How Many Drink Recipes Should a Bartender Know?

How Many Drink Recipes Should a Bartender Know?

I get asked all the time about how many drink recipes a bartender should know before they start going out and looking for a job. Many people believe that bartenders know thousands of drinks, but it’s simply not true.

So how many drink recipes should a bartender know? Probably about 60 – 75 drinks total because every town or city that you might live in has certain drinks that are popular only in that area.

And, there are so many different variations of drinks that it’s simply a waste of time to memorize every single drink that was ever made. You’re probably going to be asked about a few drink recipes during your interview.

In fact, you should know what you’re going to be asked, besides drink recipes, when you interview. Here’s a nice list of common questions you might be asked that will help you pass that job interview with flying colors.

Allow me to elaborate on this for a bit. I have no scientific evidence, nor have I consulted with any sort of “bartender drink recipe number crunchers” to come up with my figures. I’m going totally on what I have observed in 25 years of bartending experience. Realistically, a brand new bartender needs to know less than 100 drink recipes to get his foot in the door.

Manhattan drink recipe

If you were to ask an experienced bartender how many drinks he knows, he could honestly say that he knows 1000’s. Just off the top of my head, I can name 100 different drinks with just vodka (Including different brands), combined with some type of mix. Tonic, orange juice, soda, on-the-rocks, etc.

For example: Vodka Tonic, Vodka Martini, Vodka Collins, Grey Goose and Grapefruit, Ketel One on the rocks, and on and on and on.

But we’re going to be a bit more realistic here, and dive into the types of drinks you generally need to memorize. Generally referred to as “cocktails,” drinks with a specific name and numerous ingredients qualify as a drink recipe.

Most drinks that your customer’s order are very basic, and they practically tell you what’s in the drink. Vodka tonic. Jack and Coke. Bombay on the rocks. Pretty simple. When you think about it – you already know 100’s of drinks.

The only thing you need to worry about is how much liquor the house wants you to pour – and what type of glassware to use. Garnishes are very easy to remember with a little common sense, and many times the customer will tell you what he would like.

Every bar is a little different, but if you can get the basics down, along with a few of the “classics,” you’ll do just fine. Your most basic recipes start with the “house” liquors. If you include beer and wine with the below liquors, I would estimate that around 90% of all bar sales, and recipes, will come from these items.

Basic Drink Recipes

Let’s start with the basics. Most bars will have something pretty close to the eight types of alcohol listed below in the “speed rail” or “well,” and known as the house liquor – or the cheap stuff. You’re going to pour a lot of this liquor.

  • Vodka
  • Gin
  • Rum
  • Whiskey
  • Bourbon
  • Tequila
  • Scotch
  • Triple Sec

The above is a general list, and many bars will substitute any of the above liquors with a different brand or type of alcohol depending on what they pour the most in their particular establishment.

There may also be a “side well” very nearby that contains additional bottles of the alcohol most frequently used. Again, every bar is different.

In the list of 60 – 80 minimum drink recipes that bartenders should know, we really cannot count anything with the basic well or house liquor combined with a simple mix.

That’s cheating. So let’s look at what we can make with well liquor first, and then determine how many drinks a bartender actually needs to know.

Basic House Liquor Drinks

The below listed drinks are some of the most basic recipes that a bartender will encounter on a daily basis. Notice that you could make any number of variations on these drinks by simply using a “call” or “premium” liquor or changing the type of mix. Notice also that some of these drinks are listed in the list of “classic” drinks later on in this article. Here’s about 20 of them:

  • Whiskey Sour
  • Daiquiri
  • Margarita
  • Martini
  • Manhattan
  • Screwdriver
  • Bloody Mary
  • Gimlets
  • Old Fashioned
  • Kamikaze
  • Rob Roy
  • Cuba Libre
  • Irish Coffee
  • Greyhound
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Sex On the Beach
  • Rusty Nail
  • Mai Tai
  • Zombie
  • Jager Bomb

You could make hundreds of variations just with the above cocktails. Using different brands of alcohol, on the rocks, blended, or up. Truthfully, I could come up with a 1000 variations of just the above-listed drinks.

However, we really cannot count these variations in our list of 100 drinks to know. Does a whiskey on the rocks count? Nope. That’s the same as a Whiskey Coke, whiskey neat, whiskey water, etc. A whiskey sour, of course, counts. Just the basic recipe, mind you.

The best way to find out what the most popular drinks are in your area is to ask the local bartenders. You can try finding many recipes on the internet, but I’ve found that the author of whatever article I’m reading on drink recipes lists the drinks that are popular in the area he or she lives in.

The Classic Cocktails

Below is a list of classic drinks that most bartenders will run across on a frequent basis. Anyone trying to get their first job as a bartender should probably know these drinks.

I’m not going to provide the exact recipe here, as you can find them anywhere online. Begin with these 20 popular drinks and you’re off to a good start:

  • Old Fashioned
  • Moscow Mule
  • Whiskey Sour
  • Margarita
  • Manhattan
  • Negroni
  • Sidecar
  • Gimlet
  • Martini
  • Daiquiri
  • White/Black Russian
  • Long Island Iced Tea
  • Cuba Libre
  • Mint Julep
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Tom Collins
  • Mai Tai
  • Bloody Mary
  • Mojito
  • Pina Colada

Knowing the above drinks is a great start, but you still have a ways to go. Many bars and restaurants have their own idea of specialty drinks.

Here’s a good tip: Find out what those specialty drinks are before applying for a job there. Memorize them – or at least know the main ingredients. Ask the bartender on duty, or a server, what’s in the recipe and commit to memory.

How Many Drink Recipes Should a Bartender Know?

OK – so then if I count the above 20 popular classic drinks, the house specialty drinks, and basic well drinks, that gives me well over 100 right? Nope.

Remember that well, or basic generic drinks, really don’t count in your grand total. Nor do variations of each drink. So you’re at about 60 or 70.

The final 30 or 40 drinks will come from your local bars. I intentionally left out quite a few cocktails from the above lists because you simply do not have to know them when you first start out.

Yes, you could purchase a drink recipe book – or find numerous lists on the internet, but you’re most likely going to waste a lot of time memorizing recipes for drinks that you’ll never make.

B52’s, Godfather (and Mother), French 75, Ramos fizz, champagne cocktails, etc. Semi-popular cocktails that you might want to get a handle on right away. Again, be careful not to spend too much time on these.

Google popular drink recipes and you’ll quickly figure out which ones you should be studying. Your time and effort is better spent on compiling a resume and cover letter that gets attention.

I know some bartenders that have made it their personal responsibility to memorize every single drink that they’re ever run across. And then some.

That’s fine, but bartenders just starting out really shouldn’t bother with this. If you have huge amounts of time on your hands – knock yourself out. I just want to make sure that you understand it’s not necessary.

Conclusion

If you’re about to apply for your first job as a bartender, one of the first questions you’ll be asked is if you know basic drink recipes. Experienced bartenders may be asked more advanced drink recipes. This is where it really pays off to know what that particular establishments’ house drink specialties are.

The bar manager, or whomever is interviewing you, will be able to plainly see that you have no real experience simply by looking at your resume. Don’t let that bother you.

Point out that you do know, and have practiced making, the basic drink recipes – and that if he has a list of the drinks you’ll be making you’ll memorize them before your first shift.

Restaurant experience goes a long way towards landing a bartending job. If you have worked as a server, hostess, cook, busboy, and especially as a bar back, you’ll have an advantage.

It has been my experience that many establishments will take a chance hiring bartenders with no experience. They feel that they can train them their way and be better off. Of course, this simply won’t happen in a high-volume nightclub or sports bar.

Learn all about the 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers Are Looking For in an article I wrote very recently. It will open your eyes.

Knowing drink recipes, in my opinion, is only 10% of the job. Being a great employee has everything to do with your success as a a bartender.

Knowing bar operations, providing great customer service, and striving to become as fast and efficient as you possibly can will go a long way in excelling at your job. Developing skills on the job opens up many more opportunities to climb that bartender ladder and get your dream job.

Related Bartender Questions

Where can I get a list of the most popular drinks? Lists of popular drink recipes can be found all over the internet. Google your city, or a large city in your area, and type in “most popular drinks.” But again, the best way to get popular drink recipes is from your local bartenders.

What is the best way to study drink recipes? I’m a big fan of Anki. Download the app and search for drink recipes. Or, compile a list of your own. Of course, flashcards are always a useful tool. Either way, you must memorize the basic and classic drink recipes. There are no shortcuts.

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