How To Become A Bartender
You are looking to change your career. Perhaps you have just turned 21 and you think that Bartending looks like it might be fun. Perhaps you are already in the service industry and you think you know what you’re getting into.
But, do you really know what it is that you want? Bartending can be quite lucrative, or it can be a dead-end situation. It all depends on a number of factors. It depends on what environment you want to work in.
For example, do you want to work in a fast-paced nightclub environment or a family restaurant slower-paced situation? Do you want to learn the bare minimum or do you want to eventually put in the work to become a full-fledged mixologist? Have you really thought through your decision?
Why you want to become a bartender is one of the factors that you need to figure out before taking those first steps towards a career change. Bartending is a lot of work. It is not for the faint of heart. If you really want to become a bartender, you are going to have to put a lot of effort into getting ready for your new career.
People become bartenders for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they really enjoy mixing drinks. Maybe it is the interaction with the customers they crave. For some, it is just a job. For others, it is a lifelong endeavor to become the best of the best.
Only you can know the reasons behind wanting to become a bartender. Are you ready for a dose of reality?
What is Bartending?
Bartending is defined as the act of mixing and serving drinks from behind a bar. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The duties of a bartender are much greater than just mixing and serving drinks.
Some of these duties are easy, some are not. Some take years of experience while others can be learned in a week. To be a bartender in a successful establishment, there will be a lot you have to do and even more that you will need to learn.
An important part of bartending is to make sure that your customers are legally old enough to drink. They also need to know when their customers have had too much to drink.
A full-time bartender doesn’t just work those evening hours. He is or she will be responsible for inventory and cash handling.
A full-time bartender will need to know when and how much of particular alcohol will need to be ordered. They will need to learn which drinks are more popular on which nights. Which alcohol are they more likely to run short of if enough isn’t ordered. What sells? What doesn’t sell? These are all part of the duties of a professional bartender.
A bartender has to know his customers and he has to know what beverages they prefer. He or she needs to be highly skilled in customer service. He or she needs to know how to treat certain types of customers one way, and a different type of customer completely differently.
If you really want to learn how to become a bartender, then you have a long learning process ahead of you. How far you want to go with it is entirely up to you.
How much does bartending pay?
Bartenders primarily work off of tips in addition to a small salary in most establishments. According to up-and-coming employment site Indeed.com, bartender salaries can range from $7.25 to $28.00 per hour. This salary can be more in a busy nightclub or less in a small tavern. It will depend on the size of the city you are in.
In some places, or when you are first starting out, you might make a salary that is closer to minimum wage. The higher salaries are normally limited to busy Friday and Saturday night shifts that will be staffed by the bartender with the most experience.
Most bartenders start out with bartending as a second job as beginning bartenders usually don’t make enough money to pay the bills. Once they have moved on to more shifts and busier establishments, the second job will become unnecessary.
How do I train to become a Bartender?
There are a couple of different paths to becoming a bartender. One is to go to bartending school. The other is to work your way up from bar back and learn the job by observing, asking questions, and practicing at home.
In order to make your best decision, you might want to observe a bartender at work. Perhaps go to your favorite establishment and ask a lot of questions. Take note of how they speak to customers. Learn the language that is spoken between bartenders, bar backs, and wait staff.
You will want to get some bartending books so that you can learn how to make drinks. While in most establishments it will be very rare for fancy drink orders to come in, there are some very basic drinks that every bartender is expected to know how to make.
Bartending schools cost money, so make sure that the school you are thinking of attending is reputable. If the course is too short, you will not learn nearly enough to become a successful bartender.
Those courses that are really worth something will have professional classrooms that look like an actual bar, complete with three-compartment bar sinks, ice machines, blenders, soda gun dispensers, and a selection of glassware that is appropriate for every type of drink.
Check carefully as to what is involved in the curriculum of the school. If it is nothing more than memorizing recipes, you can do that on your own. A real professional bartending school will teach you more than just memorization.
You will learn how to pour, mix, muddle, and blend. They will be professional in every sense of the word, and most of the really good ones will offer placement assistance.
Becoming a bartender with no prior experience
If you have decided to take a pass on bartending school, the longer route is to start out as a bar back. While you are learning things as a bar back, you can get books and supplies and start practicing at home.
As you start your bartending library, some of the most important books to add to your collection include:
A set of basic bartending tools and accessories will be essential. While you are learning and practicing your technique, there are good beginner sets available. This Beginner Bartending Tool Set is all you need to get started. It has all of the basic tools, and the shaker bottle is the weight that you will want to get used to.
If you want to extend this to accessories, you can add a blender. Not every bar keeps blenders these days, but it is a good idea to learn how to properly make blended drinks.
You will want to spend most of your time with your books. Memorization is absolutely key. Once you memorize the recipes, try and watch the bartender you are barbacking for making the drink. Note the bartender’s almost obsessive attention to detail and measurement.
Start going to bars, sober, so that you can see the culture at various establishments. Absorb everything that you can. Everything you observe will come in handy someday. Maybe you see how a bartender deals with a difficult patron. Pay attention as this will happen to you at some point.
Notice how the bartender interacts differently with different customers. This is a skill you will need throughout your bartending career. You will see that some patrons are very serious, and the bartender might be serious in return. Always treat customers with respect.
Pay attention to the drinks that are being ordered and how the bartender is making each one. As you observe, see if you can remember the recipe. Carry a small notebook with you. Make a note of the names of those drinks that you aren’t familiar with. Look them up when you get home.
Take an off night that you know will be quiet. Go to the bar and drink but as a learning experience. Taste different drinks you have not experienced before. See if you can identify the different flavors in each one.
Always be patient. Be patient with yourself because learning doesn’t happen overnight. Be patient with your customers. Each one will have different needs. Practice your listening skills.
Through it all, have fun with the learning. Learning can be fun, and bartenders always seem to be having fun.
A bar back is a busser for the bar. Their job requires a lot of heavy lifting and cleaning. They are the bartenders right hand. Their job is to stock the bar with liquor, ice, beer, garnishes, glassware, and anything the bartender might need.
They change out kegs when they are empty and take out the trash. They will bus tables, wash dishes, and help with cleanup at the end of the night. In many establishments, they will have opening duties as well. They learn to estimate in advance what will be needed.
Bar backs receive a percentage of the bartender’s and serving staff’s tips. Your best route to eventually becoming a bartender is to find a barbacking position in the bar you eventually would like to start your career in.
Learning In The Real World
The experience you can get from not going to bartending school can be more valuable than the most expensive school. Watching a bartender in action on a nightly basis from the viewpoint of a bar back can provide you with a wealth of information.
You can see exactly how each drink is poured. You can watch their professionalism with the customers. You can watch and learn the showmanship factor from an experienced bartender.
While learning all of this, you need to be memorizing. You need to memorize every drink recipe you might encounter. You will want to learn the classics, the standards, the up-and-coming trends, and some of the fancier drinks as well.
Drinks every bartender should know how to make
Let’s start with the absolute basics. The basics include:
- Martini, Dry Martini, Dirty Martini, Extra Dry Martini
- Old Fashioned
- Long Island Iced Tea
- Whisky Sour
- Bloody Mary
- Moscow Mule
- White Russian
- Cape Cod
- Sea Breeze
- Bay Breeze
- Vodka and Soda
- Tequila Sunrise
As you learn to make them, pay special attention to memorizing the measurements of each component of these drinks. These are so standard that you will need to master them quickly. Once you have mastered some of the basics, you can start expanding.
Some other drinks that you probably won’t hear orders for all that often, but that you should be prepared for are:
- Sex on the Beach
- Cosmopolitan (Cosmo)
- Champagne Cocktail
- Irish Coffee
- Pina Colada
- Fuzzy Naval
Following is a list of terms and their definitions that every bartender should know.
- Back. A small glass of water or soda that accompanies a drink, usually a shot.
- Build. Very simply, this means to make a drink.
- Call Drink. This term is for when a customer orders a specific brand of liquor in their drink, for example a Bacardi and Coke, a Tanqueray and Tonic.
- Chaser. Any drink that is quickly consumed following a shot.
- Chill. To chill a glass, simply put a little ice and water into a glass and let it sit for a moment while you mix the drink in a shaker. Pour the ice and water out and strain the drink into the chilled glass
- Dirty. Mixing olive juice into a Martini
- Dry. This refers to adding very little vermouth to a Martini.
- Flame. To set a drink on fire. This is most commonly done with Sambuca in order to heat the drink before extinguishing the flame and drinking it.
- Float. When one alcohol is placed on top of another in a shooter. This is usually done with a bar spoon
- Free pour. This is when a customer is requesting that the alcohol is not measured into their glas.
- Garnish. Lime wedges, olives, onions, lemon peel, cherries.
- Highball. Any type of liquor mixed with soda and served in a tall glass.
- Muddle. To crush up ingredients using a bar tool known as a muddler. For drinks such as Mojito.
- Neat. No ice, but should be poured in an appropriate glass.
- Premium. Top shelf liquor.
- Rim. This is where you moisten the rim of the glass and dip it in margarita salt or a specialty sugar.
- Rocks. Ice.
- Shooter. Shooter or a shot is a one to two ounce serving of straight liquor or a mixture meant to be consumed in one gulp
- Straight Up. Interchangeable with ‘Neat’.
- Virgin. No alcohol in the cocktail, such as a Virgin Bloody Mary.
- Well. Drink where neither brand of liquor or mixer is named.
Signs of Intoxication
There are 15 principle signs of intoxication. As a bartender, you really need to try and keep track of how much your customer has had to drink, before arriving and once you start serving them. These signs can tell you if it is time to cut them off:
- Slurred speech.
- Staggering or stumbling.
- Drinking too fast
- Overly generous with their cash.
- Inappropriate behavior towards others.
- Sudden change in behavior.
- Overly loud or obnoxious.
- Dozing off at a table or at the bar.
- Incoherent train of thought.
- Responding to questions too slowly.
- Spilling their drink or having trouble drinking it.
- Bragging or boasting.
- Being overly friendly to other customers or staff.
- Disheveled clothing or messed up hair
- Overly depressed, crying, or moody.
When it comes to bartending, professionalism comes down to the appearance of the bartender, cleanliness of the bar, and the customer service they provide. Your bar should be kept clean at all times, both on top of the bar and in the drink prep area. While some of this responsibility will be the bar backs duties, it is the bartender’s attention to detail that the customer will notice the most.
Customer service is one of the most important areas of being a bartender. Not only does it keep the customer coming back, but it also can increase your tips. The bartender is expected to be customer-oriented, flirtatious at times, consoling at others. They are expected to be a good listener.
Your best skill will be learning to make the customer feel special. Whether you end up working in a fast paced nightclub or a relaxed tavern, you will need to be who the customer most expects you to be.
This is a skill that comes naturally to some and must be learned, with time, by others. Once you have adapted to your environment, you will know what to do. Customer service can range from telling crazy stories to singing along with the music the DJ is playing, to simply listening to a customer who has had a bad day.
You may be expected to be part of the entertainment or to melt into the background once drinks are served. This is, once again, dependent on the establishment you end up working at.
How To Dress
Some bars will have a dress code and others will not. If the bar is casual, then dress casual but respectably so. If you work in a nightclub, whether male or female, you will most likely be expected to dress in a tuxedo shirt and tie and black dress pants.
In some states, certification for a bartender is mandatory whereas other states don’t require it. Servsafe, one company that offers certification and training for bartenders and servers, offers courses in food management, food handling, allergens, alcohol service, and workplace safety for restaurants and concessions. Check to see what your State certification requirements are before registering for necessary and unnecessary training. Most jobs in the hospitality industry will require some level of certification before you can work.
is considered to be a more refined and in-depth study of both mixing and inventing drinks. A mixologist is considered to be the elite among bartenders. They specialize in learning why certain liquors and mixers do and don’t work together.
A mixologist is one who studies and specializes in inventing new drinks. It is considered more refined than a traditional bartender. In layman’s terms, a bartender tends bar while a mixologist studies mixology.
Difference Between A Bartender And A Mixologist
There is definitely a difference between a bartender and a mixologist.
A bartender is considered to be the one who:
- Knows and mixes a lot of common and popular cocktails.
- Is able to be the perfect people person and think and react quickly to his or her surroundings.
- Is able to serve a large number of people at the same time.
- Handle cash and manage all aspects of the bar, including inventory and cash.
- Can manage large crowds.
A mixologist is considered to be one who:
- Studies and helps with the evolution of bartending.
- Using unexpected ingredients, creates new and innovative beverages that tend to have an extraordinary flavor.
- Refines traditional bartending techniques.
- Knows the history of cocktails and modernizes them.
- Studies and modernizes traditional and classic cocktails.
The difference between the two is that a mixologist has made it a point to study the history of bartending. They know the history behind every known liquor. They can tell you how and where it was first distilled and the evolution to what we see today.
The bartender has skills that a mixologist may have forgotten or may have never excelled at. A bartender is adept at keeping the crowds at the bar happy. A mixologist is more of an inventor and a consultant to the industry.
If a bartender is interested in learning the history behind the beverages that they serve every night and was inclined to experiment with new and different tastes, then it is absolutely possible for a bartender to someday elevate themselves to mixologist status.
Being a bartender can be a very rewarding career once you have risen through the ranks. There is more than one path into the profession. You can either start your learning experience at a bartending school, or you can take the longer path of starting as a bar back.
If you choose to start as a bar back, the learning process will be longer than that found at a bartending school, but the observation time and hands-on experience could very well make a difference in your level of success.
It is generally expected that a bartender will remain working at one bar for an average of one to three years before they move on, although there are some who are quite content to stay in one place for most of their career.
As a bartender, you will be expected to be part entertainer, part service professional, part counselor, and part accountant and inventory specialist. You will learn how to multi-task as you rise through the ranks.
Once you get to the top, you can either enjoy a lucrative career as a professional bartender in the establishment of your dreams, or you can take it to the next level. You can study hard and become a professional mixologist.
The decision is all in your hands. All you need to do is take the first step.