One of the most common questions asked by new bartenders is “What should I do to become successful?” or “It’s my first shift behind the bar, what do I need to know and what should I focus on?”
These are great questions for any beginner to ask.
Passing wisdom down from one generation to the next is one of the reasons why successive generations outperform their predecessors. They don’t have to start at 0 so they get a head start.
Imagine starting out in the hospitality industry today with advice from the likes of Gaz Regan and David Kaplan swimming through your head… How could it not be useful?
So I thought, why not collect the advice from these seasoned bartenders and industry professionals to help those new to the industry get started on the right foot?
That’s what this article is about. Rather than attempt to answer these questions myself, I’ve collected the advice from 13 bartending veterans – industry pros who are more than qualified to give new bartenders advice.
Here’s the question I asked everyone:
“What advice would you give to new bartenders starting out in today’s world? What advice should they ignore?”
Thank-you to everyone who took the time to write-up such fantastic answers. This industry is filled with incredible people and I’m amazed at how well everyone responded – I really appreciate it.
For all you new bartenders out there, this advice is priceless so take note & listen well. Even for those of us with experience, this is worth its weight in gold.
Drinks maven with 30 years of industry experience, former global ambassador of Tanqueray Gin, and soon-to-be bar owner.
Advice for new bartenders:
1. While the whole ‘devil-may-care-wild-eyed-party-guy’ bartender bit seems fun now if you want true success you have to know this is a profession, not a lifestyle.
2. Take care of your body – wear sensible shoes, exercise, eat properly, drink lots of water and no shots after 2am.
3. No-one cares how much you know till they know how much you care.
4. Visit as many distilleries as you can.
5. Service is not what you do to people its how you make them feel about themselves when they are in your venue.
6. A bartender who knows more mash-bills than jokes is not a good bartender.
7. Find teachers and also mentors and recognise they are different.
8. Remember the platinum rule of hospitality and treat other people not how YOU want to be treated but how THEY want to be treated.
9. If you have the ingredients to make the drink then make it and never be a drink snob.
10. Don’t worry about ‘growing your personal brand’… if you are good then people will grow it for you!
Former brand ambassador & consultant, self-confessed drinks geek, soon-to-be distillery owner, creator of the Drinking Cup website.
Elemental Distillers: http://www.elementaldistillers.com/
Elemental Distillers FB: @elementaldistillers
Elemental Distillers Instagram: @elementaldistillers
Advice for new bartenders:
Don’t burn bridges, networking is essential in opening up new opportunities and therefore new developments.
Be passionate but don’t take yourself too seriously (http://www.drinkingcup.net/cocktail-bartenders-take-themselves-too-seriously/ – point in case).
Cocktail consultant, professional bartender, and creator/producer of the ‘Bartender Journey’ podcast & website.
Advice for new bartenders:
New Bartenders should be curious. Most seasoned Bartenders are happy to share what they know. Ask questions. Find books to read – The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler is a great start. Go online and research, read and learn. It’s a great time to be a Bartender because there are so many resources available to you, (including – shameless plug – my Bartender Journey Podcast). Go out to other bars and watch how other Bartenders work. Ask them questions, (although never walk into a bar and immediately tell the Bartender that you also tend bar – It’s an unwritten rule).
True Hospitality is the most important thing. Listen to your guests. Let them shine. It’s their moment, not yours. Avoid talking about yourself. When you are talking to your guests, it should be to stimulate the conversation, not take it over. Ask questions. Try to let them do 75% of the talking – you, 25%. On the other hand, you should have a few stories and jokes up your sleeve. Try to stimulate conversation between guests at the bar who don’t know each other.
Be Hospitable not only to your guests, but also to your co-workers and management. Be the life of the party, not only for your guests but also for the people you work with. If you have dishwashers, bar backs &/or porters on staff, make them your new best friends. Trust me.
On the technical side of things. Learn to make a Classic Daiquiri, (learn what a true Daiquiri is first if you don’t know – hint: it’s not pink and it’s not a frozen drink). Learning this drink is a lesson in balanced cocktails. Learn that fresh juice is always superior. Learn that by “fresh juice,” we mean that it is juice straight out of a piece of fruit, (not from a bottle, can or soda gun), it is also “fresh” in that it is less than 24 hours old and is stored chilled.
Learn about the different styles of Whiskey. Then move on to Rum, Gin, and Tequila. You’ll need some basic wine & beer knowledge too.
Join the United States Bartender’s Guild. You’ll be amazed at how much you will learn and the amazing group of people that you’ll be surrounding yourself with.
Always look your guests in the eyes and smile. Try to learn and use your guests’ names. If they hand you a credit card to open a tab, you’ve got the name right there!
Err on the side formality – you can always get LESS formal as time goes on, but you can’t really get MORE formal. If you work in a fine dining restaurant or other high-end establishments, address your guests as Mr. or Ms. (last name).
Always be learning. Always have fun.
Head bartender at Gravetye Manor (Michelin star restaurant) in the UK, seasoned cocktail competition superstar, and creator of the ‘Hungry Bartender’ website.
Website: Coming Soon!
Learn to cook! I know strange advice, but you would be surprised at how many techniques and principles are shared across both disciplines. As you get on with your career you will find new and interesting ways to create flavour. The majority of the time this will come from homemade ingredients and infusions.
Extracting and creating maximum flavour comes down to temperature, time and measurement. All of which you can learn from a good cookbook. Even making a decent and consistent sugar syrup can be tricky if you are not measuring ingredients! With every cocktail, a balanced recipe must be followed. This is why we use jiggers. Even if you have made something 100 times, don’t do things by eye, it will never be exactly like the last one! I would Invest in a little notepad so you can jot down ideas and your own recipes along the way.
Knowing when ingredients perish is also important. As items degrade they lose their quality and this can vastly affect a cocktails taste. For Instance, freshly squeezed lemon and lime juice will stay at its best for up to 3 hours after it is squeezed. Periodically after it will lose its freshness and potency. I will never keep juice for more than 6 hours because I want my drinks to taste the best it can every time.
One final note would be salt. Salt acts as a flavour enhancer and works particularly well with fruit and coffee. Dave Arnold, author of ‘Liquid Intelligence’ wrote that salt is his secret weapon. I took his advice and made a saline solution to add a couple of drops to my drinks and I haven’t stopped since. Like any good chef will say, a pinch of salt makes all the difference.
Professional bartender & bar manager, bar consultant and co-creator of the ‘A Bar Above’ website, podcast and mixology certification course.
Advice for new bartenders:
Never stop learning
There is so much to learn behind the bar whether it’s education around beer, wine, cocktails or spirits, that you can spend an entire career just learning more about any one of these categories.
Develop your palette
Eat, drink and experience as much in the culinary world that you possibly can. Make a mental imprint of what each cocktail, wine or dish tastes like and develop your ability to sell each product to a guest. Your knowledge and enthusiasm about what you sell will make it easier to sell them to your guests.
Focus on developing your physical skills
Maximize each movement behind the bar on your slow shifts and this will help to payoff when it’s busy. For example, if you are taking an order from a guest and you notice an empty plate on the bar, finish taking the order from the guest and as you leave, clear the empty plate. You could also shake multiple cocktails at once, increasing your proficiency with your non dominant hand, and touching a bottle only once when building a round of drinks. All of these will payoff when you get into your busiest shifts, aka more money for you.
Build your network
Build relationships with vendors, everyone that you work with, and other bartenders in your area. Get to know and develop relationships with other hospitality professionals as they are on a similar career path as you, this is going to be a great investment if you plan on being in this industry for a long time.
Don’t forget why people go to bars
We are in the hospitality business and this should always be our main focus. People go out to bars to have a good time and hang out with their friends. Our job is to make sure they have a good time and provide a fun, exciting, safe atmosphere to enjoy a few drinks. Hopefully if we do this and build a connection with them, then you’ll have some new regulars.
CEO of Bar Patrol (helping bar owners & managers run a more profitable bar), 20-year industry vet, author of 5 industry books, blogger and all-around hilarious guy.
10 Things All Beginning Bartenders Should Know
In all my years of hiring and training bartenders, as well as going out to bars on my own, I have found there to be a WIDE range of bartenders out there, from the master mixologist who wears one of those ridiculous mad scientist aprons, to the muscle-guy working in the club with the god-complex, to the one in a smelly, food-stained tank-top who pours you a shot into a filthy glass while a cigarette dangles loosely from his lips.
For many who are just starting out, bartending can seem intimidating with all that you have to learn and the drinks you have to memorize, as well as trying to keep up with the break-neck pace and large crowds.
But understand this: BARTENDING IS NOT THAT HARD. It really isn’t. Well, let me rephrase: memorizing recipes and pouring liquid into a glass is not that hard, which is what most people think bartending is.
Refining your skills and providing awesome experiences for your guests takes someone who really cares about their job and takes pride in what they do, and that goes way beyond shaking up a martini or flipping bottles in the air so they can land on your elbow before you pour a drink.
So with that said, let’s talk about the 10 most important things you should know, beyond mixing drinks, if you’re looking to become a great bartender.
1. You’re not a bartender, you’re a customer relations rep.
This one is listed first for a reason. I know you’re all excited to be the mad scientist behind the bar, mixing up concoctions and impressing the opposite sex, but I’ll tell you something most bartenders aren’t aware of: people don’t come to the bar for your drinks.
Now don’t go crying in your beer. It’s not just you. People come to bars and restaurants for the experience, to get away from their hectic and stressful daily grind so they can be treated like royalty. THAT’S your job: to treat them as if you’re attempting to be included in their will. If your drinks are good, that adds to the experience, but great customer service is #1.
2. Know your products and where they’re located.
Nothing is worse than when someone asks, “Do you have Bud Light?” and your response is, “Uhhhhhhhh, maybe…”
Learn where everything is located behind the bar, as well as the back-up storage places and beer coolers and beyond. Fumbling around looking for bottles makes you look like a rookie. Guests come to watch the rock star bartending show, not doofus hour.
As a sub-category to this, know your menu—both cocktail and food—and know your garnishes. If you don’t know what goes on a margarita, turn in your Boston shaker right now.
3. Know your pour counts.
If you don’t know how to free pour, learn. Even if the place you work requires jiggers, you eventually might need to work at a place that only free pours. If the owner says, “We pour 1.5 oz. for mixed drinks,” you’d better know how to pour that much.
If you’re feeling shaky about your free pour, you can check out this video:
4. Don’t get caught up in the world of giving away drinks (a.k.a. stealing).
Conformity is contagious and there is no worse industry for theft than the bar industry. The retail industry loses about 1 – 2% of its products due to employee theft. The bar industry loses about 25% and $12 billion per year. Yep, that’s 12 BILLION, with a “B”.
Just because you see others around you does not mean it’s ok to be a thief and give away drinks or pour heavy for good tippers. Bartenders can make $40 – $60 per hour or more, so don’t be greedy and sell your ethics down the river.
5. Learn how to change a keg and CO2 tanks
You won’t have a bar back every shift and I guarantee that you will be required to change beer kegs and CO2 tanks from time to time. It’s not that difficult, but if you’ve never done it before it seems like you’re trying to crack the cipher from the Da Vinci Code. Have a veteran teach you so you don’t feel useless.
6. Don’t get obsessed with bad tippers.
I spent years doing this and as a sage veteran I’m going to tell you this right now: IT’S NOT WORTH IT. And you can’t do anything about it. Bad tippers will always tip bad no matter the service you give, so let it go. Bitching and whining about it and carrying it home with you at 2:00 a.m. won’t change anything. Not to mention the cancer you’re spreading to the other employees with your negativity. Just do your job well and it will all even out in the end.
7. Don’t be afraid to cut people off.
First off, it’s your job because wasted people who walk out of your bar and get into accidents are liability nightmares. Bartenders and bars have been sued because of these idiots more times than you can even imagine.
If you don’t feel comfortable cutting someone off, get your manager involved, but don’t just do nothing or you might end up regretting it.
8. Know the right follow-up questions to ask when drinks are ordered.
I’m talking about specific drinks like margaritas, martinis, manhattans, etc. For instance, when someone asks for a margarita, you need to ask: salt or no salt? Blended or on the rocks (assuming the bar has a blender)? For a martini: up or on the rocks? Would you like an olive, onion or twist? For a Manhattan, same question: up or on the rocks?
Any drink that has multiple preparation options, you need to figure out how the guest would like it prepared and possibly what garnish they would like if there are multiple options there as well.
9. Learn to upsell.
This sort of piggy-backs on the last one, because you will be asking them not only if they want their Manhattan up or on the rocks, but what type of bourbon or rye would they like. With upselling, you can ask them on every single drink they order what their favorite brand is. It goes like this:
Guest: “I’ll have a vodka/soda.”
You: “Sure, what’s your favorite vodka?”
8 times out of 10 they will choose a brand name vodka which is more money, and over the course of the night your sales skyrocket, as well as your tips.
10. Learn to multitask.
Speaking of skyrocketing tips, besides upping your sales by selling more expensive brands, the other way to bring in a truckload of cash is to learn how to multitask. The more drinks you make, the more sales you do, the more tips you bring in.
If you’re like grandma baking cookies on a Sunday afternoon back there, you’ll find yourself back at Subway crafting sandwiches before you know what hit you. Think efficiency. How can I group drinks together?
For example, if you had a list of stores you needed to drive to for your Christmas shopping and you wrote them down in order—Target, Sears, Toys R Us, Bed Bath and Beyond, Sports Authority—you would group the stores together by geographic location as to make your day more time efficient. You wouldn’t just go to the stores in the order you wrote them down. Same thing with making drinks: group them together. All the beers, all the wines, all the cocktails.
For more on how to multitask like a pro, you can check out this video:
I hope this helps all of you young, eager go-getters (or older, eager go-getters; I don’t discriminate). Just remember: it’s not about the liquid, it’s about the guests.
Cheers, until next time,
Dave Allred, TheRealBarman
Founder & co-owner of Death & Company, co-author of the ‘Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails’ book, and founder & co-owner of Proprietors LLC – a full-service hospitality company.
Advice for new bartenders:
There are more opportunities for great bartenders today than ever before, but the job keeps evolving. Learn as much as you can from your mentors behind the bar but don’t let it stop there. To continue to rise up and create a long and meaningful career, make sure you’re diversifying your skill set and communicating what you want long term to your managers and owners. They should help outline what you can do to get to where you want to go.
With that said, someone who is improving themselves and building robust knowledge outside of what happens behind the stick is someone who catches my attention and is who I’d turn to first with new opportunities. Professionalism in person and WRITTEN communication (a lost art thanks to email shorthand), becoming proficient in excel, fluency in PR and marketing, public speaking skills, understanding bar ergonomics and design – all of it (and so much more) will ensure that you can consistently climb the ladder. And, it almost goes without saying, everything you do matters. It’s a small industry and we know who acts unprofessionally in any setting, who is difficult to work with, who doesn’t respect his or her fellow employees.
Cheers! – Dave Kaplan
Bar writer & consultant, cocktail competition bartender, and founder of the ‘Bartender HQ’ website & podcast.
Advice for new bartenders:
The number one thing that new bartenders should focus on is hospitality. Information can be found pretty easily, even more in the age of iPhones. While the biggest thing for me used to be knowing your drinks at the drop of a hat, information is such a commodity now that what will differentiate you is your care for the guest.
The guest should never want for anything. Anticipate their needs. Find out their evening plans and make great recommendations for their next drink, or next destination if they’re not staying. Become a concierge for your town or city, know the best places to go and if you can, have contacts with those places and be able to have a table or seat at the bar waiting for them.
That is an insane level of service that will set you apart from the others in your industry more than anyone else.
The bartender formerly-known as Gary Regan and author of several bartending & cocktail books including ‘The Joy of Mixology’ & ‘The Negroni’ – all-in-all, a living legend.
Advice for new bartenders:
Dear Young Bartender:
Never ask a woman when her baby’s due. Trust me on this.
Author/poet Maya Angelou probably wasn’t thinking about bartenders when she said this, but it sure as hell applies to us: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
People will never forget how you made them feel.
If you’re going to survive behind the bar, you’ll have to learn how to make a decent drink, you must commit to long hours of hauling ice up from the basement, cutting lemon twists, squeezing fresh fruit for juices, and cleaning every inch of the bar before, during, and after every shift.
You’ll have to learn about carving ice and other such nonsenses in order to be in line with today’s standards, and you’ll need to know the flavor profiles of every single ingredient you use behind the bar.
And let’s face it, just about anyone can do all those things.
Not everyone can make their customers feel good, though. And if you make your customers feel good, they’ll never forget you. Your guests will never forget how you made them feel.
There is massive competition in today’s bartending community, and you’ll be tempted to join in the fray and going to outrageous lengths to bring attention to yourself.
You might invest in a dozen or more eye-catching tattoos, or perhaps, if you happen to be of the male persuasion, you’ll grow a long moustache that you braid and adorn with beads.
You can learn a few flair moves that are sure to make you the center of attention behind the bar, or you could, if you’re a woman, wear revealing tops, and drink shots of whiskey rather than sipping on so-called “girly drinks.” That’s sure to start people talking, right?
And no matter what gender you are, makeup can be a great tool if you want to draw attention to yourself, so if that is your want, go for it. Don’t be shy. Go for it.
Perhaps, instead of going toward physical traits to get yourself noticed, you’ll delve into molecular mixology, and get people talking about your ability to, say, create drinks that taste exactly like a great Bouillabaisse, or a Raspberry Pavlova. Or maybe you’ll be drawn toward the classic route, and make a name for yourself because your ability to achieve perfect balance is unparalleled in your geological area.
You’ll find, I believe, that tactics such as these will be rewarding, if you have the patience to work hard to achieve your goal. The cocktail community might herald your achievements, the media will, perhaps, feature you on television, or on the cover of magazines, and you could be sought out to make appearances at bartender conventions such as Tales of the Cocktail so that your adoring fans can fawn all over you and pay homage to your skills.
There’s nothing wrong with any of this. Believe me. But if you, for one second, start to believe that, because you’ve captured everyone’s attention you are, in some way, better than the homeless guy begging for quarters at the bus stop, you’ll be doing a dis-service to yourself, and to the bartending community at large.
Don’t take yourself too seriously, young bartender. You sling drinks for a living, for fuck’s sake. Big fuckin’ deal.
If you make your guests feel good, though, that is something in which you can take pride. You’re still no better than anyone else, but you can rest easy knowing that, in a small way, you’re changing the world.
Changing the world? Yes. You’re changing the world. Make one guest happier when he or she leaves your bar than they were when they walked in, and you’ve changed the world. It’s that simple. And if a million bartenders all over God’s green earth do the same thing on the same night, then the happy vibes will be palpable around the globe. Bartenders can change the world.
To paraphrase Ms Angelou, people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, and no matter how outrageously you dress, act, or appear, people will forget about that, too. But people will never forget how you made them feel.
I envy you the journey.
With Lots Love from,
Please note: This letter originally appeared on the Tales of the Cocktail website as a part of the Bacardi Company’s ongoing series ‘Letter to a young Bartender’. Gaz was kind enough to let me include this in the article.
The link to the original article can be found here: https://talesofthecocktail.com/culture/gaz-regans-letter-young-bartenders.
15+ year industry vet, professional bartender, and creator/producer of the widely popular BartendingPro YouTube channel.
What advice would you give to new bartenders starting out in today’s world?
The main thing to remember is that bartending isn’t about memorizing drink recipes, it’s about customer service and creating great experiences for your guests so they want to come back as repeat customers. That, and remember that you work in a business, and that if you can articulate to your owners/managers that you understand your job within the context of that business, where your main job is to give good service and increase customer retention, you will go a long way to becoming an extremely valuable asset to your establishment. This is how you climb the ranks, get the good shifts, and ensure you are nearly irreplaceable as an employee.
No one ever starts with experience and to get started you almost always have to start in a different or lower position besides bartender. Then show your value (see above), and be clear about your intentions to move up and have the patience to know that as long as you are a valuable employee, you’re going to get your shot sooner or later.
What advice should they ignore?
Unless you really just want to be a walking encyclopedia of drink recipes, ignore the idea perpetuated by some (*cough* bartending schools in the U.S. *cough*) that you need to memorize hundreds of drink recipes to be a good bartender. This simply isn’t true, and is a waste of time when you would do better to focus on your interpersonal people skills, joining a toast masters, getting comfortable talking with strangers; this will go waaaaaaay further to helping you succeed out in there in a real world bar than simply have rote memory of an endless list of adult beverage recipes.
Professional bartender, bar manager, bar consultant, and creator of the ‘Be a Better Bartender’ website.
Advice for new bartenders:
My biggest advice for new bartenders is not to learn bad habits
There are certain companies that I won’t hire bartenders from without a trial week because most of the time they have picked up bad habits that can’t be sorted out quickly.
Too many new bartenders don’t realise that this is an industry that is customer facing first, being nice costs nothing and that really makes the difference between a good bartender and bad bartender
Go to as many tastings and talks as possible.
Don’t get drunk in front of the people you have served.
Learn something new every week – make this a mission.
Don’t be afraid to fail – everyone starts somewhere.
+10 year industry vet, former brand ambassador for Hendricks Gin, and co-founder of the ‘Bartender Atlas’ website.
What advice would you give to new bartenders starting out in today’s world?
You know nothing. Seriously, there is always someone that has been doing something for longer and better than you. The good news is that those people, especially in this glorious technologically advanced age, are usually willing to share what they know with you. Websites and books about bartending, bitters, spirits production and even menu design are everywhere but the best way to learn is in person.
So when you see that some brand ambassador or distiller or bartender doing a seminar in your neighbourhood, you should go. If you live somewhere off the beaten path, that usually gets skipped, start saving money to make trips to places that don’t. It behoves brands to have educated people pouring their products and there are ample opportunities for you to learn, and to keep learning.
Steve the Bartender
Founder & owner of the ‘Steve the Bartender’ private event bartending company, founder & owner of the ‘Cocktail Kit Online Barware Store,’ and a classic Aussie bloke.
Advice for new bartenders:
When getting started, be a sponge and soak up as much information as you can by attending all your local industry and tasting events, continually read books (especially if you want to be proficient in cocktails) and network with other bartenders. Bartending is all about making your guests happy so it helps to be confident, friendly and personable. Don’t get caught up in the pretension within the industry and always remember that customer service needs to be front of mind with everything you do.
If you are looking for your first position in the industry then remember that the person doing the hiring is looking for someone that is reliable and willing to learn, not necessarily the most experienced.
What About You?
Let’s make this a conversation – if you’ve got some advice that you think would be useful to new bartenders, please share it in the comments section below. You never know what someone might get out of it and it may help the next generation hit their goals.