Bartending 101

The Basics of Tending Bar

 

Bartending can be a fun job that earns good money. But it's also a serious endeavour that attracts professionals who know that bartending can be a serious and fulfilling career; not just a summer job or means of post-grad income. 

 

A good bartender has a foundational skill set—drink knowledge, a soft touch with customer service, organization, time-management, calm in the face of stress—that propels their careers.

 

For those looking to learn the basics of Bartending 101 it begins with the most important skills for bartenders mentioned above.

 

Drink Knowledge

 

Of course, bartenders should be familiar with the products they work with. Learning about whiskies, beer styles, wine varietals, and cocktails is essential. A bartender will often be asked for recommendations, required to make create cocktails on the fly, or offer food pairing choices for wine and beer.

 

Knowing your drinks is important, and there are countless resources you can utilize to do so. From cocktail books to wine guides, to classes and seminars, and training that is the most fun: tasting drinks, there are nearly endless resources to find online or in person. 

 

Customer Service

 

A common trope is comparing bartenders to therapists. While most every bartender has a story about coaching a patron through an awkward life situation, or just listening to a bar guest's complaints and philosophies, the most important customer service skill for bartenders is simply making sure their guests have the best experience possible at there bar.

 

Here are some customer service skills to that will help in everyday situations:

 

Ask Questions: Find out your guests likes and dislikes when it comes to drinks. If you're asked for a recommendation, your initial response should be a question that finds out what they really want in a drink order.

 

Be Patient: Patience is a virtue for bartenders and saints. Having patience with your customers and co-workers will reduce the stress of tending bar. This is especially true for well educated bartenders who know a lot about their craft and must translate their expertise to customers who can't speak so knowledgeably about drinks.

 

Be Attentive: This is a great skill for young or novice bartenders. What you may lack in mixology chops or French wine knowledge can always be made up for with attentive service that makes guests feel special.

 

Organization and Time Management

 

These two skills go hand in hand. Working in a busy bar requires detailed organization and developing habits that save time and allow you to tend to all the duties required of a bartender.

 

Simple steps like putting a bottle back on the shelf in the right spot when you're done using it, or keeping your service well or bar tools organized and clean will stop you from wasting your time and your co-workers time.

 

Communication

 

One of the most important interpersonal skills that any worker needs, but especially a bartender in a chaotic workplace, is strong communication. Being able to communicate your needs to co-workers, to understand your customers needs, and to perform good customer service is crucial for becoming a good bartender.

 

Calm

 

Bars can be a hectic work environment. Tight spaces, loud music, drunk customers that are rude or impatient; these factors can all lead to becoming overwhelmed by stress and cratering behind the bar.

 

Being "in the weeds," an industry term that means falling behind in crap you need to get done, will happen to. the even the most seasoned bartenders. But remaining calm and working through the stress will do wonders to save your sanity.

 

Different Types of Bartending

 

Not all bars are created equal. And so, not all bartending jobs are alike. There are different skill sets that lend themselves better to certain bartending environments than others. A bartender that is fast and efficient may do better and enjoy working a high volume venue that a bartender that treats cocktails as a science. 

 

High Volume Bartending

 

This requires speed and efficiency, with the goal of pumping out drinks quickly and in large amounts to satisfy a big crowd of people. Nightclubs are often high volume venues. At a nightclub, patrons order mixed drinks, shots, and beers; drink types that are easy to make but must be made quickly and efficiently. 

 

Skills Needed: Organization and Time Management, Calm

 

Mixology

 

At the other of the bartending spectrum from club bartenders, you'll find mixologists. While the term was en vogue for a few years, it's become more of an ironic qualifier for bartenders that focus on creating craft cocktails. A mixologist doesn't just mix classic cocktails, but looks to create whimsical concoctions that push the boundaries of what most bar guests have seen before. Mixology requires a lot of research and study to really understand ingredients and the creativity to inventory new drinks.

 

Skills Needed: Drink Knowledge, Customer Service, Calm

 

Restaurant Bartending

 

Bartending at a restaurant requires a skillset that resembles a server's skillset. If you're bartending at a restaurant, you'll usually be asked to do one of two jobs: Service Bartender or Well Bartender.

 

A service bartender will be responsible for taking care of guests that sit at the bar. This may include recommending food items, taking orders, communicating with the kitchen, and providing food setups like plates and silverware. You'll need a knowledge of the food menu, and depending on where you work, will likely be responsible for wine service and recommendations to pair with food. 

 

Skills Needed: Drink Knowledge, Customer Service, Organization and Time Management, Communication, Calm

 

A well bartender will be responsible for making the drinks that servers order for their guests at the table. This means they'll need good communication skills with their co-workers, as well as the speed and efficiency to make drink orders for a full restaurant.

 

Skills Needed: Drink Knowledge, Customer Service, Organization and Time Management, Communication, Calm

 

Neighborhood Bartending 

 

Small bars and neighborhood taverns draw in a local crowd that is full of regulars. Being a good bartender at neighborhood bar is like being a good neighbor. You need to get to know your customers, be able to relate to them, and earn their trust. 

 

A good neighborhood bartender must reflect the personality of the bar they are working at and requires the right strain of friendliness that comes across more as a friend that performative politeness.

 

Skills Needed: Customer Service, Communication, Calm

 

Specialist Bartending

 

This is a bartender that works in a bar or restaurant that has specific focus like a wine bar, whiskey, or beer bar. They should be considered an expert on the products they sell, showcasing a deep understanding and appreciation for the drinks they are serving. 

 

These bartenders act as a guide for their customers, helping them sort through the selections to find the perfect drink choice. 

 

Skills Needed: Drink Knowledge, Customer Service, Communication

 

Types of Bartending

Important Bartending Skills for Different Styles of Bartending

 

Not all bars are created equal. And so, not all bartending jobs are alike. There are different skill sets that lend themselves better to certain bartending environments than others. A bartender that is fast and efficient may do better and enjoy working a high volume venue that a bartender that treats cocktails as a science. 

 

High Volume Bartending

 

This requires speed and efficiency, with the goal of pumping out drinks quickly and in large amounts to satisfy a big crowd of people. Nightclubs are often high volume venues. At a nightclub, patrons order mixed drinks, shots, and beers; drink types that are easy to make but must be made quickly and efficiently. 

 

Skills Needed: Organization and Time Management, Calm

 

Mixology

 

At the other of the bartending spectrum from club bartenders, you'll find mixologists. While the term was en vogue for a few years, it's become more of an ironic qualifier for bartenders that focus on creating craft cocktails. A mixologist doesn't just mix classic cocktails, but looks to create whimsical concoctions that push the boundaries of what most bar guests have seen before. Mixology requires a lot of research and study to really understand ingredients and the creativity to inventory new drinks.

 

Skills Needed: Drink Knowledge, Customer Service, Calm

 

Restaurant Bartending

 

Bartending at a restaurant requires a skillset that resembles a server's skillset. If you're bartending at a restaurant, you'll usually be asked to do one of two jobs: Service Bartender or Well Bartender.

 

A service bartender will be responsible for taking care of guests that sit at the bar. This may include recommending food items, taking orders, communicating with the kitchen, and providing food setups like plates and silverware. You'll need a knowledge of the food menu, and depending on where you work, will likely be responsible for wine service and recommendations to pair with food. 

 

Skills Needed: Drink Knowledge, Customer Service, Organization and Time Management, Communication, Calm

 

A well bartender will be responsible for making the drinks that servers order for their guests at the table. This means they'll need good communication skills with their co-workers, as well as the speed and efficiency to make drink orders for a full restaurant.

 

Skills Needed: Drink Knowledge, Customer Service, Organization and Time Management, Communication, Calm

 

Neighborhood Bartending 

 

Small bars and neighborhood taverns draw in a local crowd that is full of regulars. Being a good bartender at neighborhood bar is like being a good neighbor. You need to get to know your customers, be able to relate to them, and earn their trust. 

 

A good neighborhood bartender must reflect the personality of the bar they are working at and requires the right strain of friendliness that comes across more as a friend that performative politeness.

 

Skills Needed: Customer Service, Communication, Calm

 

Specialist Bartending

 

This is a bartender that works in a bar or restaurant that has specific focus like a wine bar, whiskey, or beer bar. They should be considered an expert on the products they sell, showcasing a deep understanding and appreciation for the drinks they are serving. 

 

These bartenders act as a guide for their customers, helping them sort through the selections to find the perfect drink choice. 

 

Skills Needed: Drink Knowledge, Customer Service, Communication

Is Bartending School Worth It?

How to learn to bartend

 

A common question is if you want to be bartender, should you take a course at a bartending school? 

 

It's a difficult question answer explicitly. An easier question to answer is , do you need to go to bartending school to become a bartender? The answer to that is a loud and emphatic NO!

 

There are pros and cons to bartending school, but the question of whether taking a course is worth it really depends on your personal situation and your expectations. 

 

Do you have the money?

 

Bartending schools can be expensive, with some courses costing hundreds of dollars. That can be a significant investment for some, and outright impossible for others. So make sure you can afford a course. 

 

What is your goal?

 

Is your goal to find a bartending job immediately after completing the course? That isn't always easy, bar owners and operators may prefer job applicants with actual bar experience. If your goal is to learn basic skills for bartending and then are happy to take a job as a barback or server, then you will probably have more success. 

 

Bartending School vs. Live Experience

 

A course on bartending can provide you with a great knowledge of cocktails, an understanding of how a bar operates, and some other important information like pour sizes and beer and wine knowledge. But what bartending school cannot teach you is what it is like to actually work in a busy bar alongside co-workers. 

 

One of the most difficult aspects of bartending is maintaining composure and consistency in a busy bar environment. Handling customers, communicating with co-workers, making drinks, and staying organized is a very difficult to teach in a course. 

 

That's why many bar operators prefer to hire bartenders with actual experience behind the bar. But if you're still interested in bartending school, there is a path to becoming a bartender through a course. Find a school that offers job placement. 

 

Working up the Ranks

 

One of the best ways to become a bartender is to start as a barback. A barback is responsible for assisting bartenders and doing the dirty work behind the bar. From fetching ice and replacing bottles to cutting garnishes, making juices, and washing glassware, being a barback is the best education for how a bar actually operates. 

 

This hands-on experience will put you in the best position to become a bartender. You'll often get to learn how to make cocktails and get on-the-job training from bartenders who need your help. 

 

Another pro for barbacking over bartending school is that you get paid to do it. So if money is a concern, then working at a bar is a smart decision.

How to Become a Better Bartender

Resources and tips to grow as a bartender

 

A good bartender practices their craft and knows that they need to always be learning and be aware of current trends and developments in the bar and restaurant world. 

 

Take Training Seriously

 

When you're a new hire at a bar or restaurant, you will likely undergo training. This will cover learning about how that restaurant works, and also information about the cocktails, wines, etc. that you are serving.

 

Don't view training as an obligation you have to get through. Consider it a valuable experience to help you grow your skills as a bartender.

 

Practice Pouring

 

Bartenders who are just starting out should practice their pours for making cocktails and mixed drinks. Begin with a jigger so the proportions of your drinks are consistent and accurate. 

 

You should also practice free pouring, which is pouring liquor and mixers without measuring it prior to putting it in a glass, shaker tin, or stirring vessel. When free pouring, bartenders will count seconds in their head to measure the amount of liquid they're pouring.  A 4-count, or 4 seconds usually equals one ounce. Practice your counting pace to make sure your counts are consistent.

 

A great way to practice free pouring and counts is by using water instead of something more expensive like alcohol. Adding water to an empty bottle of alcohol and using the speed pourer is the best way to replicate making a drink.

 

Start my measuring out common drink proportions like 1.5 oz or 2 oz. of water and put it in a clear glass. Then practice your free pour with another glass that is the same size and compare the volume of water in each one. 

 

Cocktail and Bar Books

 

There are so many books on the alcohol from cocktail recipes and history to books focused on whiskey or wine. Reading can often be a bartenders best tool.

 

Doing independent research is a great way to learn about bartending and alcohol. There are two broad categories of books you can check out. One is more instructive and the other is historical. Instructive books would include cocktail recipe books, or focus on wine varietals and production.

 

Historical books will provide a broader perspective for bartenders, and can provide a great resource to feel more engaged and connected to your work.

 

Outside of learning, it is also a way to find inspiration and gain valuable and different perspectives on bartending. 

 

Attend Tastings and Seminars

 

Depending on your location, you should attend tastings and seminars or classes about bartending and alcohol. If you're in or nearby an urban area, seek out events that feature knowledgable speakers.

 

Alcohol producers and distributors will often host tastings of their products at restaurants and bars where you can learn about their products and how to speak confidently about them. 

 

These events are also great ways to network with professionals in the liquor industry.

 

Follow What You're Passionate About

 

We covered the different types of bartending above, and while it's great to have a broad skill set that makes you more marketable as a bartender, it's also great to really focus on one area of bartending that you love. 

 

If you really enjoy making inventive cocktails, then honing your mixology skills is a great idea. If you love whiskey, then learning about different styles of whiskey and the history will feel rewarding. 

 

Pursuing these passions will lead you down a path that can result in new jobs, growing your industry network, and more.

 

Work Other Jobs in Restaurants and Bars

 

Part of being a good bartender is understanding how the business works. By taking a server position or barbacking, you will become a better bartender because you'll have a better understanding of the demands of other restaurant jobs. 

 

You should easily be able to pick up shifts to cover for co-workers and get experience with other jobs. Or ask your manager to train you on serving and shadow one the servers during a shift. 

Bartender Lingo

Bartending Terms You Should Know

 

Bars and restaurants have their own unique slang and language that you'll need to be familiar with if you're working behind a bar. From bar tools to cocktail styles, knowing these terms will help you acclimate to the restaurant world.

 

  • Bar Spoon: A long-handled spoon intended for mixing and laying drinks. It's length ensures it can reach the bottom of a tall tumbler or jug to mix ingredients in the glass.

 

  • Bitters: An herbal alcoholic blend that is used as an additive in cocktails to enhance flavor.

 

  • Behind the stick: A slang term for the actual act of getting behind the bar and doing the work of bartending. Whenever you work, you are 'behind the stick'.

 

  • Blend: To mix up ice and ingredients in an electric blender.

 

  • Bruised: When a cocktail or martini has be over shaken and pieces of ice and oxygen bubble forms. This results in a cloudy or murky looking cocktail.  

 

  • Building a drink: A bar term meaning to make a drink. To build a drink, you add ice to a glass and then add the spirit and mixers.

 

  • Chaser: A chaser is the delicious drink you get to take following the gross one you just took a shot of. You can pretty much use anything to chase anything, let that be a lesson and a warning.

 

  • Cocktail: An alcoholic drink consisting  of one or multiple liqueurs combined with a mixer, such as fruit juice, soda, cream, etc.

 

  • Cooler: An alcoholic-based beverage, offered in a variety of different alcohols and flavors. (E.g. Mike's Hard Lemonade, Seagram's Escapes, Smirnoff Ice).

 

  • Dirty: Adding olive juice to a martini, making it a Dirty Martini. The more olive juice there is, the dirtier the martini.

 

  • Dry: Less Vermouth added to a martini .  An extra dry martini is a drop of scotch swirled around the martini glass and poured out before the gin is added or no vermouth added at all.

 

  • Finger: A unit of measurement when pouring spirits. Varies and is literally the size of the bartenders finger.
       
  • Free Pour: Making and mixing drinks without using a measuring device.

 

  • Frost: To frost a glass, dip it in water, let it drain and stick it in the freezer. This works especially well for beer mugs, because it creates a layer of frost around the glass that will keep the drink cold longer.

 

  • Garnish: Something added to a drink after it is made to enhance the presentation. Common garnishes include cherries, lemon slices, lime wedges, cucumber slices, olives, etc. Sometimes garnishes are intended to add flavor to the drink, other time they're purely for appearance.

 

  • Highball: Served in a tall glass, a highball is any liquor mixed with soda.

 

  • Jigger: The hour-glass shaped measuring device. The larger end measure out 1 ½ ounces and the smaller end measures out ¾ of an ounce. (pictured on the right)

 

  • Last Call: The last opportunity to buy drinks before the bar is closed for the night.

 

  • Mist: Liquor served over a glass filled with crushed ice

 

  • Muddle: To crush up ingredients with a tool called a muddler.

 

  • Neat: For a drink made without a mixer or ice, you'd order it "neat".  Neat means straight from the bottle, no ice.
  • On the Rocks: Customers may think they've outsmarted the bartender into giving them more alcohol, but it is important to know that this order will get you a standard pour (often 1.25, 1.5, or 2oz) of straight spirit served over ice. 

 

  • Pony: A pony shot is equal to 1 oz.

 

  • Premium: Premium refers to top shelf liquor (top shelf for your best self!).

 

  • Rim: To rim a glass, wet the rim with a lime or lime juice in a rimmer, then press the rim of the glass into a saucer of your choice of salt or sugar (salt for Margaritas and Bloody Marys, sugar for coffees and cocktails).

 

  • Rinse: To “rinse” a glass is to take a small amount of liquor and swirl it around the glass creating a light coating. This helps bring out some of the flavors of the drink.

 

  • Rolling a Drink: Another mixing method where a drink is put together in one mixer then slowly poured into another mixer. It is a more delicate way to mix drinks that can’t be shaken or stirred.

 

  • Shrub: A mix of a vinegar based syrup mixed with a spirit to create a cocktail or mixed drink.

 

  • Sour: 'Sour' refers to the sourness of the sour bar mix/lime bar mix/margarita mix which are used in cocktails.

 

  • Speed Rack : A rack placed directly behind the bar and in front of bartenders. It usually holds the most common liquors and ingredients one would need to create a drink.

 

  • Stiff: Had a long day? Need a stiff drink? A drink made stronger than normal.Can mean a drink served without mixer or a drink that has more liquor than mixer.

 

  • Straight Up: This refers to a drink that has been shaken in a shaker and strained into a glass.

 

  • Thin: A drink that has been watered down. Can be done by too much ice or not enough liquor.

 

  • Top Shelf : Similar to Premium, they’re the most expensive bottles of alcohol and considered the best

 

  • Twist: A twist is the rind of a lemon that has been peeled with a special peeler called a zester. The lemon twist is long and thin and can be used to garnish martinis.

 

  • Up: A drink served up has been chilled by shaking or stirring, and then strained out into a chilled, stemware cocktail glass without ice.

 

  • Virgin: This refers to a non-alcoholic drinks. You can use this to order common cocktails minus the alcohol. (E.g. Virgin Mojito, Virgin Pina Colada).

 

  • Well Drink: An alcoholic beverage served using the lower-cost liquors. A well drink is a drink where neither the brand of the liquor or brand of the mix is mentioned (E.g. Vodka Cranberry, Rum & Coke).

 

  • Wet: A term used when ordering a martini. This means that you want more vermouth added to a martini than normal.

 

  • 86 : In the food service industry, "86" is a slang term that is used to indicate that an item is no longer available on the menu.

 

  • Neat: For a drink made without a mixer or ice, you'd order it "neat".  Neat means straight from the bottle, no ice. 

  • Straight Up: This refers to a drink that has been shaken in a shaker and strained into a glass.

  • Up: A drink served up has been chilled by shaking or stirring, and then strained out into a chilled, stemware cocktail glass without ice.

 

While all three methods produce a drink without ice, a neat drink is going to be room temperature, a straight up drink will be chilled from being shaken or stirred with ice, and an up drink will be served cold because of a chilled glass. 

 

On the Rocks: Customers may think they've outsmarted the bartender into giving them more alcohol, but it is important to know that this order will get you a standard pour (often 1.25, 1.5, or 2oz) of straight spirit served over ice.

 

Frost: To frost a glass, dip it in water, let it drain and stick it in the freezer. This works especially well for beer mugs, because it creates a layer of frost around the glass that will keep the drink cold longer.

 

Mist: Liquor served over a glass filled with crushed ice

 

On the Rocks: Customers may think they've outsmarted the bartender into giving them more alcohol, but it is important to know that this order will get you a standard pour (often 1.25, 1.5, or 2oz) of straight spirit served over ice.

 

Frost: To frost a glass, dip it in water, let it drain and stick it in the freezer. This works especially well for beer mugs, because it creates a layer of frost around the glass that will keep the drink cold longer.

 

Mist:Liquor served over a glass filled with crushed ice

Bartender Interview Questions

Questions to Expect in a Interview for Bartending Jobs

 

The reality of being a bartender means that you are dealing with customers who have been drinking, or really want a drink. This can create awkward and tense situations where a customer may need to be confronted about their behavior and state of sobriety. 

 

When answering situational questions, it's important to provide anecdotal experience of how you responded to a similar situation in the past. If you're interviewing for your first restaurant or bar job, then you might not have faced the exact situation you're being asked about, but sharing a story about a comparable situation is the best way to illustrate that you can handle the duty of bartending.

 

How do you cut someone off?

 

25 expert bartenders were asked this question, and, not surprisingly, they all had different answers. Luckily, many of them had similar themes to their answers, and the consensus seems to be that when someone needs to be cut off at the bar, you follow these three steps:

  • Appeal to their friends (because if your friend tells you that you’ve had enough to drink, you’re more likely to listen)
  • Lag the time that you come to their table for drinks, but make sure that they have lots of water or soda in the meantime
  • Tell the customer honestly, but nicely, that you think they’ve had enough

 

If you caught another bartender stealing, what would you do?

 

Bartending is a job that comes with a lot of responsibility. A big part of that is handling money and serving customers without a lot of oversight. A server must rely on the kitchen and bar to provide products to guests, but a bartender handles a transaction from a customer from start to finish. This autonomy can provide cover for shady activities.

 

Bar theft is a big concern for many restaurant and bar operators, so it's a question that could come up in an interview.

 

There are many examples of bar theft, including undercharging (in the hopes of a bigger tip); Z-ing out register tape early and not reporting all sales; staging a fake walkout; using personal, smaller jiggers and drinking the difference… the list goes on.

 

It’s hard to tell which bartenders would steal from you, and which ones are honest, but this question is a good way to weed out the thieves. Thieves hate to be confronted, so asking a question up front to show that you are tough on bar theft will scare many dishonest bartenders away.

 

Of course, there is no one right answer to this question, but if your interviewee has an answer that you agree with, that’s a good sign for you.

 

How would you handle a customer who you believe to be underage or using a fake ID?

 

Bar managers want to have an understanding of how a person will respond in uncomfortable scenarios like confronting a customer. In situations like these most bartenders refer to their managers before deciding to serve an individual they believe to be underage,

 

This question is important in gaging the interviewees character and also an important question to ask for your business.

 

No one wants to face the hassles of being ticketed or fined for serving minors and in some states minors are used in compliance checks by law enforcement. So making sure you appear as a vigilant bartender that has your employers interest in mind is important. 

 

If a customer said his drink wasn't strong enough, what would you do?

 

Bartenders agree that anger and frustration looms large when a customer questions the amount of alcohol in a drink, so this question would be answered “correctly” when the interviewee honestly states their reaction and most importantly talks about their customer service follow-up.

 

An “incorrect” answer would include either:

 

  • Confronting the customer and making a scene (you do not want prima-donna bartenders on your staff)
  • Over-pouring the next drink (that would be another form of bartender theft)

Because a bar’s reputation is built on the strength of the customer service offered, bar operators want to make sure that their employees understands that the most important thing to do when a customer is unhappy is to respond politely, but firmly.

  

Tell me a joke?

 

Bartenders do more than serve drinks,  some refer to them as a stand up comedian or the local counselor. Hiring someone one that has the ability to handle crowds and maintain an approachable and positive attitude is key!

 

Bartenders can become the face of your restaurant or bar and one poor remark can completely change a customers experience at your business. Their frequent interactions with guest require them to be confident and charismatic. You want guest to come back and having a great bartender can definitely be a driving factor. 

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