Teaching everything to know about bartending, Detroit Mixology helps connect locals with jobs to earn a better living.
By Kirsten Johnson
Photography by Jenna Belevender
Sheka Benson knows what it’s like to struggle. To make yourself get out of bed in the morning and want more. To juggle three jobs to make ends meet. Now, she’s turning her experience into a way for others to reach a better, more employable place through Detroit Mixology.
Opened in January 2018, the bartending school goes beyond the basics of measurements and liquor brands. The 38-year-old Detroit resident teaches the history of the liquors, terminology, flavor profiles that blend well and customer service.
“Why is bourbon called bourbon?” Benson says. “I get in depth about each of the spirits. They need to know what they’re pouring and why they’re pouring it.”
The former nursing assistant couldn’t bear to watch people who were sick and suffering after her husband, Darrell, was murdered in 2008. Looking for something fun and upbeat, she joined his sisters to learn bartending, something she had never done before.
“A lot of people start out as street bartenders,” she says. “Someone lets us behind the bar, but we don’t know what we’re doing. They would ask what type of bourbons I have, and I would read the labels — is this bourbon? I thought, ‘If I really want to do this, I have to know what I’m doing, know what I’m talking about.’ ”
Eventually she attended then taught at a bartending school in Livonia, which has since closed. She also completed training in Las Vegas.
“When the school closed, I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” she says. “I did not want to get back behind the bar, and I had really found passion in teaching. I had trained a lot of people who started like me. I for sure saw a need for professional bartenders in the city.”
In 2015 she found her space on West McNichols in Detroit, but couldn’t set up shop until 2018 because of infrastructure problems. In the meantime, she worked as a general manager of a Detroit restaurant. Over the years, she hired many people like those she’s hoping to help through Detroit Mixology. People like her son, who Benson says was arrested five years ago. The 23-year-old is expected to be released later this year.
“It’s not going to be as hard for him because he has me,” she says. “But a lot of people don’t have anyone to help them in a situation like this.”
Benson offers flexible schedules, as many students fit in courses around their jobs. The first two classes focus on terminology, glassware, equipment and customer service. The remaining classes focus on a specific liquor, as well as one class on martinis. The $299 fee covers all written materials, certification, job placement and an open-door policy so students can return and practice behind the school’s makeshift bar. Benson regularly gets calls from people looking for bartenders and connects them with her graduates.
Detroit resident Khyla Prophet was working at one of her three bartending gigs last fall when Benson came in, and they started chatting. The 32-year-old started as a waitress, but focused on bartending after filling in for someone in 2013 and realizing how much more money she could make. She jumped in with no bartending knowledge. A week after meeting Benson, Prophet attended her first Detroit Mixology class.
“I was winging it,” she says. “Once I finished the class there was a huge difference. Now my mind is open and more creative. I have more of a variety to offer my customers, and I even have a nice following who call to find out where I’m working that night.”
Besides the bartending course, Benson offers fun one-off Mixology 101 classes that are open to the public. The two-hour classes, held on the third and fourth Saturday of each month, focus on a specific liquor. Students and former students often come to practice their mixology and customer service skills while teaching attendees how to make two drinks throughout the night — with real alcohol, not the food coloring and water mixtures used during the full course.
Monica Gibson of Detroit discovered Detroit Mixology when she saw a Facebook post about a 101 class on cognac last year. Nearly 20 years after working as a street bartender, Gibson, 52, thought it would be fun. It was so fun, in fact, she decided to attend the full course and now bartends for extra money outside of her full-time social work job. She regularly works private events and summer concerts at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre.
“She was a great instructor,” Gibson says of Benson. “The course was very thorough.”
Benson, who grew up in foster care, says she’s always been a nurturer and loves helping others develop a skill or advance their careers.
“My foster mother taught me how to be a good person, know right from wrong,” she says. “I’ve always been nurturing and caring because of that, and it’s the same with my students. I’m here for them and I know I’m teaching them more than just how to mix a drink.”
11000 W. McNichols, Detroit
Mixology 101: Tequila
July 13 at 6:30 p.m.
Mixology 101: Rum
July 20 at 6:30 p.m.
Mixology 101: Vodka
July 27 at 6:30 p.m.