Do bartenders give out free drinks? Of course they do! The real issue is, “Does the bar owner know that they’re doing this?” Sometimes it’s authorized – sometimes not. Problems arise when bartenders simply ignore the house free drink policies put in place to control costs.

So, when should a bartender give out free drinks? Only when authorized by the bar manager or owner. Most bars have a free drink policy put into place to monitor and account this situation, and it’s up to each individual bartender to adhere to these policies at all times. Any deviation from these policies may be considered outright theft.

It’s a real tug-of-war between bar owners and bartenders. Believe me, bartenders will eventually lose. Go along with the program – know the house free drink policy and you’ll be just fine. Remember: It’s not your booze!

Let me just say a few things here before I dive into this topic:
Firstly, I am not the ‘Ethics Patrol.’ Nor am I the ‘Morality Police.’ Your idea of what’s right or wrong may differ from mine. That being said, you may wish to align your thinking with that of your boss – and the bar’s policies. Your job may depend upon it.
Secondly, there are countless situations where a free drink may be appropriate. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of reasons. I simply couldn’t list all of them here – just know that your bar manager will fill you in on the overall policy. Listen closely to management so that you have a very good understanding.
Thirdly, and probably most importantly, the very best bartenders I have ever worked with operate within the house free drink policy. They work for the house. Period. Yes, exceptional bartenders are usually given a little bit more leeway, but they never work outside the set policy.

I just mentioned “Exceptional Bartender” in the previous paragraph. What is an exceptional bartender? Bar mangers know, so check out the 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers Are Looking For.

Most experienced bartenders know full well the reasons behind monitoring free drink output. For those aspiring to become a bartender, the following discussion should open your eyes quite a bit.

The Cost of Free Drinks – Accounting

Alcohol, beer, and wine cost money. The bar owner buys food and beverage items at wholesale, kicks up the price – and makes a tidy profit. That’s how a bar works. Savvy bar owners cost out their drinks and establish a minimum profit that they wish to achieve.

There is a huge difference between wholesale and retail costs and profits, and it’s beyond the scope of this article. You can, however, get a great foundation of these concepts by checking out this very informative article about the differences between wholesale and retail prices.

For bartenders that have been around for a while, you know that bar managers and owners will vary greatly in what they determine to be good accounting procedures. Some are very lax – and don’t even take a physical inventory. Some are so strict that it feels like your walking on eggshells behind the bar.

When Should a Bartender Give Out Free Drinks?

A bar owner with a keen eye on profits will be taking regular inventory, train his employees well, and monitor their performance. This includes portion control, waste, and giving out free products – whether it’s liquor or food. Anything going across the bar must be accounted for, and that includes free drinks.

The bar owner has costed out each individual food and drink item and knows what kind of return he should be receiving. This is called food and liquor cost. Calculating a bar’s liquor cost is a simple formula that you might wish to brush up on. Easy stuff.

How much of a head should you top off that beer with? Does a martini get two or three ounces of liquor? How much of each liquor are you putting into a Long Island Iced Tea? Bars vary greatly in these matters, and bartenders better know their portions.

And, this is where ‘free drinks’ enters the picture as a factor on how well liquor cost is controlled and monitored. An acceptable liquor cost equals a nice bottom-line profit, and you can bet that effective bar managers are watching this closely.

House Policy Regarding Free Drinks

Most bars will have very clear rules when it comes to free drinks. It’s part of what I call ‘House Drink Policy.’ This policy would include factors such as how much liquor to pour for each drink, the proper amount of wine per serving, and the size of the beer glass. And much more.

There’s nothing worse than starting your new bartending job and having no idea of what these policies are. Unfortunately, that’s just plain ‘ol poor management.  If the bar manager doesn’t provide you with any information on this – ask for it! You must be well informed, or it’s going to lead to trouble down the road.

The bar owner has costed out each of the individual food and drink items and knows what kind of return he should be receiving. This is called food and liquor cost. Bartenders just need to know that the pricing structure is usually well-thought-out, so follow it!

Let’s dive into some methods of monitoring and controlling ‘free drink policy.’ Most bars will utilize many of these methods – and some only a few. This is why it always makes good sense to get the specifics when you’re first hired.

The Bartenders Waste/Spill Sheet

Every bar should have one. These are not free drinks! Did someone knock over another customer’s drink? Write it down on the ‘spill’ sheet. How about if you’re wiping down the bar and knock over someone’s beer? Replace it with a fresh beer and write it down.

You poured a whiskey and coke and your customer ordered a rum and coke. Oops. Happens to all of us, as those liquor bottles in the well are close together. Or, you’re slammed with drink orders and made a simple mistake. Write it down.

This might be a good time to discuss ‘straining’ mistakes. If your customer has already sipped the drink – throw it out and write it down. If you’re at your station and accidentally poured the wrong liquor – strain it and set it aside to be used later. Just remember that if you don’t use it later – write it down as waste. DO NOT pour it back into the bottle!

Some bars even categorize their waste/spill sheet into two different sections: Bartender’s mistakes and customer mistakes. Kind of nit-picky, but you’re going to run across bar managers that are sticklers for detail.

Bartenders House Comp Sheet

Hopefully, the bar owner has authorized his bartenders to give out free drinks on certain occasions. For this, you need a house ‘comp’ sheet which is simply code for ‘complementary’ or ‘free.’ Nice.  Follow the rules, and you’ll be fine.

Many bars will divide this sheet into two categories – a ‘House Comp Sheet’ and a ‘Bartender Comp Sheet’ which I’ll talk about below.  Again, it depends on how nit-picky the bar owner is. House comps may be for regular customers, special occasions, or some other event.

When Should a Bartender Give Out Free Drinks?

The important thing to remember here is that it is the ‘house’ that is buying the drink – not the bartender. An experienced bartender will know this and say something like, “Dave the bar owner would like to buy you two a drink in honor of your special occasion.” Perfect – and write it down!

It’s also important to let the customer know that someone ‘over and above’ the bartender is buying the drink. And, for those other customers within earshot – there’s no room for judgment as to why the bartender is giving out some free drinks.

So, does the bartender automatically do this for each special occasion? Of course not. The house free drink policy will dictate when you’re allowed to do this. And, it’s usually best to inform your bar manager of what’s going on and let him or her make the decision. Simple.

Bartenders Comp Sheet

Throughout the years, bar owners have been in a constant fight with their bartenders over free drinks. The solution? Give them their own ‘tab.’ In other words, allow bartenders to give out a certain number of free drinks, or a certain dollar amount, during each shift.

This just makes good sense – and good policy. Eliminate the problem of ‘sneaking around’ trying to give out free drinks for bigger tips. Does this work perfectly? Nope. There’s still going to be bartenders that abuse the policy; however, most bartenders are grateful and will follow the rules.

How much liquor can a bartender give out per shift? That varies, of course, but most bar owners will set a dollar amount – and not a drink count. Around $25 per shift is a standard amount. Based on an overall 20% liquor cost, this will cost the bar about $5 in product for every bartender shift.

The key here is to not abuse it. And, there’s nothing saying that you HAVE to give out your allotment of free drinks every shift. And, just so you know, free drink allotments per shift do not roll over like cell phone minutes. Don’t be a doofus.

Employee Discounts

Many bars and restaurants have great employee discounts for food and beverages. Meals fifty percent (or more) off, shift drinks, etc. That’s great, but bartenders sometimes abuse this policy by giving their friends or good tippers their own ’employee discount.’ What?

Please don’t do this. Employee discounts are just that – a benefit for the employee. It’s just wrong to ring up drinks or food under the employee discount key when the item isn’t for you. Bar managers are on to this little technique – so beware.

Technically, it’s not a free drink but something that should never be done. There may be some bar managers that allow this – but not in any bars I’ve ever worked at. That’s what ‘comp’ sheets are for. Giving employee discounts to customers is a shady business – to say the least.

Forgetting to Ring Up Drinks

This is a much-overlooked factor when it comes to free drinks. Sometimes bartenders get so busy that they forget to collect from their customers. It’s certainly happened to me before, but, unfortunately, the bottom line is that it’s a free drink and will affect liquor costs.

The more experience you have as a bartender, the less this will happen. However, I’ve worked with some pretty absent-minded bartenders before and the effect on pouring cost and bottom-line profits can be substantial simply by neglecting to charge customers for their drinks.

This usually happens when it’s insanely busy, but, I have to admit that some bartenders are simply not organized. Distractions abound in the bar business, and you really need to stay on top of this.

And, it can be worse. Let’s say you’re busy and forget to ring up a regular customer’s drink. He thinks you’re giving him a freebie. The guy sitting next him thinks you’re giving him a freebie – and not him. Some other customer thinks you’re ripping off the house. The bar manager thinks you’re not writing down free drinks and screwing his pour cost. A big mess, to say the least!

Difficult Customers

Yep. You’re going run across this all the time. That customer that says he’ll hook you up if you hook him up. Don’t fall for it. Pouring a double for the price of a single is giving out free booze. And it’s theft plain and simple.

Or, how about that guy who complains that his drink is too weak? Again, your bar manager will give you some guidance in this area. I always responded by saying, “I can appreciate that you want a stronger drink, but we pour 1 1/2 ounces for all of our mixed drinks – and that’s exactly how I made yours. I’ll be happy to add some additional liquor to your drink – but I’ll have to charge you for a shot.”

Of course, some bars may allow you to ‘top off’ the drink to satisfy the customer. Once. I usually don’t, but if it’s a regular customer I might now and then. Something to remember here: Never taste the customers drink.

Substituting ‘Top Shelf’ Liquor

When you think about it, this is just another way of giving out free liquor. Pouring Johnny Black instead of house scotch, and charging for house liquor, is another way of giving out something free. And, yes, it’s theft.

When Should a Bartender Give Out Free Drinks?

Bartenders are known to do this for their regular customers – and get a bigger tip. A good bar manager will eventually figure this out by taking accurate inventory and ‘spot checking’ their bartenders. Don’t get caught doing this!

How Bartender’s Rip Off the House

Ouch. I know this article is about giving out free drinks, but I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss this topic just a little bit. I wrote a different article on how bartenders rip off the house here. This will open your eyes, believe me.

Besides stealing and drinking on the job, giving out unauthorized free drinks is one of the biggest ways bartenders rip off the house. Don’t do it. Follow the house rules. I have seen more bartenders lose their job in the very first week simply because they feel like they can get away with it.

I want you to think about something that’s very important. Ready? You don’t know who’s sitting at your bar! Of course, you know the regulars – but what about brand new customers? Do they know the bar owner or manager? Are they ‘Spotters’ hired by the bar to come in and assess the employees? You simply don’t know.

You may think that no one knows you’re giving out free drinks. Wrong. Your fellow employees probably know. So do your regular customers. In fact, I know many bar managers that send in their friends to evaluate bartenders.

Every bartender out there better realize that they’re ‘on stage.’ There are cameras everywhere. You may think that giving out free drinks is undetectable – but you’re wrong. If someone doesn’t inform on you – the inventory and pouring cost will eventually reveal what’s really going on.

How Bartenders Rip Off the Customer

I’m not going to go into this with too much detail as a wrote an article specifically on how bartenders rip off their customers here. In order to hide their giving out unauthorized free drinks, bartenders have been known to do any number of things to offset the cost. Actually, the list is endless, and bartenders constantly come up with new ways to make a few extra bucks.

Overcharging other customers, short-pouring, ringing food up on the liquor keys, etc. There are many ways to cover their tracks. Don’t be this kind of bartender! If your bar manager is any good at all – he’ll catch you.

Bartenders Drinking on the Job

So, you’re giving yourself free drinks? That’s what drinking on the job is. Yes, I know that some bar managers allow this – but is it being accounted for? That’s between you and your boss. He may even be doing shots with you. I’ve had bosses like that.

If it’s acceptable practice at your bar – fine. Just know that some states have laws governing drinking behind the bar. Having a few drinks behind the bar is one thing – not paying for it and neglecting to account for it is another as it’s just an additional form of theft.

I’ve run across many bartenders who drink behind the bar. How is it being accounted for? Is management OK with it? Many bartenders short pour their customers, or overcharge them, to make up for their own drinking. Not good. Again, see the link in the previous section on how bartenders do this.

How Bartenders Get Caught

You will get caught giving out free drinks – that’s a fact. Or, the bar manager simply doesn’t care and gives warning after warning but never takes action. That’s bad for the house, and the bar owner is probably wondering why his liquor cost is sky-high.

Someone will eventually rat you out. Count on it. And, if the bar is really good at inventory control the numbers will reveal a problem. If that’s the case, then you’re going to be monitored more closely. Of course, there are bar owners out there that simply don’t care as they’re satisfied with their current profits.

Final Thoughts About Free Drinks

Providing free drinks to your customers is a tricky subject. It all comes down to ‘House Rules.’ I have seen more bartenders get into trouble over this issue than any other. If you’re giving out unauthorized drinks on a consistent basis – you’re stealing.

For brand-new bartenders, do not simply do what the other bartenders are doing. Get the specifics from the bar manager and follow the rules. You can’t go wrong.

Related Bartending Topics

If someone is intoxicated, should I offer them some free coffee or something to eat? By all means – yes! Again, this will depend upon house policy, but effective bar managers know that it’s just good business to keep an eye on their customers who have had too much to drink.

What do I do if I see a fellow bartender habitually giving out free drinks? That’s up to you. As I mentioned earlier in this article, I’m not the ethics police. You have to do decide what to do. Just know that any employees who are involved in theft will have an effect on the entire organization.

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