The Truth About Bartending Certifications and Licensing

Man. Way too many folks love them some gilded-lettered, framed certificates in Gothic fonts, don’t they? It seems to make dudes pump out their chests just a little bit higher. Chicks tend to strut and hold their chins up just a wee bit more, huh? Well, today, we’re gonna set the record straight once and for all when it comes to Certifications and Licensing in the bartending profession.

This blog is focused on New York City. So let’s begin there.

In NYC, there is no such thing as a “bartending license.” Anyone who tells you otherwise is either (a) a scam artist or (b) a n00b restauranteur, who has is the lucky recipient of Aunt Edna’s multi-million dollar inheritance, trying his/her hand at the Hospitality business for the first time. Any moron, with anywhere from zero to decades of experience, is legally entitled to get behind the stick. The only requirement, from The Man’s perspective, is that he/she be 18 years old – the age of adulthood . No, that doesn’t mean their entitled to consume hooch. Being lucky enough to land a bartending job at that age does not mean you’re entitled to skirt the law. The drinking age in New York State remains 21 years of age.

There are, however, certain establishments that may suggest or even require you to hold certain course completion certificates. In most cases, there is no legal requirement – just the owner’s whim. The exception is the Food Handler’s Certificate. Every restaurant is required to have at least one staff member (usually a supervisor or some sort) certified by the Department of Health. In rare instances (very small bar/restaurants or boutique hotels), that person may very well be the bartender. Again, very few NYC bars currently require this certification from bartending prospects. But the increasing instances of it being mentioned as a “preferred qualification” on the almighty Craigslist are worth noting.

Next, we have the T.I.P.S. or A.T.A.P. programs. T.I.P.S. is an acronym for Training for Intervention Procedures. Similarly, A.T.A.P. is an acronym for Alcohol Training and Awareness Program.

T.I.P.S. is a privately held company and certification program that many larger employers require. In some cases, the certification requirement is liability and insurance premium-driven.

Like many other things New York does, I’m at a loss to explain A.T.A.P. It’s essentially, New York State’s equivalent to T.I.P.S. It’s set of standards and training ideals created and by the New York State Liquor Authority and it’s ABC Laws. The courses, however, are administered by State-certified third parties. Regardless, the goal is the same as T.I.P.S. When I took my – gulp – bartending course way back in the Mezzozoic age, T.I.P.S. was the only game in town and thus, the certification I received.

Laws in other states, and even local municipalities within those states, vary wildly. It’s nearly impossible to cover them all within the context of this article. For example:

Nevada: T.A.M. (Techniques of Alcohol Management). You must be card-carrying pledge in order to even be considered for bartending job in Sin City. It’s a legal requirement. Outside of Las Vegas, laws may vary. This effort is aimed primarily at the large-scale casino, nightclub, restaurant and lounge businesses in the LV area that do monster-business.

Texas: T.A.B.C. (Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission) license. Yes, you actually need to be licenses in Texas to sling hooch.

Wisconsin: Learn2Serve certification required.

Washington: Alcohol server permit required.

Most other states strongly recommend that anyone who serve alcohol commercially, participate in generally accepted industry awareness programs such as the aforementioned T.I.P.S. program. Illinois for example, encourages servers to complete their B.A.S.S.E.T (Beverage Alcohol Sellers and Servers Education and Training).

Bartending school “certificates” and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of ponying up for such a course, has been previously discussed ad nauseum. I won’t get into the pros or cons here yet again. There are some great articles on the topic here, here and here. It suffices to say that from a practical standpoint, no such certificate is required nor reccomended in any establishment I’ve ever worked in, applied to, or frequented in New York City. It’s a myth. That’s not to say there’s nothing to be gleaned from actually completing those courses. In some cases, they’re worthwhile. In many other instances, they’re entirely a waste of money.

Over the decades, a handful of ambitious folks have attempted to somewhat “legitimize” the profession through programs such as (1) cocktail recipe standardization (2) uniform training requirements (3) attempts at certification and other ambitious programs. I’m guessing they’ve all felt some deep desire to bring a “higher level of respect” to the craft to some extent, and perhaps even encourage “unionization.” Unfortunately (or fortunately – depending on your perspective) none of them have blazed even the faintest trail in New York City. “IBA” (International Bartenders Association) is probably the largest and most visible example today.

In the end, and as many a bartending applicant has learned here in The Big Apple, it behooves you to showcase your personality, wit, charm, appearance and experience when applying for a bartending job. Doing so, will pay far greater returns than than presenting (God forbid), or purporting to have “earned,” a fancy-looking piece of framed card-stock emblazoned phony stamped signatures that hold nearly zero value.

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