There is a lot of confusion in regards to whether or not a bartender must be licensed to dispense alcohol. Many people believe that simply attending a reputable bartending school provides the required licensing for bartenders. This is simply not true.
So, what are the legal requirements to be a bartender? All 50 states require a bartender to be at least 18 years of age. Many up the age limit to 19-21. No license is needed, but an ‘Alcohol Awareness’ training certificate may be required.
Keep in mind that serving alcohol and dispensing alcohol are two different things. In some states, food servers may be allowed to serve alcohol if they are under 21 – but must be 21 to actually dispense the alcohol. Local rules may apply, so it’s always good to know your state’s legal statutes.
There is no such thing as a bartender’s license. Yet. unfortunately, many bartending schools imply that a license is needed. “Sign up for our course and we’ll get you licensed!’ Nothing could be further from the truth.
A bartending school can certainly provide a lot of training – but it’s not required to get a bartending job. Don’t be fooled, as a certificate from one of these schools simply verifies that you took some sort of training.
Let’s take look at some of the requirements, legal or otherwise, that may be required in order to become a bartender. If you would like a more complete list of the bartender skills needed to get your first job, check out my article about the basic skills needed to be a bartender.
Bartender Age Requirements
So, how old does a bartender have to be to serve alcohol? The minimum age to serve alcohol in all 50 states varies. You must be 21 in about 20 states. The remaining states require bartenders to be anywhere between 18 and 21. Laws change all the time, so please brush up on your local laws.
As I stated before, there is a difference between serving alcohol and dispensing alcohol. This is why servers, generally speaking, can be younger than 21. Many states require an adult to be on duty if there is anyone under the age of 21 serving liquor.
The last time I checked, Alaska, Nevada, and Utah require all servers and bartenders to be 21 years of age in order to serve or dispense alcohol. Strict. For a list of states and their age requirements check out the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
No experience required. Of course, as with any job, the more experience you have the more likely you are to get the job. Any type of work in the food an beverage industry is an advantage, and will certainly help you in securing that first bartender job.
If you’re planning on working at a busy nightclub – good luck with getting hired as an inexperienced bartender. You need to start as a food server or barback to get some experience and then make the leap to bartending in these types of places.
Starting off in a beer and wine bar or a low volume corporate theme restaurant type of establishment is beneficial. And, it provides a starting point to move up that bartending ladder. These types of bars may not require any experience at all – and may even have their own in-house bartender training programs.
There is no license required to be a bartender. There has been legislation introduced throughout the years but it keeps getting shut down. This does not mean that you don’t need some sort of certificate or permit showing that you attended some kind of alcohol awareness training in some States.
There are some that argue that an alcohol awareness training certificate is actually a license. Not true. It’s simply a permit showing that you have been made aware of the state and local laws regarding serving liquor. We’ll discuss this in more detail later.
There are still websites out there screaming ‘Get Your Bartenders License Here!’ They’re not being forthcoming, and are most likely trying to get you to sign up for their bartender training school.
A great way to gain some hands-on experience working behind a bar – if you’re taking the course “in person.” It’s no substitute for the real thing, of course, but familiarizing yourself with the bar set-up and basic cocktail recipes is a definite plus.
Obtaining a bartender school diploma is not a license to tend bar! I cannot stress this enough. There are too many bartending schools that push this as an enrollment technique. Don’t be fooled. You have to decide if Bartender School is worth the time and money.
Bartender school can teach you a lot – or at least point you in the right direction. You’ll get a list of drink recipes, tips for getting that first job, and some real practical experience pouring drinks. Learning about the different types of beer, wine, and liquor will also be taught.
Alcohol Awareness Training
Sometimes called ‘Alcohol Service Safety Certification‘ or ‘Responsible Vendors’ courses, alcohol awareness training is, in my opinion, a very necessary training certification for bartenders and servers.
You learn state and local laws for serving and dispensing alcohol, recognizing alcohol abuse, and how to check ID’s. Good stuff, and for those that have never been in the food and beverage industry – you should definitely pay attention.
Food Handler’s Certificate
Many states are now requiring that all food and beverage employees obtain food handling training. This is another type of certification that’s probably a good idea.
You’ll learn food handling procedures, temperature danger zones, sanitation, hygiene, cross-contamination, etc. The list goes on and on. Bartenders should know this stuff as most bars will serve food.
Know Your ID’s
Underage drinking is a huge problem in today’s world. For bartenders, making sure that your customers have a valid ID is one of the most important things you can do. Most states consider the below ID’s to be acceptable for the purchase of alcohol:
- State issued Driver’s License or ID card. Includes Canadian Provinces, U. S. Territory’s, and the District of Columbia.
- A paper temporary license if it hasn’t expired and shows a photo, signature, and date of birth. No photo? Not valid.
- Valid Military ID’s
- Passports from any nation
- Merchant Marine ID’s
- Tribal Enrollment Card (no expiration date required).
The process of checking ID’s will usually be included in any Alcohol Awareness Training class. If you are not required to take this class, then you better know how to properly check ID’s.
There really is no requirement or license that you need regarding checking ID’s. However, if you’re interviewing for a bartending job, the bar manager may ask you to give him or her some examples of valid ID’s. You better know what you’re talking about.
Final Thoughts About Bartender Legal Requirements
There is no license required to tend bar. Period. Bartenders may be required to go through Alcohol Awareness Training and sometimes even attend some sort of ‘Food Handlers’ training seminar. There is no substitute for experience, just like any other job,
A Bartender School Certificate is not a license – it simply shows a potential employer that you have spent the time and effort to invest in your training. There is nothing disadvantageous to going to bartending school. You’ll learn a lot of basic training – and some bar managers may add some weight to it in their selection process.
Related Bartending Topics
Can an underage food server serve alcohol? Yes, they can – in most States. A majority of the 50 states allow persons under the age of 21 to serve alcohol. Local rules may also apply.
There may be additional conditions such as having an adult on premises to supervise. Remember that there is a difference between serving alcohol and dispensing alcohol.
Can a bartender school guarantee me a job? They say they can. The truth is, getting your first bartending job is a numbers game. Develop a system for applying at different bars and restaurants. Put together a great resume and cover letter and, please, make sure you follow up.
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