Professional bartending is not for everyone. But if you want become a great bartender—the type that gets a James Beard award or a Netflix show—you need to have a certain set of skills. From the way you interact with customers to your commitment to learning new techniques behind the bar, here’s everything you need to have to become the best of the best in the bar industry:
If you have problems striking up a conversation with strangers, then you’re going to have a difficult time behind the bar. A great bartender has no issues chatting with patrons, and makes every customer feel at ease. An outgoing personality helps bartenders earn regulars and, ultimately, higher tips.
Without good communication behind the bar, the business will fall into complete chaos. Great bartenders can not only communicate clearly to their patrons (about the bar’s menu, drink specials or drink suggestions), but they also know how to work as a team with their fellow employees, relaying orders and asking for help when needed.
When dealing with difficult situations in a bar—like a drunk customer who refuses to pay or a fight between coworkers—you must be able to restrain yourself from getting angry or responding in a negative way. The best in the business can not only hold their tempers in check, but they can also assuage the anger of others. With the right approach, you can get an unreasonable patron out of your bar while, at the same time, making sure they pay their tab and actually leave a tip.
Yes, out of shape bartenders do exist. But it is important to remember that the more agile and fit you are, the better you’ll feel making drinks night after night, and the less chance you’ll have of injuring yourself on the job. Bartending requires you to be on your feet for hours at a time and, depending on where you work, those hours can be extremely strenuous and fast paced. You are also expected to lift upwards of 50 pounds regularly—whether it be moving kegs in the walk-in or handling cases of alcohol. A great bartender is quick on their feet and with their hands (being ambidextrous is a huge bonus) and has the strength to help with whatever tasks need to be done for service.
While it’s true that you can bartend without memorizing hundreds of cocktails (especially at beer and shot types of bars), you’re going to need to be able to make cocktails without looking up a recipe on your phone if you want to make it big. Furthermore, you’re going to need to memorize recipes for syrups, ratios for classic cocktail structures (like a Highball or a Sour) and ingredients—like which scotch works best with which type of sweet vermouth in a Rob Roy. Ultimately, all of that memorization will help you make better drinks, which will help you get better jobs, which will help get you better pay.
Yes, math is hard. But it is also necessary. As a bartender, you not only need to know how to calculate percentages in your head quickly, but you must also be able to add up drinks and be able to make proper change after a customer pays their tab. If you can’t keep track of your money or other people’s money, you’re not going to be very profitable behind the bar or go very far in your career.
You can’t be a slob behind the bar. Both your appearance and your habits must be spotless. Bartenders need to dress their part and be presentable to guests. The common perception is that if your shirt is stained or wrinkled, then your work or work station is going to be dirty as well. This is why chefs (and often bartenders) wear white; it not only signifies cleanliness, but the best in the business won’t get a single drop on their clothes while they work. Beyond appearance, having a messy workspace can result in contaminated cocktails. It is crucial to remember that you are serving someone something that they are going to ingest. Cleanliness results in higher quality drinks, faster, more streamlined service, and drinks that are safe for consumption.
It sounds super cheesy, but the best thing about being a bartender is that you have the opportunity to never stop learning while you’re working. Behind the bar, you have the chance to learn from other bartenders (who often are better at their job than you are), the ability to regularly learn new techniques or skills, and the chance to discover new ingredients. The best bartenders are always eager to learn, whether they’re discovering a new drink that they need to master or a new spirit to obsess over. This is what separates average bartenders from the bartenders who go on to manage bar programs or write cocktail books.