So, you want to be a bartender, eh?  You’ve been witness to the awesomeness that is an endless string of girls (or guys) praying at the alter of your bar, dropping digits and drooling on you as if you’re giving away freebase at Phoenix House’s gates.  You’ve imagined counting stacks of hundred dollar bills you’ve earned after a shift at Da Club.  You can’t stand your boring, fluorescently light lit, Neo-like cubicle grunt office job, want to sleep like a vampire and banish the alarm clock.  

It’s not for everyone but these are all highly desirable benefits.  I’ll avoid the conversations about career choice, becoming trapped in a blue-collar job, and what your W.A.S.P’y Wharton MBA and parents will think or how it might affect your future aspirations to be President.
Most bartenders I’ve come across have unfortunately never had formal training.  Taking things a bit further, there are some extremely succesful bartenders out there without formal training who will suggest you don’t need any either.  You actually don’t need it to get a job.  You do not need a certificate or the like – they’re meaningless (with the exception of the T.I.P.S. certification).  You can easily buy that little red Mr. Boston or the like, use flashcards to memorize drinks, and walk the beat filling out applications and submitting your resume.  You may get a job, but your chances will be slim if that’s your only preparation.  Do yourself a favor and be armed with everything and anything that can help your career especially if you’re green.

By the way, Mr. Boston is garbage.  If you run across a bartender or bar where it’s prominently displayed or worse, referred to when you order your Perfect Manhattan up with a twist, politely retract your order and run for the hills.  This is not a bar where you want to order a mixed drink or any drink outside a beer or glass of wine.  This is clearly amateur hour. 

Any and all training, as well as experience, a you can arm yourself with like almost any other job is to your advantage in getting and keeping a bartending gig. Do yourself a big favor – pay for and take the often viewed as ridiculous and unnecessary bartending class.  The difference between someone who has taken it and someone who hasn’t runs the gamut of:

  • T.I.P.S certification (Training for Intervention ProcedureS).  In other words, how to handle drunkards and other problematic customers.  This can be a huge win in terms of safety all-around, dealing with clearly inebriated customers who demand more drinks, making everyone feel as if they’ve won, legal liability should something terrible occur, and keeping the bar revenues and gratuities flowing even from someone you’ve cut off.
  • Knowing and being able to visualize and/or count 1.5oz and 3.0oz and their multiples, the standard or legal spirits quantities.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen befuddled inexperienced bartenders either get the deer stare or waste about 1/2 bottle of premium booze when a large party calls for a boatload of mixed shots like Washington Apples or the like.  Worse, I’ve seen noobs and barkeeps who’ve been on the job for years toss 6oz of top-shelf whiskey or gin into a shaker and throw out half after it won’t fit in the glass. This is unfortunately rampant with non-front-of-the-house service bartenders.
  • Knowing that “whiskey,” unqualified, usually refers to Rye.  
  • Knowing the differences between Rye, Bourbon, Sour Mash (Jack Daniels), Scotch, Irish Whiskey, etc.  Most people have no clue whatsoever.  
  • Understanding ice.  When to use it and why.  Most amateurs will overflow the glass with ice and have mixed drinks in particular spilling over the edges and making a huge mess. Very unprofessional.  A drink calling for ice should be filled 1/4 – 1/2 inch from the rim – period.  
  • Understanding the Martini process and how temperature plays into smoothness (not necessarily watered down).
  • Using the mixing glass and large shaker.  A myriad of bartenders are clueless as to how to separate a standard 16oz glass shaker (pint glass) from a metal shaker, won’t use the two in conjunction as a result and claim they often get “stuck.” Jesus Christmas! They are intended  to stick together to allow you to shake your drink properly.  Finish your shaking then give the combo a moderate bang with the butt of your free hand, at 90 degrees of the lean, while holding the set upright with the other.  The glass will break free every time with a little practice.  DO NOT bang them on the bar!
  • Purposes of the small and large shakers and 16oz mixing glass
  • What the trough is for and keeping your bar clean
  • Backbar and Doghouse
  • Differences and uses of Aperitifs and Digestifs
  • Basic wine understanding.  Unless you’re running a dive bar or dirty pub, you need to understand at least very basic grape varieties and food pairings.  Be able to make recommendations.  You don’t need to be a Sommelier but don’t make yourself look like an ass not knowing the simple stuff like sweet/dessert, full bodied dry, light semi-sweet, fruity middle-ground, earthy, oaky, grassy, tannic and the like.  You’re a professional (definition: primary source of income derived from…).  Know your business.
  • Condiments, which drinks get which garnishes and why.  Believe it or not, an insane number of so-called “professionals” do not know that anything with tonic automatically gets a lime or that a “Sour” is not a sour unless it has an orange and a cherry.  
  • Twists are not simply garnishes and they are not equal to slices/wedges (customers are often oblivious to this fact as well and create problems when ordering as a result).  Twists refer to lemon twists unless otherwise stated.  Some drinks to call for orange twists or peels.  In any case, if you roll and subsequently twist a lemon peel, you will notice lemon oil oozing from it’s pores.  This is what you after and want to rub on the rim of the glass in question then dunk into usually prior to pouring the cocktail.  The lemon oil creates a subtle but detectable/delectable taste nuance that alters the character of the drink in question often balancing out other delicate flavors.
  • Proportions.  A Margarita is not equar parts Tequila, Triple Sec, Roses Lime Juice and sour mix unshaken.  Yuck!
  • Simple syrup vs. Lemon X
  • Understanding what a Julip and Spring strainers are for
  • Knowing that every drink served with ice gets a straw.  Drinks wihout ice do not  get straws unless the customer requests one.  Do you know how many times I’ve seen bartenders attempt to throw in both sip and full-size straws in an up Martini???
I can go on forever but you get the gist.  Granted, some of these items can be learned on the job and will be learned on the job at times, in most cases, you will not receive all the training in that fashion. Just like most other jobs, your professionalism, abilities and knowledge are a result of a combination of formal training and experience.  Having both, combined with your personality and interpersonal skills, is clearly evident in your confidence on interviews, first provisional shift on the job where the owner/manager is evaluating you, your confidence in interaction with customers, etc.  and subsequently, your income.  

Take the class.  It’s well worth it.  Read as many books as you can. Keep in mind, however… there is a world of difference between an someone who has worked at half-a-dozen bars and an idiot that just got out of school with a  bullshit certificate and  endless optimism.  Use the training for what it is – a tool in your arsenal of knowledge, not a meaningless piece of paper issued by a school with no authority or industry recognition. 

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