shots of whiskey

Whiskey – What Bartenders Should Know

You’re interviewing for your first bartender job. The bar manager suddenly shifts gears and asks you the difference between Jack Daniels and Crown Royal. Oops.

In your haste to memorize most of the basic and classic cocktails, you’ve neglected to study and understand the basics of liquor.

Whiskey – What Bartenders Really Need to Know

I’m going to discuss the basics of whiskey – what bartenders should know, and bar managers are looking for, in order to help you land your first bartending job.

It’s not all that common to be asked the above question in the interview – but it can happen. Or, they’ll ask you about Scotch: “What’s the difference between Cutty Sark and a single-malt?” Knowing the basics could very well be the difference between getting that job – or heading off to your next interview.

This scenario is all too common for aspiring bartenders. They spend most of their time trying to memorize every drink recipe on earth and fail to understand the difference between different types of whiskey. It’s not all that complicated, and every bartender should know at least the basics.

We’ll concentrate on the basics of bourbon and whiskey here, but I have written additional articles on vodka and scotch in case you wish to bone up on those topics. Make no mistake – a general knowledge of all types of liquor will pay off in the long run.

Don’t be alarmed. Most bars will usually have around 5 brands each of bourbon and blended whiskeys – not counting Scotch, which is a whole different animal. I wrote a separate article distinguishing between Canadian, Irish, Rye, Scotch, and Tennessee Whiskey. In fact, I break down the general differences between all whiskey’s.

Your bar customers will usually get very specific when ordering something besides generic bourbon or whiskey. “What kind of Irish Whiskey do you carry?” Or, “Dude, got any decent rye whiskey?”

We’ll break down everything here. If you’re interested in getting a more in-depth lesson on bourbon and whiskey, Jim Beam provides a pretty good explanation.

The difference between bourbon and whiskey is sometimes confusing, but if you can remember that all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon – you’re off to a good start.

The Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey

Yes, there is a difference. If a customer requests a whiskey on the rocks and you fail to ask if they would like a straight bourbon or a blend – oops.

There’s nothing more frustrating than a customer giving you that “are you serious?” look when you automatically pour the cheap house whiskey when they really wanted a Canadian blend.

Yes, I know – you’re not a mind reader. But this is where your suggestive selling and good customer service skills come in. Always suggest a “call” liquor alternative!

Let’s take a look at a few differences between your basic bar whiskeys and bourbons. And, by the way, ‘whiskey’ can be spelled with or without the ‘e.’ The Canadians, Japanese, and Scots do not use the ‘e.’ No big deal, and I’ll use the term intermittently here.

What is Whiskey?

Whiskey is distilled from grain and aged in oak barrels. There cannot be any added flavorings for it to be called whiskey – the flavor must come from the barrel that it is aged in.

This means that any whiskey that has added flavor, like chocolate, cinnamon, fruit, etc., cannot be technically called ‘whiskey.’

The location where the whiskey is made has a lot to do with what type it is. So does the type of barrel it is aged in as well as the type of grain used in the distillation process.

What is the mash? Mash is the mixture of grains that are used in the making of the whiskey. Bourbon’s mash must be 51% corn. Not so with your regular whiskey. Any combination of corn, rye, wheat, barley, and other grains may be used. Some even add oats.

How strong can the whiskey be? Usually 80 – 100 proof. In other words, 40 – 50 percent alcohol by volume.

What is Bourbon?

Bourbon is an American whiskey primarily made from corn. Contrary to popular belief, it DOES NOT have to be made in Kentucky. Here are some facts:

  • Can be produced anywhere in the United States, but the majority is produced in Kentucky
  • If it’s not produced in the USA – it cannot be called Bourbon
  • Must contain at least 51 percent corn
  • Must be distilled at 160 proof or less.
  • Must be stored in charred new oak barrels
  • Experts disagree as to where the name ‘Bourbon’ comes from. Some say Bourbon Street, New Orleans, and others say Bourbon County, Kentucky. Still others say the ‘House of Bourbon’ from 13th century France
  • Straight bourbon must be aged at least two years.
  • Must be aged three years to be named whiskey in the EU.
  • Very diverse flavors. Can include oak, caramel, spices, and vanilla

Bourbon has an interesting history, and a more in-depth understanding of this liquor can be found here at The Manuel. For now, just know that in the late 1700’s, the American South used their knowledge of distillation, brought from Europe, to start experimenting with different methods of making bourbon.

Drinks Made with Bourbon and Whiskey

Besides your basic whiskey cocktails, i. e., Bourbon and water, Whiskey and soda, Bourbon on the rocks, Whiskey neat, etc., there’s a number of basic whiskey cocktails and classics that new bartenders should probably know.

Keep in mind that I’m using ‘bourbon’ and ‘whiskey’ interchangeably here. Your customer will most likely let you know by designating whiskey or bourbon – or by calling the brand.

This is not really a drink recipe lesson – just some good basic information to get you started. As always, drinks that are popular in one area of the country may never be called in another part.

Whiskey Sour. The timeless whiskey drink. 1 1/2 ounces whiskey or bourbon and sweet ‘n sour. Some bartenders use simple syrup and lemon juice. Garnish with a cherry after a rigorous blend with ice. Pour into a cocktail glass. Some bartenders add an egg white – I never have. Some even sugar the rim – I don’t. Many bar customers will call their brand: “Give me a Jim Beam sour.”

Manhattan. The classic. Made with any brand of bourbon or whiskey. Two ounces liquor with a splash (about a 1/4 ounce), of sweet vermouth. Garnish with a cherry. Some bartenders will add a dash of Angostura bitters. On the rocks, or chilled and served ‘up.’

There are tons of variations of this drink, and many people would call this an “Old Fashioned.” It can be a bit confusing, but most bars will have their versions – stick to that.

Old Fashioned. Another classic. Two ounces bourbon or whiskey, one sugar cube, a couple dashes of Angostura bitters, and a splash of plain club soda. Some bartenders will muddle the bitters, sugar, and an optional orange slice and then add the remaining ingredients. Serve on the rocks with a cherry and orange peel. The original recipe called for rye whiskey – but that’s fairly uncommon these days.

Seven and Seven. I know – it’s actually a ‘called’ drink. Either way, this is still a very popular drink. 1 1/2 ounces of Seagram’s 7 with 7-Up. Serve in a highball packed with ice – no garnish.

Lynchburg Lemonade. 1 1/2 ounces of Jack Daniels. 1 ounce triple sec, sweet ‘n sour, and fill with lemon-lime soda (or 7-Up). Not to be confused with your ‘Long Island Iced Tea’ category of cocktails. Very popular in some areas of the country – unknown in other parts.

Whiskey - What Bartenders Should Know

Irish Coffee. A very popular drink, and you’ll find that your bar customers will order coffee drinks with almost anything in them. 1 1/2 ounce Irish Whiskey (Jameson, for example), fill coffee mug with coffee, and add whipped cream on the top. Some bartenders might even add some brown sugar. Some garnish with a cherry – I don’t. Many bartenders will sprinkle cinnamon, nutmeg, or chocolate on top of the whipped cream.

John Collins. A Tom Collins with whiskey instead of gin. 1 1/2 ounces bourbon or whiskey, sweet ‘n sour, club soda. Garnish with a cherry – maybe add an orange slice. All Collins drinks are usually served in a tall glass.

For very brand new bartenders, the above listed basic and classic cocktail recipes will do you just fine. Don’t waste your time learning every whiskey drink recipe out there.

And, again, don’t worry too much about the difference between bourbon and whiskey. Your customers will usually tell you exactly which brand they prefer.

You’ll find that most whiskey drinkers prefer it neat, on the rocks, or with soda or water. ‘Give me a shot and a beer’ usually means whiskey or bourbon. Ask them! Some may even ask for it in a snifter. It’s rare to get a call for ‘Whiskey and Orange Juice,’ but don’t be surprised when you get an unusual request.

Bar customers may surprise you. There are many other types of whiskey drinks that you could get a call for – but rarely. Knowing the above listed cocktails, along with the basics, will supply you with over 95% of the common drinks made with bourbon or whiskey.

Popular Brands of Whiskey

  • Seagram’s 7
  • Canadian Club
  • Crown Royal
  • Seagram’s VO
  • Southern Comfort
  • Canadian Mist
  • Black Velvet

There are many more, of course. The above list will give you a general list to start with. Your bar, and area of the country, will have a lot to do with the brands they carry.

The best thing to do, when you do get that bartending job, is to get a list of all brands of liquor that the bar carries. Take a photo of the back bar. Even if you have to physically go in there and look at their back bar. Be prepared.

Popular Brands of Bourbon

  • Jack Daniels
  • Jim Beam
  • Maker’s Mark
  • Wild Turkey
  • Early Times
  • Old Fitzgerald
  • Blanton’s
  • Woodford Reserve

Remember that your customer will usually call out their favorite brand. If not, suggest a call or premium brand. Know your bar’s alcohol brands, as there’s nothing more embarrassing than to say “I don’t know if we carry that brand.” Your bar manager won’t like it either.

Every bar will most likely have a cheaper whiskey that’s used in the well. Or, they may use Jim Beam or something similar as their well liquor. All bars are different, so don’t worry about this too much. Don’t waste your time trying to memorize every brand of whiskey and bourbon out there.

It’s important to remember that every bar does things a bit differently. For example, the brands listed above could very easily be divided into four price categories instead of two. Or even five. It will depend upon the wholesale cost of the item – and how good the Bar Manager is at pricing.

As with any brand of liquor, there may be those unusual, very expensive whiskey brands that have their own distinct price per drink. For any bartender just starting their new job, a price list will be provided. And, the POS system will have all prices at your fingertips.

All brands of whiskey and bourbon that the bar carries will be priced according to their wholesale cost. Most of the time. A good rule of thumb is a $1-2 price increase as you go up the line. Of course, those very premium brands will have their own price.

Another pricing structure in many bars is to pour more, and charge more, for “on the rocks.” This also will be reflected in the overall pricing structure. This is something that bartenders need to be very clear about.

Unfortunately, many bar owners seem to miss the mark on their pricing structure. Chain restaurants and hotels do a pretty good job, but many bar owners just want 2 or 3 levels of pricing. Big mistake, but it’s not up to you to question. Charge what you’ve been instructed to charge.

Who Orders Bourbon or Whiskey in a Bar?

You’re going to be surprised. As a bartender, it’s kind of fun to guess what a new customer will order. Yes, it’s usually someone a bit older that orders a bourbon on the rocks; however, as whiskey makers become more creative the younger crowd seems to be catching on

Many whiskey drinkers are the ‘shot and a beer’ type of customer. Most will ask for it on the rocks or with water. Some will ask for a strict number of ice cubes. To each his own. The more experience you have behind the bar – the less surprised you’ll be. Scotch is a whole different ballgame.

Final Thoughts on Whiskey and Bourbon

Whiskey is a very popular drink in bars these days. Maybe not as much as vodka, but it definitely gets it’s share of drinkers. I’ve noticed that there are more daytime and early evening whiskey drinkers than there are nighttime drinkers.

The type of bar also has a direct relationship to the type of drinkers frequenting the place. It’s not written in stone, but there are general similarities. New age, fancy nightclubs probably won’t sell too much whiskey. It’s all about the vodka in those establishments..

For aspiring bartenders, don’t spend too much time learning everything you can about a certain type or brand of liquor. Your time is better spent hitting the pavement and getting interviews. Gaining in-depth knowledge about every type of liquor is for a later time.

Learn what Bar Managers are really looking for when hiring new bartenders here: 7 Skills and Qualities Bar Managers Are Looking For

Related Bartending Topics

Do bar customers order Scotch more frequently than regular whiskey or bourbon? That’s hard to say, as it always depends on the type of bar and location. I would say that during the daytime it’s probably about 50/50.

Overall, vodka is definitely more popular these days, but whiskey and bourbon seem to be making a comeback because of the creative ways they’re making it.

If a customer orders a bourbon on the rocks, should I suggest Jack Daniels or Maker’s Mark? Great question. Of course, the answer is a resounding YES! All restaurants and bars are probably going to push the ‘suggestive selling’ technique. It’s just good business, and raises that guest check average. Here’s a great way to answer this customer’s request: “Would you prefer Jack Daniels or Early Times?” Boom.

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