The assignment in a mixology class in the H-building one February afternoon was to make an alcoholic coffee. Ed Sheeran was singing from the professor’s laptop, the students’ glasses were clinking and everyone was about to put some whipped cream on top of their drinks. Instead, there was a shout.
“Stop everything! Don’t put that on your drink!” said Patricia Becket. The class stopped. Beckett had accidentally sugared a batch of whipped cream with salt. The class laughed at the mix-up. So did Beckett. Then she whipped up a new batch. This time with sugar. That’s what she does – she never takes herself too seriously.
Patricia “Pat” Beckett, is studying bartending at Algonquin College. Her hobbies include being an opera soloist, an open-water swimmer and a dog enthusiast. But after an almost 30-year career as a pharmacist, Beckett decided to return to school this January and become a student again.
Beckett has worked in almost every field of pharmacy. She has travelled all across Ontario doing relief pharmacy. She has served in the Canadian military – she is highly professional and experienced. But several years ago she asked herself “Am I happy?” She wasn’t.
“It’s always tempting to stay with what you’ve got,” Beckett said. “It can be very frightening to let go of that safety net. But I thought ‘Just do it!’”
Robert J. Sawyer, Beckett’s brother-in-law, describes her admiringly as “fearless and crazy.”
“She leaps before she looks,” he said.
Back in Toronto, several years ago, Beckett did a couple of shifts for a catering company and she loved it. She was serving a Seder, meal celebrating the Jewish nation’s exodus from Egyptian slavery.
“The dinner was big. And the family wanted it to be perfect,” Beckett said. “And it was perfect.”
The event helped bring her to the idea that serving people, serving them well, helping their day, can be extremely satisfying. And bartending seemed similar enough to her life’s career.
“People go to see a pharmacist when they’re unwell,” said Sawyer. “They go to a bar to either drown their sorrows or to forget about their cares for a while. And I guess Pat has decided that she would rather be the sympathetic ear than the one dispensing medicinal cure.”
The leap from her old career to her new one comes with some challenges, however. For instance, bartending students at Algonquin should be able to make five cocktails in 2.5 minutes. For a former pharmacist, this can be tricky.
“I’m always looking at the directions, pausing, because that’s how I’ve been trained,” Beckett said.
In pharmacy, she had to double- and triple-check everything, but now she has to get used to speed being more important than accuracy.
Beckett makes up stories to better remember all the ingredients. She records her voice and listens to the recipes before going to sleep.
“Manhattan. You think of someone from New York. A bitter New Yorker, so you put bitter in it,” she said. “I won’t tell you how I memorized the Porn Star – that’s a bit perverted.”
But still, mixing five cocktails in 2.5 minutes is often too fast for Beckett. She is the oldest and the slowest student in the group.
“I want to become the best bartender I can be,” she said. “I want to take my time with it.”
But a perfect idea of a perfect future does make her smile.
“I would like to own a piano bar,” she said. “To have all my musician friends come and play, and I could have theme nights. It would be so beautiful.”
For now, she organizes cocktail parties at her house, inviting her classmates, friends and neighbours to drink and have fun.
“I would hire her right away,” said Ezio Margiotta, Beckett’s bartending professor. “Look at her. My mom is not alive anymore, but I wish she would actually do that.”
Although the news about the “big switch” stunned her family, they are very supportive of her decision.
Sawyer learned about it in the “Clink fashion.” Clink is Beckett’s maiden name. “They never talk, the Clinks, but they send emails to each other. So, in a group email, we discovered this. And we’re thrilled for her,” Sawyer said.
Of course, a 62-year-old pharmacist going back to college to study bartending is unusual. The decision she made was unpredictable.
“It takes courage to be Pat,” said Meg Yuan, Beckett’s classmate.
But Beckett does things when everybody else doesn’t. She asks questions when everybody else is silent. She continues when everybody else is ready to stop.
“Going back to college is a game for the young,” Sawyer said. “But Pat is young at heart, so she will do well.”