It’s embarrassing when you’re a bartender, a customer asks you for a basic cocktail, and you’re not sure how to make it because you’ve forgotten the recipe. Not only does it look unprofessional, it’s a huge time waster too.
Instead of being able to quickly pump out the drink and move onto the next customer, you spend precious minutes annoying your fellow bartenders asking them how to make it, flicking through a cocktail book, or whipping out your phone to google the recipe.
And when you’ve finally finished making the drink, the customer is clearly annoyed that it’s taken so long, so they tip you less. On top of that, there are other customers impatiently waiting to be served also.
The longer they wait, the less they’re going to tip you too. And if one of them orders another cocktail that you don’t remember, you’re not going to have a good night…
That’s why memorizing cocktail recipes is important.
Because when you know the recipes like the back of your hand, this stuff doesn’t happen. If a customer orders a cocktail, you’ll be able to quickly make it and move onto the next customer.
This leads to more money in your back pocket and a more enjoyable night in general.
So that’s what we’re going to go through today. You’re going to learn about drink classifications, the best practices experienced bartenders use to memorize cocktail recipes, and I’ll even talk about some more advanced memory techniques that you can apply to anything.
But before we get to all of that, let’s figure out what recipes you need to memorize in the first place.
What do YOU Need to Memorise?
**Note** For the sake of simplicity, I’m not including highballs like scotch & coke, gin & tonic, and vodka & soda, as cocktails. For the most part, these recipes are self-explanatory.
There’s no point in learning 1,000 cocktail recipes you’re never going to make.
In general, most bars will only require you to make the same few cocktails over and over again. And that number of cocktails usually ranges between 20-50 different recipes.
To be an effective bartender for that venue, all you need to do is figure out what those cocktails are and commit them to memory. That should solve most of your problems.
So before we get into actual memory techniques, you need to find out what cocktails the bar you work for serves on a regular basis so you can memorize these recipes first.
To find out what these cocktails are, simply ask management and the more experienced bartenders you work with. They’ll be able to tell you exactly what you need to remember and what the recipe is too.
That second point is important. Because cocktail recipes can be different everywhere you go. From country to country and from bar to bar. So you want to make sure that the recipes you’re memorizing are the right ones!
Once you’ve got the essentials down, you can start exploring different cocktail recipes that aren’t as commonly served in your bar, but still important to know about. The Sazerac comes to mind, as do the most popular cocktails every bartender should know.
With all of these recipes committed to memory, life as a bartender will be pretty sweet.
Understanding Drink Classifications
When you hear about bartenders who have memorized over a thousand different cocktail recipes, it sounds impressive. And it probably makes you wonder how the hell they’ve managed to memorize so many.
So I’m going to let you in on a little secret. A lot of these recipes are THE SAME!
Well, at the very least, they’re VERY similar. There’s such a thing known as drink classifications/families because a lot of cocktails have similar recipes even though they’re called something completely different.
When you realize how similar these recipes are, it makes “memorizing” them a lot easier.
Take a look at this video by David Sangwell from Bartender HQ for more details.
This makes sense because when you need to learn hundreds of different recipes, you HAVE to break it down. And that’s where drink classifications can really help.
For example, when you know that the Cosmo, Sidecar, and Margarita are apart of the same drink classification because they’re the same except for the base spirit (the Cosmo also calls for the addition of cranberry juice to add color), you essentially get to memorize 3 recipes in one.
This is one of the many reasons why every bartender should check out Gary Regan’s book ‘The Joy of Mixology,’ because he breaks down the different drink classifications into crazy detail.
To help get you started, see below for some of the more important ones.
Important Drink Classifications:
- Sour: Base spirit, citrus, sugar – egg white is occasionally added (Whiskey sour, Amaretto sour)
- Sparkling sour: Sour with sparkling/soda water (Tom Collins, Long-Island Ice tea)
- Fizz: Sparkling sour with egg white (Gin fizz, vodka fizz)
- International/New Orleans Sour: Sour with the addition of a liqueur as the sweetener (Cosmo, Margarita, Sidecar)
- Muddled: Drinks that require you to use a muddler (Caprioska, old-fashioned, Mojito)
- French-Italian: Drinks that rely on vermouth (Martini, Manhattan)
- Tiki: Tropical cocktails with lots of rum & fruit juice (Mai Tai, Pina colada, Zombie)
- Milanese: Cocktails that call for Campari (Negroni, Americano)
Now, let’s get to some specific tools/tactics you can use to commit a bunch of cocktail recipes to memory.
Ask an experienced bartender how they’ve memorized hundreds of cocktail recipes and they’ll usually say the same thing, “by making them over and over again.”
In other words, through repetition.
When you watch one of these bartenders making cocktails, they don’t even think about what they’re pouring. They’ve made these drinks so many times that they’ve committed the recipes to ‘muscle-memory.’ And that’s how they’re able to pump out these cocktails so fast.
The ONLY way you can get to this kind level is through repetition. You have to make the same cocktails over and over again, day-in and day-out, for months.
This is an important point to drive home. Because if you’re truly going to memorize a cocktail recipe & make it fast, you need to make it over and over again until you don’t need to think about it.
But repetition is only one-half of the story.
It doesn’t help telling a beginner who knows’s nothing about cocktails, that in order for them to “memorize” the recipes, they need to make them over and over again. They don’t even know what goes in them so how are they going to make them?
The answer is, they won’t!
You need to memorize what the recipes are first before you can start repetitiously making them. Otherwise, you’ll still have to consult your fellow bartenders, run back & forth between a cocktail book, or pull out your phone to search for the recipe on google.
Repetition will cement the memorization of cocktail recipes but it won’t help you conquer the beginning stages of memorization.
That’s what the rest of these techniques are for.
I used to work with a bartender called Chris Menning (check out this awesome video of him here). He’s a great guy and he’s an awesome bartender too.
Before we worked together, he worked in a cocktail bar that required him to memorize over 250 recipes within a couple of months. And in order for him to be a bartender there, he was tested on those recipes before he was officially accepted into the team.
Needless to say, repetition wasn’t an option. He had to memorize all of these recipes BEFORE he could repetitiously make them.
So I asked him how he did it and he told me that his secret weapon was flash cards. Flash cards allowed him to memorize all of these recipes that he’d never even made before…
And he’s not the only one. Flash cards have been the secret weapon of bartenders for years and they’ve proven to be extremely effective:
- Ron Crosnick, bartending industry vet, talks about how he used flash cards to memorize cocktails in his Quora answer here.
- r/bartenders users talk about how they use flash cards to memorize recipes here.
Of all the memorization techniques we can talk about, flash cards are probably the most effective & simplest way to quickly memorize different cocktail recipes. So I highly recommend that you look into using them.
Sure, they require a little bit of upfront work to make them. But that upfront work is worth it. Especially if you’re writing them out by hand. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something about writing things down that helps you remember things more clearly…
That’s always an added bonus.
Flash Cards in Action:
- Invest in some 3” by 5” flash cards. You should be able to find these at any office ware store.
- Write down the name of the cocktail on one side of the flash card (if possible, use the color of the drink either as the paper or pen).
- Put the number of the ingredients at the end of the name. For example, Margarita 4. This helps enormously when you’re making a cocktail and you’re not sure if you’ve added all the ingredients (it happens). If you’ve only added 4 out of the 5 and you know that there should be 5, it will help you recall what the last one is.
- Write down the recipe of the cocktail on the other side, including how it’s made & the proportions – muddle, stir, shake, 15ml, 1oz, etc.
- Add any drink ordering terminology that’s important – straight up, on the rocks, sweet, etc, on the same side as the recipe (only necessary if you’re not sure of the basics).
Then you need to read, test yourself, and practice as much as you can. How do you do that?
Read the name of the cocktail on the front side of the flash card and then attempt to recall what the recipe is on the back without looking at it. If you can’t remember, turn over the card to have a look, and then move onto the next recipe.
Continue to practice until you know all the recipes by heart.
It’s worth noting that this is a great exercise to practice with your fellow bartenders who also want to learn the recipes. Test each other whilst you’re at work and not only will you be helping each other out, but it will make the entire process a lot more fun too.
The Perfect Combo?
Flash cards are great. They’re effective, simple, and easy to use. And you can be extremely precise with what you’re trying to memorize.
In my opinion, they’re the best tool for beginners to use to memorize the most important recipes they need to know. And when you combine flash cards with the power of repetition, you may have stumbled onto the perfect combo.
The flash cards help you commit the recipes to memory, and the repetition cements that memorization forever.
But there are other methods that you can use to effectively commit recipes to your memory as well. They’re slightly more advanced than flash cards which is why I personally prefer flash cards.
But you can certainly use these instead.
Memorization by Association
The concept is simple but powerful. What you do is turn the recipe you’re trying to remember into a memorable phrase.
For example, let’s say you’re trying to remember the recipe for the Sex on the Beach cocktail. You learn that this recipe requires Vodka, Peach Schnapps, Cranberry Juice, and Orange Juice. So you create a little phrase that represents these ingredients.
That phrase could be “Very Pretty Or Cute?”
‘Very’ stands for Vodka, ‘Pretty’ stands for Peach Schnapps, ‘Or’ stands for Orange Juice, and ‘Cute’ stands for Cranberry juice.
Believe it or not, these tricks work. And whenever you’ll need to make a Sex on the Beach cocktail, you’ll remember the phrase “Very Pretty or Cute?” That will help you quickly recall the ingredients and make the cocktail from there.
But the problem with these phrases is that you can’t be as specific with what you want to memorize. For example, you can’t memorize the specific amounts of each ingredient as well as the method for making the cocktail.
For those reasons, flash cards are a more effective tool for beginners.
But if you already know a lot about cocktails, creating balance, ratios, and bartending techniques in general, memorization by association is a very powerful technique.
Then we move onto the more advanced mnemonic memory devices. These memory techniques have been around for thousands of years and they’ve have been used by some of the great minds like Plato and Aristotle.
If you’ve ever seen the T.V. series Sherlock, he uses a mnemonic system called the ‘memory palace‘ to remember a vast amount of information.
And if you watched David Sangwell’s video above, you’ll have noticed that he mentioned using these mnemonic systems to learn over 700 cocktail recipes as well.
These memory systems are EXTREMELY effective. But they’re also highly advanced and will require you to learn a new set of skills in order to use them.
That’s one of the main reason why I recommend beginners stick with flash cards first because when you’re already trying to learn about bartending & cocktails, the last thing you want to do is learn about your memory as well.
These systems are too complicated to go into now, but I wanted to mention them here because they can be useful. And you can use them for more than just memorizing cocktail recipes.
For example, you could use them to remember all of your customer’s names and their favorite drink even if you’ve only served them once…
That’s how effective these systems are.
If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you check out the book “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer. ‘The Art of Memory’ website is also a great online resource you can look into.
For a look at how to specifically apply these systems to cocktail recipes, check out this article here.
What if you Forget a Recipe?
Then you’ll be FIRED!
Only joking. Don’t worry, we all forget recipes every now and then. So it’s not the end of the world. IF you forget a recipe mid-shift, ask your fellow bartenders, google it, or consult a recipe book.
Even though it looks unprofessional, annoys your the other bartenders, and means that the customer will have to wait a little longer, at least they’re going to get the drink they ordered.
With the realization that you haven’t adequately memorized this recipe yet, add it to your flash card collection, or create a memorization by association phrase around it, so you don’t forget it again.
Whatever you do, DON’T tell the customer that you can’t make it. Find out how to make and MAKE IT!
If you find that you’re continuously forgetting recipes, it means that you haven’t learned them well enough in the first place. So go back to your flash cards and practice.
There’s no easy way around this. You have to put in the work but it’s worth it. Because it will help you make drinks faster and make more money in the long run!
Good luck! And If you’ve got any questions, make sure you ask in the comments section below.
Not sure where to start? – Make sure you check out the cheat sheet below.