So you want to become a bartender. It’s no easy task, or at least, not as easy as it may initially seem. In addition to your passion for all things liquor, you’ll also need a strong work ethic, people skills and time to learn the ins and outs of this exciting (but challenging) career.
Is your heart still set on mixology? Then there are a few things you’ll need to know as you begin your journey. Check out this guide to learn more about bartending for beginners.
The Pros and Cons of Becoming a Bartender
People don’t usually decide to become bartenders overnight — regardless of how much they despise their current job. Rather, most take some time to read up on what this career is like, including the advantages and disadvantages that come along with it.
One of the biggest benefits of becoming a bartender is the salary, especially if your current wage is $11 an hour or less. In the U.S., bartenders make about $11.54 per hour plus tips.
Depending on where you work, how busy it is and who sits at the bar, you could easily make $100 or more in tips each night. Plus, you won’t have to run all over the restaurant like a server.
Of course, every job has its downsides. Bartending is often demanding. Most shifts last eight hours or longer and require high levels of concentration throughout.
Remembering drink orders, chatting with guests and ringing in food can be quite stressful at times, so prepare yourself for some mild anxiety.
What Qualities Make for a Good Bartender?
As you continue on your path of bartending for beginners, you have to give thought to your personality and general skillset. Bartending isn’t for everyone.
Even if you want to spend every minute of the day mixing cocktails, you may not be cut out for it. At the very least, it might be a very tough uphill climb if you’re not equipped.
Here are a few traits and skills every bartender should have if they expect to make it behind the bar:
- Good eye contact: Catching and holding someone’s gaze isn’t always easy, especially when you’re speaking to a stranger. That said, eye contact is an essential part of good customer service when behind the bar. You won’t last long if you’re not the sociable type.
- Friendliness: If you don’t have the humility and strength it takes to be overly friendly 100% of the time, becoming a bartender will be a painful transition. You’ll serve rude customers and those who don’t care about how busy you are. Still, you’ll have to assist them with a smile. After all, you want good tips, right?
- Wit: Be prepared to joke around with guests while you’re working. Customers enjoy having a witty bartender because it adds to the laid-back atmosphere they’ve come to enjoy. If you make them laugh, odds are they’ll return, ask for you again and likely tip you well.
- Level-headed demeanor: On busy nights, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by drink orders, incoming guests and everything else going on behind the scenes. However, if you can remain level-headed amid the chaos, you’ll make it through the night — and earn yourself a reputation as someone who can handle the stress that comes with the job.
- Responsibility: Claiming responsibility for your actions will also earn you respect behind the bar. Additionally, you’ll have to take responsibility for guests, especially those who tend to drink one too many. While cutting people off can be uncomfortable, taking responsibility is essential.
- Loyalty: The more time you spend behind the bar, the more you’ll realize that everyone knows each other. If you leave within a year of bartending, the word will get out and you’ll be known as flighty. Good luck getting another bartending job after that!
Bartending for Beginners 101: Be Adaptable
Before accepting a job at your local restaurant or pub, you should know what to expect going in. Regardless of how much you study or research before applying somewhere, you’ll likely need to adapt to your employer’s rules and list of responsibilities.
Every place is different and will require different skills, knowledge and capabilities from you. For instance, one pub may not require you to wash used glasses or deliver food to tables in the bar area while a different restaurant might.
Thus, you may have more responsibilities at one location than another. If you aren’t ready to embrace your roles and complete your duties, be prepared to suffer the consequences — or get the boot.
Overview of 6 Different Bar Tools
Once you’re hired, learn how to use the tools of the trade and gather any essentials your employer requires you to have on hand, such as a bottle opener and grater.
Here are a few basic tools you’ll need as you study up on bartending for beginners:
- Shaker: Whether you’re making a cosmo or a gin martini, you’re going to need a shaker. Understanding how to keep the lid and body in place while you shake will reduce leaks and spills and prevent you from making a mess.
- Jigger: Jiggers are small tapered measuring cups that you use to measure out one- and two-ounce shots of liquor. Learning how to use one is relatively straightforward.
- Muddler: Some cocktails require you muddle mint leaves, lime slices and other ingredients. Rather than use a fork or — God forbid — the butt end of a spoon, get yourself a muddler. It’s the best tool for the job.
- Strainer: Strain cocktails with large ingredients and pulp using a Julep, Hawthorne or fine strainer. These tools make for a smoother drinking experience.
- Decanter: Allow fine wines time to aerate by pouring them into a decanter. Let the wine sit for a few minutes, then pour a few glasses for your guests to enjoy.
- Wine preservation system: If you work at a fancier bar, you may have to use a wine preservation system. This device opens and closes bottles while maintaining pressure inside the container.
Begin practicing the tricks of the trade at home with your own bartending starter kit. Doing so will give you a head start when you do begin training in a pub or restaurant.
Creating the Classics
Instead of trying to learn all the complicated drink variations at once, begin by making and mastering the classics. Every guide that goes over bartending for beginners will have these staples.
Make a cosmopolitan by throwing the following ingredients together:
- One-and-a-half shots of vodka
- Half shot of triple sec
- One-fourth shot simple syrup
- Half shot of lime juice
- Three-fourths shot cranberry juice
Shake the ingredients together and serve.
2. Beer Margarita
Whip up a beer margarita with these ingredients:
- 1 can limeade concentrate
- 12 ounces tequila
- 6 ounces of Sprite
- 6 ounces of water
- 12 ounces of your beer of choice
Mix and serve frozen or chilled. This recipe makes eight 6-ounce servings.
The classic daiquiri is easy to make if you have these things on hand:
- 2 shots light rum
- 1 shot lime juice
- Three-fourths shot of Demerara sugar syrup
- 1 lime twist
Shake, strain and serve.
Familiarize yourself with these cocktails — and the other classics — before taking more complicated drink orders. A standard bartending starter kit should have enough for the aforementioned recipes and more.
Studying the Liquors
Study and know the different types of liquors like the back of your hand. Doing so before you begin taking and making orders will make your life a million times easier.
Begin by reading up on the six base liquors — brandy, rum, tequila, gin, whiskey and vodka. Research the history behind each alcohol and try to have a basic understanding of which drinks require each one. Then, you can begin studying sub-categories within each type.
Understanding the Lingo
If you’ve ever heard bartenders call to one another behind the bar, you may have noticed they have their own language.
Whether they’re asking for a “bev nap” or want you to make a drink dirty, you have to understand the lingo to be a successful bartender and effectively help out your fellow mixologists.
Read up on common terminology to better prepare yourself for your new career. Then, continue to add new terms to your arsenal as you work. Here are a few basic terms to know:
- Straight up: Nothing but alcohol. No ice.
- Neat: Nothing but alcohol — but just one type of alcohol.
- Up: A drink that’s chilled, but without ice in the glass.
- On the rocks: The drink served over ice.
- Shaken: Aerating a drink by shaking for about 15 seconds.
- Stirred: Cooling a drink slower, with less dilution.
- Back: Non-alcoholic drink alongside the drink itself.
- Chaser: Something to drink immediately after a shot.
- With a twist: A piece of lemon peel as a garnish.
- Bev nap: A small napkin for beverages.
- Dirty: A drink mixed with the juice of bar olives.
You’ll need to learn a little more than this list to be fully fluent in barmenian, but these terms are a strong foundation.
Interview With a Former Bartender
We had the opportunity to sit down and speak with a former bartender. She gave us some fascinating insight into the goings-on behind the bar.
What made you interested in becoming a bartender?
I’ve been intrigued by mixology since I was pretty young, interestingly enough! My family used to let me make them non-alcoholic versions of drinks, and I loved to pretend like I was serving it to them as a waitress. When I got older, that just transferred into being interested in mixology and the restaurant experience in general.
I love going to a good restaurant or bar and enjoying all the aspects of that — the atmosphere, the design of the fare, the service and of course, the tastes! So, partially as a result of that, I have a great appreciation for providing someone else with the same positive dining or drinking experience.
What are some of the primary challenges for a bartender who’s just starting out?
Remembering all the drink recipes is tough! I went to bartending school and I would recommend it if you can afford it and have the time. They’ll often have you study for a test at the end where they pretty much yell at you while you run through making all the drink recipes in real-time. Sound scary? It is, but nowhere near as scary as being behind a real bar on your first day and having drunk, angry customers getting frustrated with you for this and that reason.
Trust me when I say, you will have a lot of people get mad at you for no reason whatsoever, because, as we know, drinking lowers inhibitions and makes people act silly. The least you can do to make your experience better is to not give them another reason to get mad — know your stuff!
Take the time to practice a lot with flashcards and then in real-time with friends and family before jumping behind a real bar.
What surprised you about bartending? Were there aspects of the job you didn’t expect?
I guess I would say I expected this from waitressing a bit beforehand, but it’s pretty exhausting. Obviously, being on your feet for 8+ hours at a time is tiring! What makes it even more tiring is the late hours you’ll keep if you’re bartending at a bar-bar and not a restaurant or other establishment that closes at a reasonable hour.
Getting off work at 3 AM is an interesting experience the first few times you do it. It’s a whole other world at that hour. Driving home always feels somewhat strange and ethereal, being that it’s so quiet.
What did you enjoy most about your time as a bartender?
I really enjoyed getting to a point where I was skilled enough and knew my stuff enough to start creating personalized cocktails and drink recipes on the fly! When I was just starting out, a customer answering, “What would you like to drink?” with “Surprise me!” was my worst nightmare! Once I became a seasoned bartender, that answer became one of my favorite sounds.
What would you include in a bartender starter kit if someone wants to practice?
Flashcards, flashcards, flashcards! Make flashcards of all the most popular recipes. You can get a book or do an internet search for the top 50-100 most popular drinks, and then transfer those onto flashcards and quiz yourself. Then, you’ll want to try to practice with some of the basic stuff if you can.
At the very least, get a shaker. You can also get some empty bottles that you can fill with water, color with food coloring if you desire, and label as the 5 base liquors — vodka, gin, rum, tequila and whiskey.
I’d recommend getting some pour spouts to practice doing the 1234 – 5678 count that bartenders do when they pour straight from the bottle. Have your family or friends pretend to order the drinks that are on your flashcards and say out loud what you’re adding and how much as you pretend to make them.
Ask your buds at the end of each recipe if you got it right. Going through the motions with the fake bottles or even without can help you start to get a feel for what it would actually be like to get an order and then physically make the drink.
Did you like to make your own drinks? Any personal recipes you’d like to share?
I loved it! I think my favorite drink memory was getting to craft our summer Fish Bowl every year. I came up with so many different variations for those each year, and it was fun picking out the fish tank-themed candy and fruit garnishes. I love dressing up a drink and making it look pretty!
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Just to roll with the punches a little more earlier on! I stressed myself out a lot thinking I wouldn’t be able to hack it, but like anything else, it’s a learning process. You make a mistake and you remember not to do that thing next time.
You’ll make a lot of mistakes in your early days and you’ll have people get mad at you. It’s normal. Just keep smiling, apologize when you really do mess up, and roll with it. You’ll get there!
Moving on From Bartending for Beginners
Regardless of how long you bartend or how much you know, there will always be something new to learn behind the bar. The best of the best embrace new challenges and further their learning by reading books, practicing and picking up more shifts at the pub.
Consider purchasing a few books on bartending for beginners, like “The Bartender’s Bible,” “The Everything Bartender’s Book” and others that might come in handy as you expand your knowledge.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to try new ingredients, recipes and techniques. You might just create the next great classic while you’re experimenting with different flavors and aromas.
One Step at a Time
Becoming a bartender is no easy feat. There’s a lot to learn, and trying to tackle all this information at once may seem incredibly overwhelming.
Still, as long as you take things one step at a time and fully commit to the process, you’ll have nothing to worry about. A little bit of determination and hard work can go a long way.