Q. Why is this lesson important?

A. By far, I get questions about drinking on the job the most. Well, actually, it’s probably tied with “When can I give out free drinks?” and “How much can I make in tips?”

This was one of my favorite lessons to put together, and you’re going to learn a lot. Drinking behind the bar trips up a lot of new bartenders – and I’m going to give you some great tips on how to avoid problems – and keep your job.

Q. Will I be asked about drinking on the job in the interview?

A. You might. For example, an interviewer may ask something like, “Your buddies come in and want to buy you a shot. What do you do?” Of course, your answer to this question should be something like, “In this state, drinking behind the bar is illegal – so I would never drink any alcohol behind the bar.” Or, in a state where drinking behind the bar is legal, you might say something like, “It’s never OK to drink behind the bar without management’s approval. Of course, if drinking a shot or two during the shift is authorized – then I would make the decision at that time.”

Probably the best response: “I have never consumed alcohol while working at any job. I take professionalism and safety very seriously, so I highly doubt I would ever take a drink behind the bar here.”

Q. Have you ever been more than a little “tuned up” behind the bar?

A. Yep.

Side Note: Before we even get started here, I HIGHLY RECOMMEND that you do not drink behind the bar (or before your shift!), regardless of law or house policy. Perception is everything – just don’t do it! I know this subject is controversial, and a lot of experienced bartenders will disagree with me – but I’m sticking to it.

My Experience:
I have worked in two states as a bartender – Minnesota and California. In both states, there is (was) no “State” law against bartenders drinking behind the bar. However, in Minnesota, “There’s no state law that regulates drinking by bar employees, but cities are free to pass liquor ordinances that are tougher than state laws.” In California, bartenders are still allowed to drink behind the bar – as far as I know. I would say that about 80% of the places that I worked at had a “no drinking under any circumstances” house policy. Of course, changes in the law are rapidly taking place. In my opinion, it’s only a matter of time before drinking behind the bar is outlawed completely. And, all states will require some sort of “Alcohol Awareness Training.”

By the way, I am not going to discuss anything about how bartenders are getting away with drinking behind the bar where it is illegal – or against house policy. There are some very unique ways they accomplish this, and I debated about going into this – but not at this time.

One More Thing:
Based on my 25 plus years in the Food & Beverage Industry, and if I was currently a bar owner, I would immediately implement a “NO DRINKING UNDER ANY CICUMSTANCES” policy, zero tolerance, and immediate discharge if caught. And, upon hiring, I would have EVERY SINGLE EMPLOYEE on my payroll sign a document attesting to the fact that they have read and understand this policy.
Sound harsh?
It is. But I have seen the behavior and consequences of bartenders drinking behind the bar. And, these days, I am actually astounded that any bar owner would allow their employees to drink.


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?

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?

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.

Bartender Drinking and Smoking

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.

Hey, I get it. Many of you want to get into the bartending business to meet people, make great money – and maybe have a few cocktails during your shift. There’s nothing wrong with that – as long as it is allowed. Party animals!

Look, I’m not the “drinking behind the bar police.” That’s your decision. In my twenties and early thirties I was working in wild nightclubs and drinking behind the bar all the time. Priorities change. Laws change. You get older. I stopped drinking any alcohol behind the bar. Eventually, I stopped drinking altogether.

Personal Experience: I’ve seen it all. Extremely inebriated bartenders unable to count out their cash register. Bartenders who get “tuned up” before their shift – and continue drinking throughout the night. Bartenders instigating fights. Memory loss when it comes to ringing up drinks. Countless firings because of drinking behind the bar. Lying, cheating, theft.

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. There’s nothing wrong with not drinking!
  • Is it legal in your state? If not – don’t do it!
  • Does the bar owner allow it? If so, professionalism and moderation are the keys. And a good bit of discretion. If not, oh-oh.

That’s it. Three things only. After I discuss these three things below, I’ll give you some common scenarios concerning drinking behind the bar that will happen to almost all bartenders at one time or another. Let’s get into this…

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 on duty. The key here is that you are “signed out.”

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! Let me explain…

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 of not drinking: 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 behind the bar in the above scenario; however, it pays to be safe and politely decline to taste that wine. Again, there is nothing wrong with saying, “Thanks, but I don’t drink. while I’m working”

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 per shift to the beer tappers 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. Personally, if I was unsure (very rare), 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 drink from a customer’s glass! It’s unsanitary and unprofessional. Let me explain.

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. Thirdly, 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. We’ll address those types of situations in the upcoming “Bartender vs. Customer” section. Good stuff there.

Drinking behind the bar while on duty is a serious business; however, moderation and following the law are key. Let’s now look at those three reasons why you would drink behind the bar…

1. 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, as I said before, I am not the ‘drinking behind the bar’ police. I’m not your boss. It’s none of my business if you drink behind the bar. (Unless I was your bar manager!) 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 – and make very sure that you know the house policy concerning drinking on duty.

My Suggestion: Regardless of state law or house policy – DO NOT drink behind the bar your first few months. Get used to everything first, and then make an educated decision on whether or not it’s for you.

2. 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. And, for gosh sakes, do not drink at home before your shift! Or, on your way to work for that matter.

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’ts of drinking behind the bar check out this nice summation from alcohol.org.

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. And don’t forget the camera’s. 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. How does an expensive civil lawsuit sound? 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.

3. Does the Boss Allow Drinking Behind the Bar?

If drinking behind the bar is against the law, or you personally make the decision to not drink – those are fairly easy decisions. Here’s where it gets sticky: What is the house policy? Bar owners (or the corporate office in the case of chain restaurants and bars), set the policy, and sometimes the waters are a bit murky. However, most times, it’s very, very clear.

Note: If the House Policy is “absolutely no drinking behind the bar,” then treat it as though it’s illegal. DO NOT drink behind the bar!

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.

Very Happy Bartender With Hands In Air
Young woman reaching and looking upwards on a dark gray background

Read the written documentation (if any), when you were hired regarding drinking on the job. The policy should be very clearly stated. Again, 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. Some bar owners allow no drinking in the bar for any employee at any time. This includes even coming in as an off-duty customer. Ouch.

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.

Some Common House Policies and Scenarios

I’ve divided this section into two categories: When it’s legal, and when it’s not. If the House Policy states “Absolutely no drinking behind the bar,” then I include that in the “Illegal” category. Let’s get into some common scenarios that you WILL run across.

When it’s Illegal

If it’s illegal – do not drink! Do not “pretend” to drink. Do not sneak drinks. Do not drink during your break. Do not “taste” the tap beer or a customer’s drink. Do not drink until you are signed out. Do not drink before your shift.

  • Never “fake” it. A customer offers to buy you a shot. You know that it’s illegal, so in order to follow the law (and honor a good customer’s request), you mix up a plain coke and sweet ‘n sour shot and pretend there’s booze in it. You toast, say thank you very much, and ring up the drink at full price. No problem, right? Wrong!

Other customers, employees, your boss, (and law enforcement if they’re in your bar at the time), probably have no idea of what you just did. All they see is you drinking. Perception is everything. And it’s probably on camera. Sure, you could probably explain your way out of this – but why put yourself in this spot in the first place?

What if ABC or the Vice Squad is lurking around the bar? Again, perception is everything.

And, you’re not being honest with your customer. Not to mention that he now believes that you can drink behind the bar. What if he offers to buy a different bartender or server a drink? They say, “No, we’re not allowed to.” He says, “Well, I just bought Mark shooter and he drank it!” Explain that.

Finally – any bar that encourages you to do this, to make more in profits, is operating unethically. Think about it. Bartenders, and bar owners, will argue about the ethics of this type of situation endlessly. Personally, I think it’s unethical.

Here’s another scenario:

  • A customer offers to buy you a drink. You say sure, but you’re not allowed to drink it until after your shift. Anything wrong with this? Nope. As long as you’re allowed to drink in the bar after your shift, ring it up and enjoy later. Personally, I would let the manager know – cover your butt.

Of course, some Bar Owners may not even allow this. That’s rare, but it does happen simply because employees are not allowed to drink in the bar. At any time. No shift drinks. No drinking. Period. In that case, you have no choice but to decline.

I have seen bartenders get in trouble here. They finish their shift, and then inform the oncoming bartender that they have five drinks coming to them – already paid for. Really?

When Drinking Behind The Bar Is Legal

Let’s assume the bar owner has House Policies in place that allow you to drink behind the bar. You better know what they are, because there are probably limits – and only on specific situations. And, you better be at least 21 years old!

Side Note: I’ll tell you right now that a Corporate Theme Restaurant & Bar chain type place is probably going to have a “no drinking while on duty” policy. It’s usually only the local pubs and “Mom & Pop” type places that will allow drinking behind the bar at all. However, even those types of bars are gravitating to a “no drinking on duty” policy. It’s simply no longer worth the risk.

A bartender could have his friends and good customers buy him drinks all night long. Happens all the time. Bar owners are well aware of this, and will put a “cap” on your drinking. And, it’s fairly easy for the bar manager to notice your decreased performance levels! Tread carefully here.

If the bar owner allows you to drink “whenever,” in moderation, then he’s probably going to want you to write down how much you’re drinking for cost control. The smart bar owners will write it off as “local promotion” or some other such nonsense. On the other hand, if you’re allowed to drink whenever you want he’s probably not all that concerned with liquor cost. Every bar and bar owner is different!

Side Note: I would suggest that you not do any of the below during your first few weeks or even months on the job – even if allowed to. Once you get a bit of experience in that bar – then follow the rules and enjoy!

It’s usually OK to:

  • Have a couple of belts during your shift
  • Accept a “paid for” drink from a customer
  • “Toast” that couples’ 25th Wedding Anniversary
  • Do a shot with the house sponsored softball team
  • The bar owner asks you to do a shot with him. Why not?
  • Before having a drink, you may have to get a manger’s approval first
  • Your buddies buy you a shot. Usually OK – but be careful with this

Know the House Policy. Keep drinking to a minimum. Know your tolerance levels.

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 house policy. Know the rules and you’ll stay out of trouble. Brush up on the liquor laws in your State.

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 fail to understand the current house 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 by not drinking on the job.

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 are 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!

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