-authored The Twelve Cocktails, which he wrote with fellow USBG Master Mixologist Armando Rosario. 

Two of Francesco’s and Livio’s graduates and protégées also happen to be the newest USBG Accredited Master Mixologists: J.R. Starkus and Michael Przydzial. J.R. and Michael now join the ranks of only ten USBG Accredited Master Mixologists (which include Armando Rosario, Livio Lauro and Francesco Lafranconi, all of whom work for SGWS). It is a team that is power packed with talent, drive and an encyclopedic wealth of beverage knowledge between them.

The USBG would like to point out that the term “Master Mixologist” is no longer a term that can be just thrown around. The Guild created the USBG Master Accreditation Program to provide an infrastructure for education and to set the standard for the industry. The program is meant to strike away the ambiguity and to challenge members and beverage professionals to reach new levels of excellence. 

The program has three tiers of learning: USBG Spirits Professional, USBG Advanced Bartender and USBG Master Mixologist. The latter involves a thesis and hosting a live seminar to the MA Judges on a relevant beverage industry-related topic.

In a recent interview with USBG Accredited Master Mixologists, J.R. Starkus and Michael Przydzial, we discussed what their new titles entail, how they got them and what comes next. 

Could you talk a little about the process of becoming a USBG Master Mixologist? How did you achieve it and what does it mean
to you?

J.R.: My journey started in 2004 when I passed the Spirits Professional. There was no book at the time and I remember getting one page. But I just kind of dove in and took the exam hoping that what I had taught myself was enough; luckily it was, but I realized how much more I had to learn.

A couple years later I passed the Advanced (Bartender), and at the time I was only the eighth person in the country to have passed it. I realized (to advance further) there was a thesis involved. I got to thinking about if bartenders cared about lime juice or citrus being fresh squeezed, or if people don’t really care; and, does fresh lime juice make better drinks? But when I say fresh lime juice as in squeezed from a lime, if it’s fifteen seconds old or is it better after three days.

When I wrote that thesis, I found out that most consumers prefer older juice, and that was a fun journey. At the age of 39, I finally passed my Master Accreditation, and Armando and I became the first two to pass all three courses (besides the seven inaugural creating Masters—Livio Lauro, Francesco Lafranconi, Tony Abou Ganim, Dale Degroff, David Nepove, Steve Beal and Bobby Gleason). 

Mike: I started with the Spirits Professional in May 2013 when the Compendium came out. I didn’t have the support or finance or the resources to do B.A.R. 5 yet. (The Compendium is a study guide spearheaded by Livio Lauro. B.A.R. 5 day is an intensive spirits class hosted by the Beverage Alcohol Resource [or B.A.R.] Partners in NYC annually. The SGWS Academy has succeeded in creating a curriculum utilizing the collective knowledge of their experts.)

So when I looked at the USBGMA program, I saw an opportunity to take it upon myself to further my own education. Their accreditation really spoke to me because I felt very connected to the USBG as a bartender in Las Vegas. The chapter was growing at an astounding rate, and I was determined to achieve my Master Mixologist credentials by the time I was thirty.

The Spirits Professional led me to the Advanced Bartender. The major difference with the level two at that time was, not only do you have to take a written test of a certain amount of questions that was more extensive and harder than the Spirits Professional, but with the Advanced portion there were five modules that you had to run through as a classwork evaluation as well. And you could do the practical at your home bar, providing there was an approved panel of judges there to proctor the exam.

The test was really extensive; I was very fortunate out of the thirteen people that took the test, I was one of three that passed and to my knowledge was the only person in my USBG chapter taking the exam. 

I immediately wanted to get the thesis paper for the Master up and running. I had an idea in my head because I had read certain books and I was very influenced by Jeffrey Morgenthaler who experimented with cocktail barrel aging.

I did a ton of research for the better part of a year on where the history stems from and wanted to delve into the barrel aged part. The overall premise in my thesis was that depending upon the cocktail, you could have a completely different cocktail at age three months, six months, or for a year, and so on. Each was going to be a little bit different in some way due to the leeching of the wood in the barrel used, the light exposure, and of course, the cocktail. 

I interviewed bartenders and mixologists from all around and formulated a system for classifying a drink, similar to a system to classify what age does to cognacs and tequilas. I thought there should be a classification the USBG recognized for each cocktail and wanted there to be something definitive that somebody who was in the know would understand. I developed a classification system so that the minutia was kind of removed from the bottle or barrel-aged cocktail world, something that we can all look at and go okay, there’s a classification that we can understand and get behind.

So what does being a Master Mixologist mean to you?

J.R.: It means that I will keep learning. There’s so much creativity in the bartenders I see. They’re so creative and it’s awesome and inspiring. Every action that I see tweaks my action. Watching people, watching technique, it’s all inspiring to me. You have to keep learning those things, to stay a Master, because you can easily fall out of it.

Mike: Being a resource and providing mentorship are crucial for anybody who’s passionate about being in this career. One of the big points of completing the journey is to be able to share the journey with other people to inspire them. You’re always going to learn from other people the more and more that you share knowledge. 100% that’s the continual wanting to stay at a mastery level of something.

In speaking of the future, now that you’ve reached the highest level of accreditation possible, what’s next?

J.R.: Quite frankly, even though the title says Master I’m nowhere near a master of anything. For me, it would be to continue learning and I know that sounds cliché, but I really mean that I want to continue learning because I want to know everything like the back of my hand. So if I have the opportunity to teach somebody something more in depth, I have knowledge I can share. I like that challenge.

Mike: For me, I think to echo J.R.’s point, jack of all trades, master of none. The title is not something you would normally associate with something that’s as fluid as bartending. You never really know if you’ve achieved certain levels until somebody brings it to your attention. In doing the certification, yes, there is a piece of paper that says it, but you never want to stop learning when it’s something you’re passionate about. You always want to grow your knowledge and to challenge your preconceived notions and ideas that you had before. We experience that almost weekly in this industry. You can never stop or settle for just the fact that you have some sort of certification; that doesn’t make you a master. What makes you a master is that you continually want to master the craft. That’s the point.

With four of the nation’s ten USBG Master Mixologists on board at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits of Nevada, the Southern Nevada beverage industry community has a unique opportunity to take advantage of this impressive brain trust of experience and knowledge. For more info on how you or your staff members can access training and education through the SGWS Academy, contact Brian Van Flandern at 702-248-3306 (work), 702-902-0126 (cell) or via email at Brian.VanFlandern@sgws.com.