September 7th, 2010

So, you want to be a bartender?

“I’m thinking of becoming a bartender. Where do I start?” is a question I get asked regularly. It generally comes from people fired up about the rise of craft mixology, the notion of bartending as a “real” career, and the infectious passion and knowledge displayed by many of today’s serious bartenders. People fed up with their day jobs, or just out of college and considering career choices, dream of hoisting a Boston shaker and making the world happy with good drinks and banter like Ted Lange on the Love Boat.

These are all fine reasons to want the job. Oh, the money can be good, too. But unless you own the bar or are very close to the person who does, you’re probably not going to find yourself behind the slab if you don’t have experience. OK, so how do you get there? Here’s some advice that comes from conversations I’ve had with career bartenders. By the way, this isn’t a step-by-step process; it’s a multi-pronged strategy.

You don’t need a license or a bartending-school diploma. There’s no such thing as a bartending license. (However, many bartenders must take the TIPS course on avoiding overserving or serving to minors.) Most bartenders don’t recommend bartending school; very few of the professionals I know have attended one. They say that while it won’t hurt your chances of getting a job, it doesn’t really prepare you for working in a real bar, and that your money and time are better spent on some of the following.

Learn all you can on your own. Get some basic bar equipment, some recommended books (Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology and Dale DeGroff’s Craft of the Cocktail are good places to start) and some booze, watch a few videos by bar/mixology experts, and start mixing drinks at home. (Also, consider taking a short, basic mixology class at the Boston Shaker in Somerville.) This will give you a certain comfort level with pouring, measuring and shaking/stirring. Your friends and neighbors will serve as your first customers.

Take a lot of field trips. Again, this is where your bartending-school money is probably better spent — at actual bars. Go to a top-notch cocktail bar, park yourself on a stool and observe, observe, observe. Watch the bartenders’ drink-making technique, see how they multi-task and interact with guests, notice the types of spirits they use, witness them card or shut off a customer (hopefully not you).

Talk to your bartender. It should go without saying that you only do this during lulls in service. And don’t ask, “How do I do what you do?” Rather, think of specific questions like, “Why do you shake some drinks and stir others?” or “Could you tell me about the bitters you used in my drink?” or “What do you do to prep the bar for a shift?” or “How did you start tending bar?” Note: being a good-tipping regular will greatly facilitate these interactions. See: How to treat a bartender.

Get experience any way, anywhere you can. Even it it’s unpaid at first. Got an acquaintance who works for a catering company or does events where drinks are served? Offer to go along and cut limes, fetch ice, etc. Find a bar that has sleepy daytime shifts and offer to work other positions that need filling in exchange for getting a shot at a bar shift. Put feelers out to all those bartenders you’ve been getting to know as a customer. See if a bar is willing to try you out for a couple of uncompensated bar-back shifts.

Be realistic. The bartenders who are truly adept at what they do have usually been at it for several years. They have the personalities, talent and toughness it takes to stick with a job that demands long hours without a break, is physically and psychically stressful, generally offers no benefits of any kind, and involves the various hazards of late-night shenanigans. You will probably know very quickly whether you are cut out for this. That said, I don’t mean to discourage you. Give it a try. A good bartender is always in demand.

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4 Responses to “So, you want to be a bartender?”

  1. Todd

    Rock’n the “Isaac” when I worked at the Four Seasons I used to “borrow” the Isaac name tag and wear it behind the bar….Sadly no one got the joke….

  2. ljclark

    Maybe because you weren’t sporting a ‘fro, a mustache, a white dinner jacket and a black bowtie?

  3. Rob Marais

    I have no intentions of ever, ever becoming a bartender…too happy in the day job. However, I’d much rather patronize a bar professional who came into the craft via the path you outline than otherwise. Experience, observation, the right kind of study and the basic attitudes of service and creativity are all hallmarks of a great bartender to me.

  4. Heath

    Great post–Jeffrey Morgenthaler also answered a similar question in an informative post a couple of years back:

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