When and How to Cut Someone Off

Cutting off drunks can be tough… Especially when you’ve never done it before. There’s something inherently intimidating about trying to cut someone off when their acting obnoxious, loud, rowdy and they’ve had too much to drink. 

Some bartenders are afraid of what the customer might say or do. Others may even be concerned about what the boss will think if you cut off one of their “big spenders”.

But this is an important part of being a bartender.

If you struggle with it, I understand. I also used to find it difficult and the first few times I tried to cut someone off, things didn’t work out as smoothly as I’d hoped.

Because I was intimidated, I was too blunt and aggressive in my approach and as you’d expect, the customer didn’t react very well. But the more I did it, the better I got at it. And over time, I learned the tricks of the trade & adopted a more tactful approach. 

This is important because if you don’t know how to cut people off well, you’ll be at the whim of your customer’s alcohol habits and things can go wrong.

A heavily intoxicated patron is a danger to themselves, other people and you. As the bartender, it’s your responsibility to step up and ‘help’ this person so that everyone has a good night & gets home safely.

There can be serious consequences if you don’t.

Why This is Important

The importance of cutting people should not be understated. Not handling an intoxicated patron properly can have serious repercussions for you, your boss, other customers and the drunk themselves.

First of all, someone who’s had too much to drink can ruin the atmosphere at your bar and bother other customers. If not handled properly, the ‘sober’ customers may feel uncomfortable & want to leave. One slip up like this may mean you never see these customers again.

Secondly, you and the boss have legal obligations. Do you remember that alcohol awareness program you may have had to pass in order to legally tend the bar?

Learning how to serve alcohol responsibly and becoming aware of liquor laws like serving intoxicated patrons is what that was all about.

Essentially, bartenders and venues have a duty of care to their customers. They are responsible for what happens to them at the bar and after they leave. If a customer leaves blind drunk, trips over & breaks their arm, technically, you’re responsible. And this customer could potentially sue the venue for damages

On top of that duty of care, if you’re caught serving an intoxicated customer, you could be fined up to $11,000 and the venue could be fined up to $20,000

You don’t want to be hit with a fine like this on Saturday night.

Finally and most importantly, an intoxicated patron is a danger to themselves and other people. They could slip, fall, and knock their head. Or they may start a fight with another customer or even you…

God forbid, they attempt to drive home and put children, parents, friends, & strangers at risk for no fault of their own…

**Note** If you ever catch wind that an intoxicated customer is trying to drive, stop them immediately & order a cab for them instead.

All of this can be avoided if you know when to cut someone off before things get out of hand.

When To Cut Someone Off

When to cut someone off

As with most things in bartending, the limit you start to cut someone off will depend on where in the world you’re bartending & the venue you’re working for.

If you’re not sure what those limits are, ask your manager.

Some venues can be extremely lax. They’ll give people the benefit of the doubt until they start a fight or fall asleep. Other venues are really strict as a matter of principle. One sign of intoxication and the customer will be on the waters for the rest of the night.

Some customers are also given more slack than others. For instance, if the owner comes in with a few of his friend’s and they’re already drunk, it’s going to be very hard to suggest they start drinking water.

I’ve worked in bars where the owners were blind drunk with their friends and there was no question that we’d be able to cut them off without putting our jobs on the line.

In these situations, it’s better to hand it off to your manager. If you are the manager, it’s time to step up and show your team how it’s done!

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at some common signs of intoxication.

Common Signs of Intoxication:

  • Slurred speech
  • Bloodshot & glazed eyes.
  • Strong alcohol smell from their breath
  • Ordered several drinks (shots, etc) in quick succession
  • Swaying, staggering, stumbling
  • Inappropriate behavior
  • Overly loud, boisterous, animated, or entertaining.
  • Bothering other guests
  • Rambling train of thought or losing it altogether
  • Increased clumsiness – spilling drinks, dropping phone, etc
  • Falling asleep

This is by no means is an extensive list and just because someone is being entertaining, doesn’t mean they’re drunk!

Choosing when to cut someone off will always be a judgment call. With some customers, it’s obvious. With others, they can be very good at hiding how drunk they really are. In any case, you’ll have to look at the situation as a whole, weigh everything up and make a decision.

With practice, you’ll get a better feel for how someone looks and acts when they’ve had too much.

How to Cut Someone Off

Now comes the delicate part – cutting someone off.

It’s a delicate situation because when you cut someone off the wrong way, you can cause unnecessary confrontation. This may be inevitable, but by approaching intoxicated patrons in the right way, you can avoid it as much as possible.

Strangely enough, it all starts with your mindset.

When you’re cutting someone off, you want to have the mindset that you’re helping them out. That you’re on their team (Jeffrey Morgenthaler wrote a great post on this here). This is so important because if you don’t care about your customer, you’ll act that way when you tell them they’ve had too much.

This can lead to blunt & aggressive approaches (seeing them ‘as the enemy’), or just treating them as a nuisance & potentially embarrassing them in front of their friends.

When you cut someone off like this, it’s likely that they’ll react aggressively. This is the last way you want an intoxicated customer to react because it will just escalate the situation.

You want to do the opposite, DE-ESCALATE.

You do this by having your guests’ best interests in mind. Instead of saying NO!, offer them a glass of water,a  coffee or bring them some food from the kitchen. Show them that you care about them by going that extra mile. This goes a long way, especially if they’re a regular.

You also need to avoid embarrassing them. If they’re with their friends, take them to the side and tell them privately that you’re unable to serve them. More often than not, confrontation occurs when your guest feels like they need to defend themselves in front of others.

Telling someone they’re drunk whilst others can see & laugh is like pouring fuel on the fire. It doesn’t end well.

Finally, be strong, be confident and be firm. Once you’ve made the decision to cut someone off, stick with it. You’re in the right here and it’s always better to err on the side of caution. There are real consequences if you don’t.

If necessary, bring in security, other bartenders & managers to back you up when things get out of hand. Rest assured, if they do get out of hand, you can be confident that you made the right decision.

The Approach

How to cut someone off - The Approach

Once you’ve decided to cut someone off, inform all the other bartenders, servers, & managers you’re working with so they don’t serve them accidentally. Then use one of the approaches below.

Different bartenders have different ways of cutting people off and different venues will call for different approaches. So how you choose that approach will depend on your personality and the venue you’re working for.

For that reason, I’ve listed several strategies below that you can pick & choose.

You don’t need to know all of them. 2 to 3 approaches is more than enough. But the more familiar you are with all the approaches, the more flexible you can be when your guests have had too much.

I’ve organized the approaches into indirect & direct. The indirect approaches are the ones where you don’t have to confront the patron directly. The opposite is true for the direct approaches.

You should have at least 1 of each in your arsenal. An indirect approach to try first. Then a direct approach if the indirect one doesn’t work.

Indirect Approaches

Enlist the help of friends: This is a great strategy if the intoxicated person has sober friends that could help out. Inform the drunk’s friends of the situation and that you’re unable to serve them anymore. Then, the friends will be able to break the news to them more lightly.

**Note** This strategy doesn’t work if they’re all drunk & rowdy.

Serve non-alcoholic drinks instead: This is one of my favorites. Instead of stopping to serve them altogether, sever them as you normally would except pour non-alcohol versions instead (e.g. soda & lime, tonic & lime). A lot of the time, they won’t notice the difference. If they do notice the difference, they may get the hint & stop asking to be served. If they don’t, use a more direct approach.

Say nothing & give them a glass of water: Then proceed to ignore the customer for as long as possible. This works well if it’s busy but it’s less subtle than the strategies above. They’ll either get the hint or ‘demand’ to be served properly. If the latter occurs, proceed with one of the more direct approaches. 

Serve one last round & let them know it’s their last drink: This approach is awesome. It allows the customer to nurse their final drink for as long as possible and it means they won’t be cut off unsuspectingly. That reduces the chance of confrontation significantly so use this approach every chance you get.

Direct Approaches

Direct approaches can be misinterpreted as rude or aggressive. But direct doesn’t mean you yell, “You’re too drunk! That’s it, you’re DONE.” Remember, you’re ‘helping them out’ even if they’re acting obnoxious, rude and aggressive themselves.

Don’t stoop to their level, it will just escalate the situation. Stay calm and be sincere when you use the direct approaches.

Use the Law: “I’m sorry, but I’m legally unable to serve you (pointing to alcohol certification laws if possible). If I do, I could get fined or lose my job.” This is a solid argument you can lean on that most customers will understand.

Deflect the blame: Intoxicated patrons will often blame you for cutting them off. When you deflect that blame towards someone else (like your manager), they’ve got no-one to confront right there. This reduces the likelihood of confrontation immensely. And usually, the situation will fizzle out from there because it gives them enough time to calm down and accept the decision.

I’m sorry, but my manager has told me I’m unable to serve you any more.” If they complain, simply say “There’s nothing I can do.

If they ask to see the manager, don’t bring them over immediately. Say, “I’m not sure where they are right now, but they should be back soon.” If they continue to persist, inform your manager or security so they can go over & put the finishing touches on.

You’re a good guy: This works great as it can bypass someone’s defenses quickly when they think you’re their friend. “Hey man, you seem like a really good guy. So I’m sorry that I have to do this, but I’m unable to serve you any more or I’ll lose my job.

Straight Talk: For the bolder (and presumably with a security team behind you), “I think you’ve had enough to drink.” End of discussion. If they persist, “Do I need to ask you to leave (or call security)?

Sometimes, it’s necessary to be this blunt but whilst it’s effective, it’s important to realise it can backfire as well.

Security! As a last resort, you can call security to sort out any problems. It’s always better to let them handle confrontational customers as they’ve been hired & trained for that specific purpose.

If you don’t have a security team behind you, get your manager and any other senior bartenders to help you out.

For more scripts & strategies, check out Bars & Bartending’s advice.

Things to Keep an Eye Out For

Once you’ve cut someone off, there are two things you need to keep an eye out for.

  • Friends buying the drunk drinks
  • The drunk getting confrontational

In both of these cases, the only way forward is to ask the customer to leave.

Some customers will get their friends to buy them drinks when they’ve been cut off. This can be hard to stop if you don’t have a solid view of the entire venue but if you do suspect a friend buying them a drink, ask them “Who are these drinks for? The reason I ask is that your friend has been cut off and if he has anything else to drink, I’ll have to ask him to leave.

Sometimes, that’s enough.

When the customer gets confrontational, it’s best to pass the situation over to security or management so they can escort them off the premises.

If you’re on your own and the customer refuses to leave or ramps up the confrontation, inform them that you’ll have to call the police. If they persist, head off & call the police.

Whatever you do, don’t get into a fight. It’s not worth it.

Don’t worry, these situations hardly ever happen. If you remain calm and you’re not aggressive when you’re communicating with your customer, you’ve got very little to worry about.

Good luck, stay strong, and happy New Year!

Founder of Crafty Bartending, Tom is passionate about the hospitality industry. For the past 5 years, he has traveled around Europe, Asia, & Australia working as a professional bartender & bar manager. He loves consuming cookies, big macs, beer and wine.

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