How to Run a Great Bartender Training Program

Whether you're a bar manager looking to strengthen your team or a bartender building your resume, use these training ideas to step up your game behind the bar.

There's a clear line that distinguishes stellar bartenders from the rest. It’s the drive to maintain the quality of drinks and service, while quickly working a bar that’s five people deep. It’s innate curiosity and a love of learning new skills. It’s the knowledge of flavors and techniques and knowing what to do when the new kid shakes yellow chartreuse with vermouth in your signature cocktail.

Bartender training is essential to helping your aspiring bar team grow into genuine hospitality professionals. And a great training program and the promise of career progression will motivate your bartenders to stick around.

As front-of-house staff, bartenders have a big impact on a restaurant business. They’re responsible for creating great guest experiences, building a strong reputation for your bar program, managing liquor costs, and more. Training for your bar team is just as important as it is for the rest of your crew.

Whether you're a bar manager looking to strengthen your team's skills or a bartender looking to bulk up your resume, use this list of bartender training ideas and resources to step up your game behind the bar.

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Train With a Restaurant Employee Handbook

Training to learn and improve a specific skill set should be a given for every restaurant role, but don't overlook the importance of training for the whole workplace with a restaurant employee handbook.

Most bar managers jump at the chance to teach the technical aspects of bartending to new hires, but you’ve gotta think about the big picture. The best way to keep quality bartenders around is to communicate expectations about their role, explain how their work contributes to your restaurant’s larger mission, and lay out responsibilities clearly with a restaurant employee handbook.

This is where you can cover staff policies and procedures like:

  • Your workplace culture
  • Professionalism in the workplace
  • Sick days and requesting time off
  • How to handle customer conflict
  • Your bar's anti-harassment policies

Train With Bartender Certifications

While some restaurant people might suggest going to culinary school to learn the trade, bartender certifications and courses help your bartenders build reputable skills and experience, too. Alcohol service certifications make sure your bartenders understand their responsibility when serving your guests alcohol, which means they can provide a memorable and safe experience for your customers.

Here are the three most popular alcohol service certifications:

These certifications are often legally required to tend bar. In areas where they’re not, some bars still take the initiative to mandate all hires have at least one bartending certification before they hit the floor.

If you can, invest in continual training, too. DrinkSkool is a nine-part online course for bartender education that covers the basics all the way to advanced mixology. The free program was developed by BAR, an “independent organization whose mission is to propagate the healthy and responsible use of beverage alcohol products through innovative and comprehensive training programs and seminars.”

Working in a highly curated or complex bar program might require more advanced courses. These cost money, obviously, but to transform your bartenders from good to great, they might be worth the investment. Search for in-person seminars or online courses, and make sure your bartenders understand the value of the training to their careers so they get the most out of the experience.

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Train With Jiggers

A jigger is a double-sided measuring tool bartenders use to cut out the guesswork of pour count. The jigger dispenses a perfect 1.5 oz or 1 oz pour, depending on which side the bartender uses.

The jigger is to bartending as training wheels are to a four-year-old. But unlike training wheels, jiggers aren't exclusively for newbs. They’re a huge help in controlling your bar's inventory management by preventing over-pouring — especially on a hectic Friday night when one too many free pours can really eat into your bottom line.

Jiggers are also useful for veteran bartenders who are new at your bar and learning the ratios for each of the cocktails on your menu. If you make your long island iced tea differently than the bar down the street does, have your new hire use the jigger instead of reverting to the recipe they used at their last bar so you can provide a consistent customer experience.

Train for Free-Pouring Skills

Some bars prefer to have their staff free pour, believing that having jiggers visible to guests gives off the wrong impression about the bar staff's knowledge and expertise.

That's still not an excuse for over-pouring or waste, so if your bar allows free pours from bartenders, train for perfect and accurate free pours. The most common method for accurate free pouring is the counting method. For those unfamiliar with it, see it in action below:

Host In-House Tastings and History Lessons

Many of the most renowned bars in the world offer in-house classes and lessons to staff about the history of certain beverages as well as tasting classes where bartenders can speak knowledgeably about their craft and learn how to make accurate recommendations for their guests.

Bars that offer the chance for employees to enrich their understanding about their jobs are investing in their employees and their business in ways many bars don’t. Take the initiative to offer one of these classes to your staff, and consider including your entire front-of-house and back-of-house team. This will give your bartenders the ability to train for and then show off their stuff, and the rest of your staff can benefit from learning about new drink menu items.

Train for Health and Safety

Bartending can be a dirty and dangerous job, and the last thing you want is for a bartender or a patron to get sick or injured.

Make sure your bartenders know health and safety best practices, and keep an eye out for common health mistakes like scooping ice with a glass, touching the rim of a guest's glass, or using dirty towels or glasses.

Show new hires the health and safety ropes with a mentor, buddy, or shadow program with a veteran bartender you trust. Toast's 2019 Restaurant Success Report showed that 46% of restaurants put an emphasis on mentorship and shadowing to emphasize the potential for employee growth.

Train With Books

We’re not talking about instruction manuals — actual books.

Learn what the experts have to say about bartending. They've mastered the craft and can offer bartender training ideas you might never have thought of.

Not sure where to begin? Start with Gary Regan's The Joy of Mixology, Dave Arnold's Liquid Intelligence, or a quick search on Google for “best bartending books.”

There’s a lot to learn from these and other industry experts. Purchase the books for your bar team and loan out copies. This will show your staff you’re keen on their success. You can even ask your bartenders to present to the team each month on the most interesting things they learned while reading.

Train With Quizzes

Hold your staff accountable for learning the ropes of bartending and developing their skills. Test how much they really want to advance their careers with monthly assessments or on-the-spot common knowledge questions.

Never try to stump your staff, and give them the appropriate heads up. But do pay attention to how second-nature their responses are. Making these exams common practice in your bar will open your eyes to who's motivated to learn and who’s ready for that next step in their career.

Train to Carry Drinks

If your bartender is getting out from behind the bar and delivering drinks to tables, make sure they're capable of lifting, carrying, and balancing a tray full of drinks. Otherwise, things will get messy.

There are ways to make this exercise more entertaining for everyone. Gamification can be used to add a little friendly competition to your training sessions. For example, the bartender who goes a whole month without breaking a glass gets to be manager for the day. Give your staff incentives to perform well and you’ll be surprised by what they can accomplish.

Train for Food and Drink Pairing

A step up from the drink history lessons is pairing drinks with food. If your bar is also a restaurant and bartenders are also serving guests meals, consider teaching your bartenders how to suggest beverages with certain dishes.

If you’ve got a more senior bartender or sommelier on staff, have them run weekly or monthly classes to discuss new menu items and how they pair with wine, beer, and cocktails. Invite the rest of your staff to these classes to give them a better understanding of which wines to recommend with the dishes. These classes are fun for staff and give them the upper hand in menu knowledge and confidence with customers.

Train for Tech

In the heat of a Friday night, trained bartenders should be able to wield a POS system with as much skill and ease as your head chef preparing your most popular dish. Training bartenders to be fluent with your technology system's functionality is essential, because bartenders need to be able to do all the things a server can do. They need to know how to split the check, understand your system's preauthorization rules, and how to 86 an item.

Learn From Bar Blogs and Websites

Well-trained bartenders are no strangers to the best bar blogs in the industry. Professional growth is about constant learning.

Consider following sites that work with industry experts, post regularly, and offer content that helps bartenders and bar managers be informed and add new skills to their toolbelt.

Check out these bar and hospitality blogs, and recommend the good ones to your team:

Know the Location of Liquor and Glasses

It should go without saying, but one of the most crucial components of a well-trained bar staff is that they know their way around the bar. However, every bar is different, so new hires should always be trained and quizzed about alcohol's location behind the bar.

An extension of this is knowing which glasses to pair with which drinks. Bartender training for new hires should include explicit rules as to which glasses are required for each cocktail and beer your restaurant carries. While one bar might use a pint glass for every beer, a craft beer bar would scoff at that idea, so clarify in training what your standards are, and make sure your staff sticks to them.

Listen to Bartending Podcasts

Listening to bartender training tips, stories, and even hysterical bar-related rants is a way to keep the bartender mentality going after clocking out for the night. Throw one of these on while your staff is setting up or breaking down the bar. Some of the most recognized bar podcasts include:

Check out the bar episodes of The Garnish Podcast, including interviews with Jon Gillespie and award-winning bartender Sam Treadway on how to become a bartender.

Know When to Cut Someone Off

Over-serving guests can lead to a mess inside or outside your bar, along with a damaged restaurant brand and potential for violence, harassment, DUIs, and worse.

Intoxicated patrons can be a huge legal liability for your restaurant. Brush up on your state's Dram Shop Laws to see if your bar could be held liable for over-serving.

Whether or not your bar can be held liable, bartenders should be trained on your bar's policy for cutting off patrons, how to handle the situation, and what to do if a situation escalates.

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Train for Customer Interaction

Bartenders spend the majority of their shifts in front of patrons, so training for soft skills is also important.

Coaching on hospitality best practices — including carrying a conversation, greeting someone properly, and ensuring an outstanding experience — is a process that should never be overlooked, in training or beyond.

For example, make sure bartenders know to say “I'll be right with you” rather than ignoring guests – no matter how busy the shift is. This is an essential skill to use, especially while multitasking, because it gives your customers the reassurance that they’ll be acknowledged as soon as possible.

It’s the little moments of delight that leave a guest pumped about their experience. There are simple ways to do this, too. Bartenders should have a few drinks ready to recommend when a patron walks in. The suggestion could be the bartender's favorite or your restaurant’s best-selling or most-profitable drink. Alternatively, you can have your bartenders suggest a top-grossing drink, but make sure they market it as one of their favorites to personalize the experience for the guest.

Join the United States Bartenders' Guild

Surround your team with a network of like-minded and successful bartenders by having them join the United States Bartenders' Guild. The USBG exists to “empower bartenders to take charge of their careers” and is currently in more than 70 cities.

If there isn’t a USBG chapter near you, see if there's a local group or network of bartenders to join. Connecting with these groups gives bartenders networking opportunities, events, and chances to make friends in their local bartending community.

Train for Financial Literacy

Consider training your bartenders on more than just pouring drinks and entertaining bar chats.

There's an entire program around training your staff to be more financially literate and business-savvy: It’s called open book management. As the name suggests, the process involves opening up the financial books of the business to all employees so they understand the impact of their role in the grand scheme of finance and operations.

Launching this program in your restaurant — either by yourself or with the help of a consultant like Rethink Restaurants — shows your bartenders you're eager to train them to do more than just tend bar. These are transferable skills your team can take anywhere, which shows you’re investing in their professional development and long-term success.

There are plenty of ways to revamp your bartender training program and plenty of reasons to do so, too. Considering how many millennials make up your hiring pool and current team, you’ve probably witnessed firsthand how quickly an unstimulating training program can cause an employee to become unmotivated. Give your bar staff a reason to come to work by offering continuous, thorough, and engaging training.

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