Is it Legal for Bartenders to Drink on the Job?

Is it Legal for Bartenders to Drink on the Job?

We’ve all seen it – you’re sitting at the bar waiting for your table in the dining room and you notice the bartender slamming a couple of shots with a group of people at the end of the bar. What’s up with that?

So, is it legal for bartenders to drink on the job? The short answer is YES – provided that it is legal in that particular state. Whether or not the bar owner allows drinking on the job is a whole different story.

Is it legal? He looks pretty tipsy to me – does the bar owner even know he’s drinking on the job? Isn’t it a bit unprofessional to be drinking while on duty?

For brand new bartenders, knowing the legalities and house policy regarding drinking on the job may very well determine if you’re still employed after your first week.

There are three things that will determine whether or not a bartender can or will drink behind the bar:

  • Do you want to drink? It’s a highly personal decision
  • Is it legal in your state? If not – beware!
  • Does the bar owner allow it? If so, professionalism and moderation are the keys. And a good bit of discretion. If not, oh-oh.
champagne toast

What is Not Drinking Behind the Bar?

First of all, what is ‘Not’ drinking behind the bar? If you finished your shift, signed out, and the bar owner allows employees to have a free shift drink – that’s NOT drinking behind the bar.

If you’re not on the clock, you’re obviously not working, so sitting down at the bar (if allowed by house policy), is not drinking while on duty.

Let’s address that “not on the clock’ or ‘not on duty’ thing here. Please – don’t get carried away. If State Law dictates that there is no drinking behind the bar – it probably includes not being under the influence of alcohol behind the bar – even if you’re not working at the time!

If you think you can head across the street and drink your lunch – think again. If it’s in the middle of your shift – the authorities, and your boss, are probably going to consider you ‘drinking on the job.’ It’s just good practice to avoid a situation like this.

Here’s another example: Let’s say the bar manager is sitting at the bar with the wine salesperson. He’s thinking about introducing a couple of new wines to the menu. He asks you to take a couple of small sips of the wine and give your opinion. Is this drinking behind the bar? Technically, yes. Will the ABC (Alcohol Beverage Control) bust you? Probably not.

In the case above, if there is no law in that particular state against drinking behind the bar you’re home free. And, obviously, the bar manager isn’t concerned about it.

But, what if state law says absolutely no drinking behind the bar? Law enforcement does have some discretion, of course. I really don’t know of too many vice cops that would bust you for drinking in the above scenario; however, it pays to be safe and politely decline to taste that wine.

Here’s another one: Let’s say some customers are complaining about ‘flat’ beer. So, you head over to the beer taps, pour a very small glass, and taste that beer. Is that drinking on the job? Technically, yes. Again, I don’t know if law enforcement would bust you for that – but you never know.

If you’re making 20 trips to the beer tappers per shift and ‘tasting’ the beer – you’re probably drinking behind the bar. Besides, experienced bartenders can usually tell, visually, if there’s something wrong with the beer. If I was unsure, I always had a good customer (who normally drinks beer), give it a taste and let me know.

What if a customer complains that their drink is weak – and demands that you taste it to see for yourself? Would that be considered drinking behind the bar?  In the first place – never do that! It’s unsanitary and unprofessional. Let me explain.

Firstly, I’m somewhat of a germaphobe, so I would never put my lips on another person’s glass. Secondly, I poured the drink. I know how much alcohol is in it. Third, I’ve known many a bartender who ‘tastes’ his good customers drinks throughout the night. That’s drinking behind the bar, my friends.

The above situation is for a whole different discussion on customer complaints. I wrote a nice article about when should a bartender give out free drinks which you can check out.

Drinking behind the bar while on duty is a serious business; however, moderation and following the law are key. Let’s take a closer look at how and why bartenders drink behind the bar.

Do You Want to Drink Behind the Bar?

The choice is yours – regardless of what state law or house policy dictates. Don’t ever allow yourself to be pressured into drinking behind the bar. There’s nothing wrong with not drinking! Be yourself.

Listen, I’m not the ‘drinking behind the bar’ police. I’m not your boss. It’s none of my business if you drink behind the bar. Again, that’s your choice. Just know that there may be consequences for your actions, and, please, take the time to know your local laws.

I’ve known many bartenders that drink behind the bar. Legal or not. I’m no stranger to drinking behind the bar. I also know many bartenders that absolutely refuse to touch any alcohol during their shift. And, unfortunately, I’ve seen bartenders drink constantly during their entire shift to control the ‘shaking.’ Again, it’s a personal decision.

Drinking behind the bar is one of the things that gets brand-new bartenders in trouble simply because they don’t know the rules – or observe other employees drinking and assume that it’s OK for them to do it. Careful!

Is it Legal in Your State?

You’ll never hear me say it’s OK to have a drink behind the bar in a state where it’s illegal. Let me be perfectly clear here: If it’s not allowed in your state – DON’T DRINK BEHIND THE BAR! In fact, don’t drink on your break or anywhere else on or off premises while you’re signed in to your shift.

Is it Legal for Bartenders to Drink on the Job?

State laws vary widely. Your manager is probably going to fill you in on your first day on the job, but for more information on general liquor laws and the do’s and don’t of drinking behind the bar check out this nice summation from

People are watching you. Whether it’s the sneaky local vice squad, your boss’s friends, or your fellow employees – you’re in the limelight and being watched. Don’t panic! Follow the law as well as house policy and you’ll be just fine.

What are the consequences of drinking behind the bar when it’s against the law? They could be severe, and cost you a pretty penny. Fines, loss of your job, or a nice little suspension or overnight incarceration may be in the cards. Just don’t chance it.

If it’s against the law and this isn’t a situation where your boss wants you to simply taste a few drops of something – you are drinking. I simply cannot stress this enough: It’s against the law! Just don’t do it. You’re probably not going to get a second chance.

Does the Boss Allow Drinking Behind the Bar?

Here’s where it gets sticky. What is the house policy? Bar owners (or the corporate office in the case of chain restaurant’s and bars), set the policy, and sometimes the waters are a bit murky. Most times, it’s very, very clear.

House policy on drinking behind the bar can be confusing. For new bartenders, it’s your job to pin down that bar manager and get some answers. Please – do not rely on what your fellow employees are saying or doing.

Read the written documentation (if any), when you were hired regarding drinking on the job. Policy should be very clearly stated. if you’re confused, ask the manager – not an employee!

Many bar owners do not allow any sort of drinking other than a shift drink at the end of your shift. Fine – follow the policy. Some bar managers allow it only if a customer buys you a drink. And maybe only a couple of times per shift.

There are some bar owners that simply don’t care. As long as you’re staying professional and not getting toasted you’re fine. Some will have you account for every drink you pour – and this includes what you’re drinking. Others won’t.

Policy varies so much between bars and bar owners – that’s why it’s extremely important for new bartenders to get very specific with their managers on drinking policy so there are no misunderstandings.

Final Thoughts on Drinking Behind the Bar

If you don’t wish to drink – don’t. If it’s regulated by the state – follow the law. If the bar owner allows it in some cases – adhere to the policy. Know the rules and you’ll stay out of trouble. Brush up on the liquor laws in your state here.

Besides being rude to customers and theft, drinking while on duty is one of the biggest reasons why bartenders get fired. Especially new bartenders, because they failed to understand the policy!

Believe me, bar managers (and owners) have no desire to micro-manage their employees. Sneaking around trying to bust a bartender drinking is time that could be better spent elsewhere. Be a great bartender – and an even greater employee. Find out exactly what bar managers are looking for in new bartender hires here: 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers Are Looking For.

If you do get caught drinking on the job, and it’s not allowed (for whatever reason), you may get a warning from the bar manager – but don’t count on it. Some bars have zero tolerance for drinking on the job. You may have just made a fatal mistake.

Brand new bartenders need to be especially diligent. Don’t “follow the pack.” Know what the policy/law is and stick to it. Don’t succumb to peer pressure. This isn’t high school – you’re a professional bartender who follows the rules.

Remember – drinking behind the bar is really the same thing as drinking on the job. It simply doesn’t matter if you’re on a ten-minute break, counting bottles in the liquor room, or eating your lunch out in the parking lot. If you’re on-duty and drinking – beware!

Related Topics About Bartending

Is it legal to give out free drinks? Yes, in many states. State laws are changing all the time, and ‘Happy Hours’ in some states are under threat because of the increased likelihood of over-serving bar patrons. You know, 2 for 1’s and stuff like that – which is essentially giving out a free drink.

Your bar manager will be able to set you straight on the house’s particular policy – pay attention!

What if I see some of my fellow employees drinking? Tough call. I’m assuming that it’s not allowed in your particular bar – for whatever reason. As I have stated before, I am not the ‘drinking behind the bar’ police. Let your conscience be the guide!

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