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All Mixed Up, and Thrilled About It: Inside the Tribal Bartending Academy

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For Pascua Yaqui tribal member April Vielma, attending the Tribal Bartending Academy not only fulfilled an aspiration, it took her out of the category of the unemployed. “Although I had worked for the tribe’s Casino Del Sol gaming enterprise before as a slot attendant, I was without a job when I heard about the creation of the Tribal Bartending Academy,” Vielma told ICTMN. “For me, it was the perfect opportunity to find a future and turn a dream into reality. I’ve been a bartender now for two years, and have loved every single moment of it.

“When I walked into the class, I didn’t have a clue how to make a drink beyond a simple basic combination of vodka and cranberry juice,” says Vielma. “That was before I was introduced to, not only, sophisticated drink recipes, but the reasons behind them.”

The Tribal Bartending Academy’s curriculum was developed by property mixologist Aaron DeFeo, who calls the intense five-week training “extremely successful, one of the most solid training programs in our food and beverage operation where we help attendees rise to a higher level.” DeFeo, called a “Celebrated Doctor of Mixology” by, and a passionate advocate of the art of crafting creative cocktails, is the dean of Southern Arizona bartenders and founder of the local chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.

After almost 15 years in beverage management, DeFeo “took a leap into an unknown environment,” and became the tribe’s property mixologist four years ago. “Our next class starts in March and from that point on, we probably won’t have to do any external bartender hires --- they’ll all be trained tribal employees,” he said.

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“I started in this business with no experience and was able, over time, to develop my skills,” says DeFeo. “This class is designed to condense those years of field experience into a few weeks of intense education that attendees can immediately put to work as a base to build on in coming years. Students learn about the history of spirits, how they’re made, and the proper techniques to make creative cocktails. Our graduates can tell customers where their whiskeys came from, how they were crafted, and the taste qualities of each. Much of the knowledge and techniques we teach are neglected in the outside bartending world.”

A glance at the course syllabus confirms that. The Day 1 introduction begins with a history of alcoholic beverages, the role of bars in society, and what it takes to be a successful bartender before moving into concepts like fermentation, distillation and maturation, and the fundamentals and techniques of the mixology industry -- everything from glassware to garnishes, and the how-to aspects of shaking, stirring, and straining. Every day’s session ends with a test, and not everybody makes the cut. “In each class, we end up with about 50 percent of students who go on to become solid members of our tribal team,” DeFeo says.

As one of the successful ones, Vielma says, “I’m thankful for this opportunity to better myself and to provide for my family.”