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The Bartender Interview: How Would You Make This Drink?

You’re in the middle of the bartender interview for your first much-needed bartending job and the bar manager asks you how to make a particular drink. Are you prepared? Do you know the basic drink recipes as well as the ‘classic cocktails?’ You better.

So, you’re asked, how do you make a Manhattan on the rocks? The simple answer is to cite the ingredients, glassware, and garnish. Here’s an acceptable answer: Two parts (usually two ounces) whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, and a dash or two of Angostura bitters. Pour into a rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with a cherry.

There are slightly different ways to make almost any cocktail out there. The Manhattan in the example above is no exception. Many people confuse this drink with an ‘Old Fashioned’ – so get it right. Some bartenders don’t use bitters.

Some bartenders will garnish with an orange peel. I don’t. Many will use a 3/1 or 4/1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth. Some will insist that it must be made with bourbon – and not a blended whiskey. Don’t sweat it – get the basic ingredients correct and you’ll be just fine.

When interviewing for a bartender job, there’s a set of about twenty common questions that may be asked. Of course, you won’t be asked all of them – no time for that – but a drink recipe question is probably one that will be asked. Read this article for more common interview questions and answers for bartenders.

Sounds simple, huh? Well, it is – if you’re prepared. Making drinks is what a bartender does, but don’t think that you need to know hundreds of drinks. In fact, you only need to know about 60 when you’re first starting off.

Why Bar Managers are Asking This Question

It’s fairly obvious – the interviewer simply wishes to know if you can make a basic cocktail. For example, “What are the ingredients in a Long Island Iced Tea?” This is a very popular drink, so you should definitely know this one. Simply cite the ingredients, glassware, and garnish. Easy

Interviewers can be creative in asking this question as I’ll show you below. Generally speaking, just state the proper ingredients and you should be good to go.

I don’t know of any bar managers that will intentionally call out some obscure cocktail and expect you to know how to make it – so don’t sweat it. In fact, I wrote an article about how many drink recipes new bartenders should know. Check that out and get up to speed.

Worst-case scenario: You freeze up and cannot seem to remember how to make the requested drink. Or, you’ve never heard of the drink. Oops. That’s not good, and the only thing you can do is come clean.

For example, “I’m sorry, but I can’t seem to think of that drink right now. Can you give me another one?” If you don’t know that one- you probably haven’t done your homework and are in a bit of a jam. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to you. Be prepared – learn the basic cocktails!

A Better Way to Answer the Question

Let’s take a closer look at the example above where we’re answering the interview question on how to make a Manhattan. Instead, let’s say that the bar manager asks you how to make a ‘Martini Up.’ Try responding this way:

“The first thing I would do is ask the customer if he would like his martini made with Grey Goose vodka. Then I would grab a martini glass and fill it with ice (preferably crushed ice), to chill the glass. Or, if you have a container filled with crushed ice that’s used for this purpose I would chill glass in there while I make the drink.

Next, I would pour 2 1/2 ounces (or whatever the house dictates as a proper pour) of the vodka and a splash of Dry Vermouth into a shaker with lots of ice. I’d shake the mixture for a few seconds and then strain into the martini glass. Garnish with an olive or two. Serve the drink to the customer and quote the proper price. At this time, I would make sure that he had a bar food menu within reach.”

The Bartender Interview: How Would You Make This Drink? A bottle of Stoli Vodka

This is a much better way to answer any drink recipe question. Let’s take a look at what you’ve done here. Firstly, you offered to ‘upgrade’ the drink to Grey Goose instead of house vodka – a great suggestive selling technique.  And, by doing this you have also determined that they would like vodka – and not gin – for their martini.

Secondly, you have demonstrated proper sanitation procedures by NOT chilling the martini glass in the ice bin. In case you don’t know, putting any foreign object into your ice bin is a big no-no. And, even a hint of the possibility that there’s broken glass in your ice bin is a nightmare. I’ve been there, and there’s nothing worse than having to ‘burn’ the ice in the middle of a rush.

Thirdly, you have shown that ice meltage is an acceptable way to add volume to the drink – instead of over-pouring to fill the glass.  Most martini glasses are five ounces, so you have to be careful here. Martini’s and Manhattans are two of the most common drinks where bartenders have a tendency to over-pour. Shaking well solves this problem.

Side Note: The ice scoop should NOT be stashed in the ice bin. Keep it placed on the side or some other designated area – in order not to contaminate the ice. This is one of the first things a health inspector will look for.

A couple of additional things that you might wish to consider is whether or not to ask the customer if they would like their martini on the rocks or ‘Up.’ In this case, they initially asked for it ‘Up’ so you’re good to go. Maybe ask them if they would like it stirred or shaken. I always automatically ‘shake.’

An Even Better Way to Ask the Question

Years ago, I was actually asked this question in a bartender interview: “OK, Mark. A customer walks up to your bar and orders a Martini up, Scotch on the rocks, a draft beer, and a glass of house red wine. How would you make these drinks – and in what order?” Ever since, I have asked slight variations of this question in every bartender interview that I conduct.

This is an incredibly tough, loaded, and revealing question. Relax! The bar manager knows it’s a very tough question – and there could be many correct variations in the answer. He’s not expecting the perfect answer. If you can get provide a similar answer to what I’m going to give you below, you’ll pass with flying colors.

The bar manager is trying to accomplish a few things here:

Do you know how to make a Martini? Can you suggest Grey Goose for the vodka – and turn that house Scotch into Johnny Red – or maybe even a single malt? Do you know how to suggestive sell? Do you know in which order to make the drinks? How’s your memory? How much liquor will you pour?

Here’s a near-perfect answer:

“First of all, I would ask the customer if he would like Stoli (Stolichnaya Vodka), for his Martini, J & B for the Scotch, and a Sam Adams for the beer. Then I would set up the martini glass and rocks glass on the pouring mat. Add ice to the martini glass to chill it (or put it into a separate crushed ice container if they have one). Add ice to the rocks glass.

Next, I would pour the Stoli and a dash of dry vermouth into a shaker filled with ice. Give it a quick twirl and let it sit. I would pour the Scotch next. 2 1/2 ounces of liquor for the martini and 2 ounces liquor for the scotch – or whatever the house designates as a proper pour.

Then I would grab a wine glass and pour five ounces of wine right next to where the house red is kept – probably at the back bar. Heading back to my station, I would stop off and pour the draft Sam Adams with a nice head on it and put the beer as well as the glass of wine directly in front of the customer.

Finally, I would shake the well-chilled martini and pour into the martini glass. Garnish with an olive. Take the martini and scotch rocks directly to the customer. Quote the total cost and collect the cash or credit card. At this time, I would probably put a bar food menu in front of the customer.”

The Bartender Interview: How Would You Make This Drink?

Let me break this answer down for you. Asking if they would like ‘Stoli’ accomplishes two things. First, you’re showing your suggestive selling skills by ‘upgrading’ the cocktail. Secondly, you have now determined whether or not they would like a gin or vodka martini.

When it comes to martini’s, it’s always good to ask your customers which liquor they would like. Martini’s are made with vodka or gin, so If they respond to your offer of Stoli by saying they would like Beefeater Gin – you know what to do.

Side Note: The original martini was always made with gin, but times have changed. Vodka rules these days. I used to always ask if they would like vodka or gin until I figured out that simply offering a ‘call’ or top-shelf’ liquor solved the problem. Your customer will let you know.

Secondly, by stating “I’d pour the scotch next” shows that you know J & B is a ‘call’ scotch. Good. You’re also demonstrating some good common sense by pouring the liquor before the wine and beer. Red wine should be served at room temperature – no worries there. And, draft beer should always be poured last in order to present it with a nice head.

Thirdly, by shaking the martini last you have let that ice meltage thing happen in order to add volume to the drink. Most martini glasses are around five ounces, so dilute it by shaking that drink up good. The olive also helps to displace the liquor – and many bars garnish with two olives (sometimes even three), to help with this.

Finally, by offering them a food menu you’ve made your customer very well aware that food is served in the bar. Again, it’s a form of suggestive selling that will make the bar manager smile.

Relax, imagine yourself standing at a bar work station and make the drinks in your mind. Don’t over-complicate it. We’re keeping it simple here, even though this would probably be the absolute toughest variation of this question to answer. Unless that bar manager was being a smart*** and give you a list of 10 drinks.

The interviewer is trying to find out if you have basic skills. By following my suggestion above you have just shown your skills, and experience, by demonstrating that you know what you’re doing.

Yes, I know that some of your experienced bartenders out there may mix up the order of drinks a bit – it all depends upon the flow of your customers. In a normal situation, you might be making these drinks at the same time as you’re filling other orders. But that’s not what the bar manager is looking for here.

Final Thoughts On Bartender Interviews

Answering this question should be a breeze. Bar managers won’t try to trick you, but, as I have demonstrated, they may phrase the question in a slightly different manner in order to gauge your skills.

In very busy bars, you’re most likely going to be combining drink orders with other customers’ and server’s orders. This is where experience comes in and is a very sought-after skill bar managers are looking for. By the way, I wrote another article explaining the 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers Are Looking For.

Start learning your classic cocktails. Browse the internet and search for Classic Cocktail Recipes. This is a big country – drinks that are popular in one area may not be in another.

Related Bartending Topics

Will the bar manager give me a pouring test?  He might. I have been given pouring tests before, and I have given them, but it’s my understanding that they’re not very common during the initial interview. You may be given pouring tests after you’re hired – usually because there is a major liquor pouring cost problem throughout the bar.

Is not knowing a particular drink a deal-breaker? Not at all. As I mentioned above, if you do not know a particular drink recipe, simply ask them to give you another one.

Bar managers will not try to trick you here, and are well-aware that they’re putting you under a little pressure. They’ll probably ask you for the recipe to a very common ‘Classic’ cocktail.

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