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What Are the Skills Needed to Become a Bartender?

So you want to be a bartender. You’ve done your homework, and decided that learning how to bartend would lead to a great second income, help put you through school – or become a full-time profession making great money. And having a whole lot of fun while you do it.

So what are the skills needed to become a bartender? At the top of the list is fully understanding that providing a great customer experience is your number one priority.

Knowing drink recipes is just ten percent of the job, and learning how a bar actually operates, knowing the different types and brands of alcohol, and learning how to be extremely efficient makes for an exceptional bartender.

Knowing drink recipes is just ten percent of the job, and learning how a bar actually operates, knowing the different types and brands of alcohol, and learning how to be extremely efficient makes for an exceptional bartender.

I fully understand that anyone that’s been in the food and beverage industry is probably familiar with most of what we’ll discuss here. However, for those of you that are thinking about entering the world of bartending – I’m going to give you a very good idea of what’s required to become an exceptional bartender.

Is Bartending Hard?

The short answer is ‘Nope.’ and it’s really not that hard to get a bartending job – even if you’re inexperienced. Don’t be fooled by those who say that you can’t get a bartending job without any experience. If you learn the basics, there will be a bar manager or owner out there that will take a chance on you.

A winning personality and some common sense are all you need to get your first bartending job. Don’t worry about drink recipes – learn the ‘classic 50’ and you’ll do just fine. In fact, you already know 100’s of drinks: Vodka tonic, Jack Daniels on the rocks, etc. Your customers will tell you exactly what they want.

Most likely, you will be working weekends and holidays – and might have some late nights. Most bars have either day or night shifts as they understand that people do have a life. Your shifts will probably be determined during the interview process.

Don’t be intimidated by your lack of experience. Bartending is one of the greatest jobs out there that’s available to almost anyone who puts in a little time and effort to secure their first job. Once you get a year, or even less, of experience – the sky’s the limit.

Great money, flexible schedules, and a fun working environment are just a few of the benefits of being a bartender.  Yes, it can be physically demanding to put in an eight-hour shift – but you will get used to it.

What about the future of bartending? Honestly, it’s never been better. For a better understanding, check out some current statistics at the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Positive, interesting stuff there.

What Are a Bartender’s Duties?

Make no mistake – the number one priority for every bartender is providing an exceptional customer service. Providing a great ‘customer experience’ results in the customer spending more money and, most importantly, coming back to the establishment time after time.

It should be the goal of every bartender to turn every customer into a ‘regular.’ That’s what you’re getting paid for. Be nice! A friendly, positive attitude goes a long way in this business.

Bartenders greet customers, take drink orders, and then make those drinks – or pour beer and wine. Food is a part of almost every bar these days, so knowing the food menu is a must.

You’ll be responsible for keeping a neat, sanitary, and well-organized workspace. Cleaning tables and washing glassware is another important part of your job.

Collecting payment, operating the POS system, and checking ID’s are all part of the job. Once you land that bartending job, the bar manager will train you in all of these areas, but it’s a good idea to have a general idea of how most bars function.

7 Categories of Bartending Skills Needed

I have broken down the bartending skills into seven general categories. Granted, this is a general list, but if you follow along you’ll see links to more in-depth articles. Let’s begin with the categories:

  • Bartending 101/Skills
  • Customer Service Setting Up the Customer Experience
  • Bar Operations
  • Bar Equipment & Set-Up
  • Recipes
  • Alcohol – Beer – Wine
  • Advanced Training – Learn Later

Each of the above categories can be broken down even further, so we’ll discuss a few of the most important aspects of each. I also have a YouTube Video about whether or not you really want to be a bartender on this very subject.

Bartending 101/Skills

Before applying for a bartending job, you must gain some much needed and required skills. Don’t worry – it’s not difficult at all and doesn’t take up a whole lot of your time. Most important are the basic skills need to perform the bartender’s duties:

  • Purchase Bartending Tools/Kits/Bottles
  • Practice
  • Speed vs. Efficiency
  • Pouring Liquor – Beer – Wine/Tests
  • Sanitation/Hygiene
  • Understanding Profit
  • Glassware/Garnishes
  • House Rules

Purchase a ‘Bartenders Kit. Buying the needed bar utensils is a must – and needn’t be expensive. Tools are crucial for practice. However, remember that this will probably be your first step in setting up a nice little bar in the corner of one of your household rooms. Nice. Your money isn’t going to be wasted.

The kit doesn’t have to be fancy, and you can find them on Amazon for anywhere between $20 and $40.  Fairly simple: Cocktail shaker set, strainer, muddler, stainless steel mixing spoon, beer and wine openers, and a jigger.

Separately, buy a couple of additional jiggers. Most will have two measurements. Maybe 1oz/1/2 oz jigger and a 2oz/1oz jigger. Stainless steel. Every bar has its own pouring policies, so be prepared to pour by the quarter-ounce.

Buy a couple of bottles of liquor. You need these for home use anyway, right? Pour out (or drink) the booze and fill with water. I would suggest a standard size liter bottle as well as something a little different – maybe a square bottle of Jack Daniels. If you’re putting together a home bar – go hog wild if you wish.,

Liquor pourers are a different matter. There are many types, and most bars will stick with just one. Standard pourers, speed pourers, plastic, stainless steel, some with caps, etc. They’re cheap, so purchase a couple of different types.

Here’s one of the best tips I can possibly give to aspiring bartenders: Go to a whole bunch of bars and restaurants. For brand-new, inexperienced future bartenders – you should be doing this anyway to pick the brains of working bartenders. Ask him or her what they use for bar utensils, pourers, and jiggers. You might even ask if you can come by and pick up some of their empty bottles.

I have written a separate article on what questions to ask working bartenders. They’re a wealth of information, and most will enjoy helping you out as long as they’re not overly busy. Believe it or not, you’ll be able to distinguish the difference between good and bad bartenders rather quickly.

Practice pouring liquor. And practice some more. Pour into a regular size glass and then transfer that liquid into the shot glasses or jiggers. Simple. Use different size jiggers. Get the portions down pat. Observe working bartenders – see how they do it. Their style, so to speak. Watch YouTube videos – but be careful, as some do offer poor advice and technique.

With practice, comes speed and efficiency. You can improve on both of these areas, but, obviously, you’re not actually working behind a real bar. Don’t sweat it, as it will only take you a couple of shifts to get familiar with the way the bar is set up in your new job.

Pouring beer and wine is a no-brainer. Stick with the portions that the bar owner gives you and you’ll do fine. Draft beer can sometimes be tricky, as the amount of CO2 pushing the beer can be different in every bar. You’ll get that experience by drawing a few drafts during your very first shift.

Let’s not forget about sanitation. General rules apply. Maintaining proper sanitation in a bar is really no different than what you do at home. Keep your bar neat, clean, and organized. Use the proper amount of soap and sanitizer for glass washing. Wash your hands frequently.

Bar owners are in the business to make money. A lot of it. Having a general understanding of gross profit and pouring (liquor) costs will give you a pretty good idea of how waste, over-pouring, theft, and free drinks can impact the bottom line.

Glassware and garnishes are easy. It’s all common sense here. Watch a YouTube video on how to cut fruit. Maybe another on the glassware that a bar uses. Bars will typically have about ten types of glasses: Beer, wine, shot, rocks, highball, cocktail/martini, snifter, Collins (tall glasses), and specialty glasses. Probably some type of coffee mug and another size beer glass. Easy.

Every bar is different. Bar owners have their own way of doing things and will implement policies that control how the bar works. I call them ‘Bar House Rules.’ How much liquor goes in each drink? How big of a head do I put on a draft beer? Is a glass of wine five ounces or 5 1/2?

But it’s not just about pouring costs. What is the policy on ID’s? How about complimentary food and drinks? When do I cut someone off?  What is the tipping policy? You won’t know any of this until your first day of work. Listen closely – and ask questions.

Customer Service

It’s all about customer service and customer experience. Period. Exceptional bartenders understand this, and bar owners demand it. Fall short here – and you’re done. Let’s take a closer look at some of the skills required to excel in this area:

  • Social Skills
  • What ifs? I’ll Give You the Answers
  • What the Bar Owner Expects
  • Knowing the Menu (Liquor AND Food!)
  • Suggestive Selling
  • Your Goal: Serving Those Customers Again
  • Customer Complaints/Unruly Customers/Fake ID’s
  • Is the Customer Always Right?

If you’re a ‘social butterfly’ type of person you’re probably going to be a great bartender. Put your social skills to work. With experience, you’ll get to know which customers wish to engage in conversation – and which ones don’t. It’s all common sense here.

What if someone demands that you add more alcohol to their drink? This question, and many others, I answer in a dedicated article about the ‘what if’s‘ in bartending. You’re going to run across so many different scenarios, and it’s good to have answers.

Bar owners invest a lot of money to get customers through the front door. Don’t sabotage them! Provide a great customer experience and those customers will return time and again. As I mentioned in the previous section discussing ‘house rules,’ bar owners will lay out their policies – and expect you to follow them.

Know your menus! This is a no-brainer. Memorize the ‘top 50 classic cocktails’ as well as the house specialties and you’re good to go. Don’t forget the food menu. Bartenders should know the food menu just as well as the food servers.

What Are the Skills Needed to Become a Bartender?

You should know the basics of suggestive selling. Generally speaking, there are two types: ‘Adding’ to the food or beverage item – or ‘upgrading’ the item.  In other words, “Would you like sautéed mushrooms on your steak?” Or, “Would you like your martini made with Tanqueray?” Easy, and with some experience you’ll get really good at this. The important thing to remember is to not ‘push it’ too hard.

If you’ve done your job well – those customers will return.  And they’ll ask for you – or sit on your side of the bar. That’s your number one goal. Will they tip you generously? Bet on it.

What about customer complaints? Yes, it’s going to happen.  Fall back on ‘house policy.’ Of course, you can always throw your manager under the bus – but try and resolve the issue in a timely and professional manner. This is where experienced bartenders have a decided advantage over brand-new bartenders. You’ll get it.

Unruly customers, fake ID’s, and a whole lot more. Just when you think you’ve seen everything – something really bizarre happens. Get used to it. I’ve written more about these situations here.

You’re going to run across some truly tricky situations. Are the customer’s always right? Generally speaking, yes. In a bar serving alcohol? Nope. Serving alcohol is a serious business and the bar must be responsible as to who they’re serving – and how much. I wrote a detailed article on just this subject here.

Bar Operations

Aspiring bartenders need not know the finer points of bar operations – but should have a grasp of the basics. I’ve broken this down into a few different areas.

  • How Do Bars Work?
  • Pouring Cost
  • Inventory
  • Payroll
  • Assigned Shifts
  • Teamwork
  • POS System

How do bars work? In theory, it’s the same as in many other industries. Provide a great product and service, charge the appropriate price – and make a handsome profit. Successful bar owners keep a close eye on their profit and loss sheet and make adjustments as the need arises.

You can categorize most expenses into two general categories: Uncontrollable expenses and controllable expenses. Uncontrollable expenses include rent/mortgage, insurance, licenses, depreciation, etc.

The bar manager is in charge of controllable expenses. These include purchasing inventory, monitoring payroll hours, training, menu pricing, etc. Of course, both of these areas can be further broken down – but you get the point.

If it’s one thing that a bartender should know it’s pouring/liquor cost. I wrote an additional article on just this subject, and you can find it here. Basically, pour liquor according to the bar owner’s instructions and you’ll be OK. Drink prices, waste, over-pouring, and free drinks all factor into the equation.

Why should a bartender care about inventory? Most likely, there are going to be times when you have to pull supplies out of the storeroom, liquor room, or walk-in coolers. You will be held responsible for making the correct entries.

There should be some sort of check-in/check-out process, and you’ll be required to adhere to the system diligently. No worries, as every bar can be a bit different – your trainer will fill you in. Accurate inventory controls are a huge factor in keeping costs in line.

Besides food and beverage purchases, payroll is the biggest controllable expense in the bar and restaurant. Why are they staggering shifts? Why are they sending me home early – or telling me not to come in for my shift? Be flexible, fellow bartenders!

Business will always dictate the number of employees needed at any given time. For bartenders, there’s not really much to learn here other than the fact that your hours will vary. Effective bar managers are all over this controllable expense and will assign shifts accordingly.

Teamwork. Obviously, a very important part of a bar’s success, and you’re probably going to get asked ‘teamwork’ and ‘working with others’ questions during the interview process. “Why should I wash those glasses – I didn’t wait on those people.” Yeah, see how that works for you. “That’s not my job” is one of the quickest ways out of this business.

The bar’s POS (point of sale) system controls just about all accounting functions in a bar and restaurant these days. Employees sign in and out, ring up sales, make change, etc. Don’t sweat it.

Can you operate a cell phone? Do you know how to use a computer? If so, then the POS system will be easy. There are so many types of systems out there that it’s useless to try and describe one – so I’ll pass.

Believe it or not, there are still bars out there that use the old type of cash registers that utilize just a few buttons. Again, don’t be even the least concerned about this. Even experienced bartenders get trained on the POS system. For some general insight into POS systems, read How a POS System Works.

Bar Equipment and Set-Up

Every bar has pretty much the same equipment – it just depends on how everything is arranged. Newer bars are usually very-well set up, so no worries there.  Bars that have been around for a long time may appear to be unorganized – but you’ll be surprised at how efficient the bar owner has made them. Here’s a general idea of what to expect in the way of bar set-ups:

  • Efficient Bar Set-Up
  • Opening/Closing the Bar
  • Glassware
  • Cleaning
  • Coolers/Sinks/Storerooms/Cabinets
  • Staying Organized
  • You’ll Get a Tour
  • Ask Questions

As I mentioned above, there are well set-up bars and there will be bars that present a challenge. Don’t worry about this – every bar is different. You’ll be surprised as to how efficient you can operate in a limited amount of space.

Every bar is a bit different and will have policies in place for opening and closing procedures. Again, don’t be too concerned about this. You’ll be trained as to how to set up and tear down the bar – and the bar will probably have a written checklist to follow. Easy.

As I mentioned in a previous section, glassware is easy. Every bar may have different ‘styles’ of glassware – but the basics are the same. Once you’re hired, your trainer will fill you in.

Keep a neat, well-organized bar. Remove empty plates and glassware immediately. Keep your bar towels moist, clean, and well folded. Easy. Believe me – customers notice. So does the bar manager.

What’s the process for washing glasses? How much sanitizer should I use in the third sink? You’ll get the low-down during the training process. Listen closely. There’s probably going to be written instructions near each piece of equipment.

Get familiar with all of the equipment. Know what products each cooler has inside. Where are the extra cherries kept? I need some straws – where are they? Again, you’ll get the tour when you’re hired.

This is all part of staying organized. Get the days needed supplies within reach before your customers arrive. Keep cold things cold and hot things hot. Simple.

Remember that even experienced bartenders need to be trained as to the bar’s particular equipment and policies. This would include a complete tour of the facilities. A good bar manager will make sure that you know where everything is, how to use the equipment, and general policies.

Listen closely to your trainer. Ask questions and take notes if needed. Experienced bartenders will grasp everything quickly. For new bartenders, it may seem a bit overwhelming – but don’t worry, as a week into your new job you’ll have everything down pat.

Alcohol – Beer – Wine

In my opinion, knowing the bar’s products is just as important as knowing drink recipes. Maybe even more important. As I have said many times, every bar is a bit different, and the types and brands of liquor, beer, and wine will vary.

  • Probably More Important Than Recipes
  • Basic Knowledge of Each Type of Alcohol
  • Recommendations/Selling Skills
  • Memorization Techniques

How can you suggest an appropriate drink if you don’t know what types or brands of alcohol the bar carries? You can’t. Once hired, you’ll probably get a list of every product in the current inventory. Learn it. If they don’t provide a list, simply sit down at the bar and list everything. Easy.

Learn some basic knowledge about each general category of liquor. You can find just about everything written about vodka on the internet. Just know that it’s usually 80 proof, clear, and has minimal taste. Of course, as we’ll discuss in the next section – know what drinks are made with each type/brand of alcohol.

You must know which products the bar carries in order to suggestive sell. I went over suggestive selling in a previous section about customer service, so you should be good to go here. Remember that when customers ask you for a recommendation – they’re asking for your PERSONAL opinion. Be prepared.

We will discuss some memorization techniques in the next section under recipes. It’s not hard, as everyone has studied for a test before. This is no different, so don’t sweat it. A week or two into your first job you’ll wonder why you were worried about this in the first place.

Cocktail Recipes

Knowing drink recipes is ten percent of the job. Yes, you read that correctly. I wish I knew of some way to completely dispel the idea that you need to know hundreds of drink recipes in order to be a bartender.

Yes, it is easy. I know that some people can memorize faster than others, but the truth is you simply do not need to know a ton of drinks to get a bartending job. Let’s take a look at what you should know:

  • You Already Know 100’s of Recipes!
  • The “Classic 50”
  • House Specialties
  • Memorization Techniques
  • Cheat Sheets/Cellphone
  • You’ll Be Surprised

I’d be willing to bet that you already know hundreds of drinks. Vodka tonic. Jack Daniels on the rocks. Rum and Coke. Your customers will tell you exactly what they want most of the time. Learning how to properly make drinks is important – but vastly overrated.

Learn the “Classic 50.’ These are the cocktails that have been around for years and still remain popular. Around fifty – give or take. Martini’s, Manhattan’s, Margaritas, and Daiquiris. There’s more, of course, but it really depends upon the type of bar you work in as well as the part of the country your bar is located.

Your bar will probably have some ‘House Specialties.’ No need to pre-memorize anything like this as every bar is different. You’ll make some drinks at one bar and then never make again for the rest of your career. Side tip: When hired, get the list of specialty drinks immediately and memorize them before your very first shift.

Either way, you’ll get a list of the house’s specialty drinks. Especially if you work in some sort of chain restaurant. Don’t be the least bit concerned, as it will take just an hour or two to memorize them.

Learning cocktail recipes is easy. It’s just memorizing ‘stuff.’ It’s like studying for a test – resist the urge to make it more complicated than it actually is. Rote learning, spatial learning, mnemonics, etc. Use any technique that gets you across the finish line. I’m a big fan of mnemonics as it got me through college.

Got a cell phone? Use it behind the bar. Have a website in your favorites that you can discreetly tap on for drink recipes. Of course, many bars will not allow their employees to have cell phones available while working, so check with your bar manager.

A bar recipe book stashed behind the bar can also be helpful. If you know your classics and house specialties – you should be fine. If a customer asks you for a drink you’ve never heard of – simply ask them how it’s made.

You’re going to be surprised. Once you have a couple of weeks’ worth of experience under your belt, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about. All that worrying about drink recipes will seem like such a waste.

Advanced Training

Almost all advanced bartending techniques are learned on the job – through experience. There are hundreds of situations or incidents that you’ll run across that only experience can solve. Stick with it, and continue acquiring skills by doing the following:

  • Observe Other Bartenders
  • Take Suggestions
  • Experience is the Greatest Teacher
  • Customer Service/Experiences
  • Fellow Employee Relations
  • Get a Better Job!

Watch other bartenders. Not only the ones you work with – but working bartenders in other bar establishments. Your bar manager probably has years of experience and should be your go-to source. By observing other bartenders you’ll gradually gain more experience.

Listen to other bartenders’ suggestions. They might not always be right, but never let your ego get in the way. There’s nothing worse than an arrogant bartender.  I’ve seen it too many times, and it’s led to many a bartender’s downfall.

There isn’t a bartender school out there that can replace experience. Bank on it. Yes, for basic bartender skills they’re great, but experience trumps everything. Make no mistake – when bar managers interview new prospects, most will look closely at your experience.

Bar managers are smart, experienced bosses. Most of them, anyway. They know that it takes time to fully develop into a great bartender, and that’s why many are willing to train – their way. Bar experience is NOT about knowing hundreds of drinks – it’s about great customer service and handling any situation that may arise.

As you gain experience behind the bar, not only will you instinctively know how to interact with your customers – but also your fellow employees. Teamwork is a must in this business, and learning how to work effectively with fellow employees is a significant part of the job. You’ll get it.

OK, so you got your first bartending job. Now what? Simple: Learn all you can, get some great experience – and move on to a better bartending job. Your first bartending job probably won’t be your last in this business.

As bartenders gain experience, they learn more about ‘other’ types of bars. Dive bars, nightclubs, hotels, sports bars – you name it. What type of atmosphere do you like? How about the music? Where are the best tips? How about the driving distance between home and work? More flexible shifts?

The above are all factors when deciding on ‘branching out.’ With some experience under your belt, the sky’s the limit. And, don’t forget that people are watching you. This includes other bar owners. Don’t be surprised if you get offers from other establishments.

Conclusion

Bartending is not a hard job. Yes, you ‘re going to be mentally and physically tired at the end of the shift – but the skills needed are not hard to learn at all. Besides all of the above general skills, just remember to:

  • Staying Organized
  • Ask Questions
  • Continue to Learn
  • Follow the Rules
  • Be Nice!
  • Relax

I have found that most new bartenders become fairly efficient at their new job in just a couple of weeks. Again, bartending is not hard! Learn the basic skills, practice your pouring – and you’ll do just fine. Ask questions and continue to learn.

Relax, be nice, and follow the rules. Not just the bar owners’ rules but state and federal laws. Protect your job as well as the bar owner’s business. And, most of all, have fun!

Related Bartending Topics

How much does bartending school cost? If you decide to go to Bartending School, you have two choices: Take an online course – or enroll at a school that has a physical location.  Generally speaking, an online course can cost anywhere from $29.00 to $100.00. Physical locations will set you back anywhere from $200.00 – $1500.00. Choose wisely.

Will bartending school guarantee me a job? Nope. If a bartending school claims to provide you with a guaranteed job – beware. It’s one of the reasons why the law came down hard on these schools a few years back. Some will claim to ‘put you on their staff’ for event/banquet types of functions. I guess you could consider that a ‘job,’ but read the fine print.

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