colorful cocktails with blue sky

How Do I Get My First Bartending Job?

All aspiring bartenders have the same question: How do I get my first bartending job? Or, how can I get a bartending job with no experience?

It’s not as hard as you think, and don’t let anyone tell you that it’s impossible. I’ll walk you through the process and offer up some great tips for landing that first bartending job.

So, how do I get my first bartending job?

Persistence, training, and a well-thought-out plan. Go to Bartending School! Acquire some basic skills by watching online videos, observing working bartenders, and compiling a great resume and cover letter. That’s how you’ll get your first bartending job!

Know a little bit about the bar you are applying at and use that to your advantage. Attending a Bartending School is always a plus, but remember that it’s for your benefit – not the person interviewing you.

Getting that first bartending job is not as hard as you think. There are many bar owners and managers out there that have no issues with inexperience – they’re looking to hire their future bartenders without any actual experience and train them as they see fit.

Many corporate theme restaurant type bartending jobs have very good in-house training programs. In fact, even if you were an experienced bartender you may have to go through their training yourself.

For places like this, start as a server, hostess, busboy – whatever. Let them know you would like to stay with the company and move into a bartending position – and you’re half the way there. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

Let’s assume that you have no experience bartending. And, you have no experience in the food and beverage industry in general. This makes it extremely tough to get that first job – but I’m going to show you how to increase the odds. Of course, if you do have some experience as a food server, barista, or barback – you have a huge advantage.

So, let’s look at what we need to do to get that first bartending job.

Here’s a short list which I’ll elaborate on later:

  • Enroll in a Reputable Bartending School
  • Observe Working Bartenders
  • Watch Online Bartending Videos
  • Acquire Tools – and Practice with Them
  • Work as a Server, Barback, or Barista (Really, anything with customer service)
  • Memorize Drink Recipes

If you start participating in all, or most, of the above six suggestions – you’ll dramatically increase your chances of getting that first bartending job.

This list is not all-inclusive, as you could be reading books on bartending, memorizing drink recipes out of a manual, or totally going out on a limb and applying at places armed only with your personality. Let’s take a more detailed look at all six suggestions.

Go to Bartending School

Yeah, I know. You’ve read all about how bartending schools are not worth it, and most entice you into signing up with them by guaranteeing that they’ll find you a job. For $500.00 or more. What a rip-off, huh?

The job part is bogus, but the basic skills you learn will last a lifetime and help you get in the front door. I wrote a great article about whether or not you should go to bartending school, so take a look.

What’s the difference between an online course and taking the course at a physical location? Big difference. Especially the cost. Physical locations provide you with a bar environment and all of the tools to actually practice. That’s why they’re more expensive. Either way, look at it as an investment in your future.

how do i get my first bartending job pouring liquor

Honestly, you can learn a lot just by watching YouTube videos. They’re fun and instructive – but there’s no structure. That’s why I recommend taking my Bartending Course here online. Physical locations can be good – they allow you to start developing your pouring skills, learning bar set-up procedures, and learn customer service skills.

So, maybe I haven’t convinced you yet that you should consider going to an Online Bartending School. What’s up? Here are the three main reasons:

  1. Going to Bartending School can come in handy. I know many bar managers (or anyone in the hiring position), that learned their basic skills by going to bartending school. That’s still in their mind, and they usually give priority to someone who has followed in their footsteps. Remember that there is no license required to be a bartender.
  2. It shows you’re investing in your future. Inexperienced bartenders need all the help they can get. Bar managers may not think a whole lot about bartending schools – but they will appreciate the initiative. If you’re in an interview, it means the interviewer already knows you have no experience simply by looking at your resume. Pointing out that you have invested the time and money to learn basic bartending skills gets put in the plus column.
  3. You actually learn some skills. Nothing beats hands-on experience. Learning basic bartending skills is a must if you have no experience. Take what you’ve learned in my Bartending School and use it as a reference point as you observe working bartenders. PHYSICALLY getting in there and developing basic skills is a tremendous advantage.

Observe Working Bartenders

This suggestion is easy – and probably the most effective. Experienced bartenders know all the ins and outs of their profession and are a wealth of information.

Take a road trip and check out a few different types of bars in your area, find a bartender that’s willing to talk about the profession, and you’re gold. Repeat as often as you can.

Oh, and by the way, order a drink (preferably non-alcoholic), and tip VERY WELL on your very first drink. He’ll be more inclined to give up the goods and will recognize you the next time you come in. Who knows – you could end up getting a job there!

Be upfront and honest. Tell him or her that you’re trying to get your first job as a bartender and are simply looking for some professional advice. Don’t bombard her with questions! Most bartenders are a bit egotistic, and you’ll find that if you tip well, remain humble and respectful, they’ll be more than happy to answer your questions.

As you observe him working, you’re naturally going to see things that you don’t understand. Make a mental note and ask him later – or ask a different bartender on your next stop. Another good tip is to frequent these bars at different times of the day.

Probably one of the best times is to go in around 3:30 or 4:00 in the afternoon. Watching a bartender adjust from a slow period into ‘Happy Hour’ will allow you to see how a bartender adjusts according to the amount of business. You’ll see things that bartenders do that will blow your mind.

Things to Consider Asking a Working Bartender:

  • What is your pricing structure?
  • What are the different types of glassware you use?
  • How much liquor do you pour for each drink?
  • How do you check ID’s?
  • When do you cut someone off?
  • How important is speed and efficiency in your job?
  • What are your methods for keeping the bar clean?
  • How did you get this job?
  • Is the POS system hard to learn?
  • What is the hardest thing about bartending?
  • What do you enjoy most about bartending?

I have listed a few things below that you probably shouldn’t ask. Don’t get personal, and don’t be a pest. Remember that he’s working.

  • How much do you make per hour?
  • How much do you make in tips per shift?
  • Really, anything involving how much he makes.
  • Never ask about his relationship with management or other employees.
  • Never ask any personal questions.
  • Never ask if he gives out (comps) drinks.

The above is a short list. Just don’t be a pest and don’t get personal. I want to be perfectly clear here: Asking about money, management, free drinks, etc., may lead him or her to believe that you’re a ‘spotter.’ If he gets that impression, you’re going to be wasting your time.

What is a “spotter?” It’s someone that the bar or company has hired to come in and discreetly observe the staff. Sometimes called a “Secret Shopper.” They usually have a list of things they’re looking for: Good customer service, theft, attitude, cleanliness, etc. This is where being upfront about your intentions before you ask any questions is a good way to go.

One last tip: Watch how he pours. Then watch again. And again. It doesn’t matter if he’s free-pouring or using a jigger – or a combination of both. Observe the immediate area around him (the bar station), and see if he’s working efficiently. Being inexperienced, you might have difficulty understanding much of what he’s doing, but it’s my bet that you’ll quickly start understanding the ‘flow.’

Watch Online Videos

There’s a ton of videos out there on bartending that you can put to good use. Some are very professional and informative – many of them pure junk.

I’m not going to give you a list here of videos to watch because I don’t want to steer you in the wrong direction. Your best bet, as I have suggested above, is to watch real working bartenders in their environment.

That being said, go on YouTube and start browsing. You will find some informative videos about applying for jobs, pouring liquor, the difference between liquors, selecting wines, etc. There are also some good ones calculating liquor pouring cost, inventory practices, spotting dishonest bartenders and much more.

pouring champagne

Watching videos really can’t hurt. In fact, check out some of them and when you have a question – ask a real bartender when you’re making your rounds of bars in your area. You’ll be surprised at the ‘less than stellar’ information that these videos provide, so take them with a grain of salt.

A word of caution: You have no business watching and then emulating  ‘flair’ bartenders doing their thing. Yes, it’s entertaining, but these are highly skilled, very experienced bartenders. And, it’s my guess that less than 5% of bars in this country will allow you to do anything close to flair bartending. Practically speaking, it wastes a lot of booze, slows down the flow, and simply isn’t used in most establishments.

Acquire the Tools – and Practice!

The majority of bars will supply all of the tools you need for the job. Pour spouts, strainers, jiggers, bottle and wine openers, and mixing cups/shakers. That’s fine, but what you really need to do is buy a set yourself and practice at home. Amazon has great deals on full sets that are fairly cheap.

Ask the manager at any bar if you can take home a couple of their empty liquor bottles. There are still laws in place about this, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Or, buy a couple of bottles of cheap liquor at the store, throw a party, and use the empties for practice.

Follow my suggestions above for observing working bartenders, watch online videos on pouring, and start practicing at home. Don’t develop any bad habits! The online videos can be helpful, but you’ll find that most working bartenders pour the same, efficient way – follow their lead.

Work as a Server, Barback, or Barista

This one is a no-brainer. Any time you can get some experience in a related field – do it. Bars and restaurants are all about customer service, so try and get one of these jobs, or any job that involves customer service, and you’ll be one up on your competition.

Let me give you a real-world example. At one of the places I managed, we needed to hire a bartender. We interviewed the usual applicants – a lot of them, and a couple really stood out. One in particular, but he had no bartender experience. He did, however, have two years of experience working as a barista at a coffee shop a couple of blocks away.

He was very honest about his lack of bartender experience and explained that he just had turned 21 and wanted to step into the world of bartending. I also asked him if he knew any drink recipes and he said no, but “give me a list and I’ll have them memorized before my first shift.” The arrogance!

I took it upon myself to walk down to the coffee shop where he currently worked, and discreetly watched him from the patio area. Long story short, he totally blew me away. His customer service skills, efficiency, and general disposition would put many bartenders to shame. After observing him for about 20 minutes (the time it took for me to drink my coffee), I hired him on the spot. To this day, one of the best bartenders I’ve ever worked with.

Customer services skills are in high demand, so don’t sell yourself short. Any type of experience in a service-oriented business helps, and many bar managers put these skills at the top of the list. Especially if you have no bartender experience.

Getting a job as a barback is a whole new way to go. Many places do hire for these positions without requiring any previous experience. But it’s a gamble. It will always look good on a resume moving forward – but beware: The bar owner, as well as the bartenders, are going to be observing your work performance. You better be good if you expect to advance to the position of bartender.

Just remember that places that hire barbacks are busy. Scary busy. Being thrust into a raging nightclub environment with no experience has doomed many an aspiring bartender. And it’s hard work. There are also many places that will hire only experienced bartenders and have them barback for 6 months or so before moving up the ladder.

Memorize Drink Recipes

sugar rimmed blue cocktail

You must know cocktail recipes. If you show up for a job interview and don’t know how to make a margarita – you’re toast. But there’s a trick here. You only need to know about 60 recipes. I wrote a great post on how many drink recipes a bartender should know that explains all of this in more detail.

Here’s a great tip: go into the different bars in your area and ask the bartenders what their most popular drinks are. Then, go online and get a list of the top 50 most basic cocktail recipes. Add to that a list of the 50 ‘classic cocktails’ and you’ll be good to go. It’s not hard – just memorize a few every day.

Remember that you’re applying for your first bartending job. The bar manager most likely has your resume in front of him, so he knows you’re inexperienced. Make it a point to let him know you have memorized all of the basic and classic cocktails, as well as his bar’s specialty drinks, and he’ll definitely put that in the ‘plus’ column.

It’s that simple. Knowing about 60 recipes (and maybe about 20 shooters), are all you need to get started. Most experienced bartenders will tell you that they’ve probably forgotten more recipes than they currently know. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but many cocktails are popular for only a certain time – or in a certain area. Which leads me to my next point.

If you were to go online and search for ‘the 50 most popular cocktails,’ I guarantee that you won’t recognize more than half of them. If I can’t, then you probably can’t either.

The problem with lists like this is that they are compiled by writers in a particular area of the country. Not only are many cocktails made with slight variations – but some are never even heard of in most areas of the country.

So, to summarize this drink recipe section, learn the basics, make a point of memorizing a few recipes each day, and, most importantly, watch a ‘real’ bartender make them. There are some good online videos showing you how to pour liquor and make drinks – so check them out also. Make yourself some flashcards. I’m a big fan of Anki, so you might wish to set yourself up with a deck of drink recipe flash cards.

Final Thoughts On Getting Your First Bartending Job

Getting your first bartending job is really not that hard. There is some luck involved, but if you follow my suggestions above you’ll be way ahead of the game. When you combine these six suggestions along with a battle plan of applying for jobs – it’s inevitable. You will eventually get that job.

And, you really need to know what bar managers are looking for. Read my article on the 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers are Looking For to give you a head start.

One more thing I would like to mention about getting that first job: It’s a numbers game. The more places you apply at – the better chance you have of getting hired. And don’t forget to follow up. I have written a very informative article – a battle plan – about applying for bartending jobs that will give you all the tools you need to efficiently and effectively land that first gig.

Related Bartending Topics

How many drink recipes do I need to know? About 60. Add about 20 popular shooters – which are very easy to learn. Knowing drink recipes is a small percentage of the overall job. Don’t sweat it – just learn the basic and classic cocktail recipes and you’ll be fine. Don’t forget to get a hold of the bar’s (where you are applying at), drink specialty menu and memorize them.

Is working with cash registers good experience that I can use? Yes, absolutely. Especially for those that have no bartending experience. If you have worked with any sort of POS/BOH system – you’ll require less training. Make sure to point that out in your interviews.

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