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If you’ve ever thought of becoming a bartender, you were likely drawn to the fun upsides of the job. Bartending is an extremely social profession, it requires you to be creative, and it puts you at the center of the party.
That said, bartending is a tough job. You work late nights and have to deal with rowdy people. You have to master the art of small talk and build relationships with your guests. You have to make split-second decisions and ensure that everyone at your bar is of legal age — or risk facing serious repercussions. Bartending also has the potential to put you in some sticky situations, including frequent inappropriate behavior and having to escort patrons out of your establishment.
If any of the above is enough to scare you off, you’re probably not meant to be a bartender. Really. Despite what T.V. and film portrayals might have you believe, you’re not getting paid to party. For better or for worse, bartending is equal parts technical skills, hospitality skills, and the ability to stick it out through the rough days.
But if you’re still with us, this is the guide for you. We’ll cover the experience you need to get hired as a bartender in the first place, the skills necessary to do well behind the bar, and how to excel in this industry.
What is a bartender?
A bartender mixes and serves drinks to customers in a bar, restaurant, club, hotel, or other food service establishments. Bartenders must know how to make a wide variety of drinks accurately, quickly, and with modifications, if requested. In addition to the drinks, bartenders prepare ingredients and maintain stock to have an adequate supply of necessary bar supplies like garnishes and ice. They may serve food to customers who eat at the bar and clean up after them. All while being sociable and friendly - maintaining rapport with multiple customers at a time.
The average salary of a bartender in New York, according to Glassdoor, is $21,963. Most bartenders are paid hourly, but this depends on the establishment. Bartender salaries have an extreme range, with some looking more like server salaries; a low hourly-based pay with the expectation of making more than minimum wage off of tips.
Whether you want to work in a small cocktail bar that specializes in unique mixology, or a pizza restaurant with a partially-stocked bar in the back, you’ll need some basis of knowledge in what it takes to make a good drink. For instance, a bartender can typically create the classics like an Old Fashioned or a Mojito without much thought, by knowing the ingredient ratio and being able to make adjustments for preference.
Some of the typical descriptors for a bartending job are:
Preparing alcohol or non-alcohol beverages for bar and restaurant guests
Taking orders and serving snacks and drinks
Mixing ingredients to make cocktails
Knowing ingredients and the ability to suggest cocktails based on likes and dislikes
Remembering to check customers’ identification
Restocking and replenishing bar inventory and supplies
Staying guest focused and nurturing an excellent guest experience
Most managers are looking for two years of experience going into a bartending job. So how do you get bartending experience if everyone is looking for experienced bartenders?
How to get bartending experience
Expect to start at the bottom of the ladder and climb your way up. And know that hard work and dedication (not to mention an ability to memorize cocktail ingredients!) will go a long way.
“As an owner, you can watch someone and see if they know what they’re doing or not,” says Pomaika’i Shishido, co-owner of SP2 bar and restaurant in San Jose, California. “It’s a movement thing. I understand if you can’t get the cocktails right away, but you can tell in five minutes if someone has experience or not.”
So how can you go about getting that kind of memorized, expert-level experience? You can start with the following advice:
Don’t bother with bartending school
Every bartender we spoke to warned newbies against bartending school. Many cited it as a waste of time since few people in the industry take it seriously. After all, putting colored, non-alcoholic beverages in shakers does little to prepare you for real-life behind a bar.
Sure, bartending schools can teach you the basics - like muddling, the standard pour, and specific cocktails like Cosmo’s - but you definitely won’t graduate with the ability to handle a rowdy Friday night crowd at your city’s most-visited club.
Sam Treadway, Backbar co-owner and award-winning bartender, says that bartending school actually got him laughed out of an interview.
The consensus for bartending schools is that they simply aren’t worth the time and money.
To get the skill set managers are looking for, you need on-the-job training – either as a barback or a server.
Almost any bar will take you as a barback if you’re willing to lift heavy objects and run around
What is a barback?
A barback is a busser for a bar. They’re the ones working behind the scenes so that bartenders have everything they need, with responsibilities ranging from stocking bottles and replacing kegs, to cleaning glasses and surfaces.
This role gives aspiring bartenders a hands-on opportunity to learn the lay of the land. And it usually results in their name popping up first on a hiring manager’s list, when a position opens up. Just know that barbacks can work anywhere from a few months to over a year before being considered qualified to take the next step.
Though you’ll be doing a lot of the grunt work, working as a barback lets you show management your perseverance, humility, eagerness to learn, and other soft skills.
Nolan Lunsford, a bartender at Upright in the West Village of Manhattan, started as a barback and held the position for a little over a year before moving up the ladder. “It was a smaller bar,” he said. “I did a lot of cocktail making and ringing people up.”
Becoming a bartender won’t happen overnight. But finding a small restaurant or bar, where there’s the potential to absorb more work, is a great way to accrue experience quickly.
Start as a server
Can’t find a barback position?
Open your job search to include restaurants that have in-house bars. Even if your job requires you to be on the floor, you can still get to know the bar manager or lead bartender. Spend time observing what they do, and be proactive about asking questions.
Showing interest and being an advocate for yourself can go a long way. The bar will likely need a barback or bartender eventually, and if you know the ropes (not to mention the hiring managers) it will be easy for you to step up.
Bartending at a restaurant vs. a cocktail bar
Restaurants require the ability to multitask no matter what position you find yourself in. Still, if you’re working at a restaurant bar, you’ll need to be able to take beverage orders for the whole restaurant in addition to handling the people seated at your bar.
One note: restaurant bartenders typically make more money since they can collect tips on a full meal.
If you’re bartending in a busy cocktail bar, evenings can be intense. There will be a lot of smaller tickets for one or two drinks, which is why it’s crucial to build rapport with customers throughout the night. Expect more significant tips from your regulars, whom you will come to know over time. But even your regulars will expect a certain performance from you, so it’s all about staying on your toes.
And within the category of cocktail bars, you have an extensive range of alcohol to cover. Do you want to work at an artisan brewery? An upscale mixology lab? You should be tailoring your experience and knowledge to what you want to do.
Nolan recommends finding a niche within bartending to pursue. If you want to work at an upscale wine bar, for example, you’re going to need to know a little bit about wines. “If you want to do craft cocktails, find a craft cocktail bar,” He said. “Find something interesting. It makes you more exciting to the people hiring you.”
How to grow as a bartender
Stay up to date on your certifications and requirements
No matter if you’re at a restaurant, cocktail bar, or dive, depending on the state you work in, you must be between 16 and 21 years old to serve alcohol legally. And you must be anywhere between 18 (in states like Massachusetts) and 21 years old (as in Ohio) to bartend.
Check out this site to see what your state or area’s age requirements are to tend bar.
Not every state mandates bartenders are certified, nor does every bar. But before you start filling out applications, make sure you brush up on your local laws about bartending, specifically around serving alcohol.
ServSafe and TIPS are two of the more popular courses bartenders and servers take to become certified to serve alcohol. In some states, bartenders and servers are legally required to take an alcohol certification course before they are allowed on the floor.
Level up your bartending skills
Knowing your craft entails following the niche you want to pursue within bartending. But every bartender needs to know the basics. If someone comes up to your bar and orders a Manhattan, you need to understand what they’re talking about - and it’s even better if you can customize it to their taste.
Simple well drinks, like a Long Island Iced Tea, and classic cocktails, like a Dirty Martini are common knowledge for bartenders. Still, you’re limiting your dependability, versatility, and earning potential if they’re all you know how to make. If someone asks for your recommendation off the menu, you need to be able to provide them with the perfect beverage based on your understanding of taste profiles.
Bars like Drink in Boston make the customer experience of ordering from a bartender based entirely on an intimate conversation about taste preferences. At bars like this, employees need to work for several years before becoming an official bartender, since building this knowledge base takes time.
This part of the job may be the least exciting because it requires good ol' memorization skills. Whatever tactics you used to remember facts in history class, use those same tactics to remember that a Manhattan is made with bourbon or rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters.
Chris Tunstall and Julia Tunstall of The Mixology Podcast recommend walking through the process of making your cocktails. Picture where your gin bottle and grenadine are and physically walk through your recipes to make them stick.
Boost your hospitality skills
Learning ingredients and memorizing recipes is only the first part of becoming a bartender. As Sam Treadway says, “Mixology is what happens in the glass. Everything else is bartending.”
Be Sociable: To make the most of your guest’s experience, make sure you can hold a conversation with absolute strangers. This ability will make you more likable to patrons and will help you build a group of regulars.
Be Flexible: Physicality flexibility aside, mental flexibility is key to being a great bartender. Bartenders mostly work nights and are in high demand on weekends and busy shifts. You’ll likely be juggling many drink orders and the many different ingredients they need in your head, so it’s important to learn how to become an effective multi-tasker.
Early on in your bartending career, your focus on the bar may be diverted if your help is needed elsewhere in the restaurant. For example, you may be asked to help serve or bus tables, barback, or run the service station longer than anticipated.
Be Realistic: Understand that becoming a great bartender – or a bartender period – does not happen overnight: It takes years of hard work to become recognized for what you do. With that in mind, be prepared to put in the effort for a long time, before the opportunity to manage or open a bar is presented.
Be Humble: “As a server, you are in the service of someone else,” Sam says. Being a great bartender is not about you, it’s about exceeding your patron’s expectations by giving them an incredible guest experience. That’s what builds your reputation as a legendary bartender.”
Be Precise: Precision is one of the most essential soft skills. For the business to stay profitable and your bar’s liquor costs to stay in check, bartenders need to be precise; it’s not all about being flashy. If you’re over-pouring for the sake of aesthetic (or worse – for better tips), you’ll soon find yourself on the way out.
The challenges of bartending (+ how to improve them)
Understanding the basics of the profession is one thing. But it’s important to be fully aware of the downfalls of bartending as well.
Being an advocate for yourself is the only way to get what you want and need out of any workplace. Hopefully, you work in an environment where you feel appreciated and aren’t afraid to bring up concerns or advocate for policy changes.
If your manager is hostile, try talking to fellow employees. Speak up if you’re uncomfortable about any practices, patrons, or policies.
Unfortunately, inappropriate behavior from guests isn’t an “if,” it’s a “when.”
Employees should be encouraged to speak up about sexual harassment at work. A zero-tolerance policy should be put in place for both guests and fellow employees.
If you’re on the fence about working at a bar or restaurant, ask how they’ve handled sexual harassment in the past. If the manager brushes it under the rug or makes excuses, you know to walk away and walk away quickly.
Managers: We have an entire piece dedicated to empowering your female employees behind the bar. You can find it here.
If you ask female bartenders about the biggest challenges they face in the workplace, you’ll typically hear the following themes revealed to you at lightning speed: an underestimation of their skills, unwanted sexual advances, and unreasonable beauty standards.
Despite the monumental strides made by the #MeToo movement to create safer, more supportive workplaces for women, there’s still work to be done to create positive environments for female bartenders.
The George Washington University Medical Center found that in 2008, “15 percent of employees in the hospitality industry suffer from serious alcohol-related problems.”
It might seem like a no-brainer, but the people who run the show behind the bar often have an affinity for alcohol. It’s common knowledge that bartenders sometimes drink during their shift, unless your restaurant or bar has a strict policy against it.
If you work in a restaurant or bar and find yourself beginning to worry about your relationship with alcohol, you can get in touch with any of the following resources, among others:
Substance use disorders are particularly prevalent in restaurant work. Learn how to create safe environments and support staff struggling with addiction.
Bartending: equal parts demanding and rewarding
“I honestly believe bartending is such a good way to get into the industry,” says Pomaika’i Shishido. “If I had known what I know now, I would have tried to be a bartender right out of college. Not only is it fun, but you make a lot of money, you meet a lot of people, and everyone wants to be the bartender’s friend. Out of all the positions in the industry, bartending was the biggest asset I had.”
Becoming a great bartender isn’t an easy road, but one of the most challenging and rewarding things about it is that there is always more to learn. So get those flashcards out, edit that resume, reach out to people in the industry, and get shaking.