What No One Tells You About Becoming a Bartender

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As a former full-time New York bartender who has worked in dive bars, music venues and cocktail establishments alike, I can say without a doubt that it is not an easy job. Beyond simply making drinks (which is not so simple), you have to understand the social dynamics of the food and beverage industry, service the public respectfully, and acclimate to life on the graveyard shift (welcome to being a vampire). It takes years of practice, dedication and discipline.

Don’t worry, I’m not here to discourage your pursuit of being a bartender—just the opposite, in fact. To better prepare future bartenders, I asked some of New York’s best what they wish they had known going into the job. My personal top tip: Buy a sturdy pair of waterproof boots or washable, rubber clogs with arch support like Calzuro. Your feet will thank you. Here, bartenders reveal what no one told them about being a bartender.

“Tending bar is about learning how to predict the future and being prepared for the worst. The well-being of so many people lies in a bartender’s hands when they are working.” —Lucinda Sterling, bartender and managing partner at Seaborne

“I wish that I knew before starting out that the first thing you need—more than a rolodex of drink recipes that you can rattle off at will—was the commitment to being a better bartender than you were on your previous shift. If this is your attitude, and you are constantly focused on improving something—whether it’s your mise en place, your technique or your spirits knowledge—then eventually everything will fall into place.” —Shannon Mustipher, Denizen Rum ambassador and bar manager at Glady’s

“Nobody told me success meant working Friday and Saturday nights, that it would be virtually impossible to date outside my field and that leadership meant doing inventory.” —Eben Freeman, beverage master for AvroKo and Genuine Liquorette

"No one told me how much of a nerd I was going to become. When I first started bartending it was for the cash and the parties. I would stay out late and and go out even later with wads of cash in my pockets. As far as jobs go, that is some James Dean level cool. Now? I can spend an hour trying to figure out the secret recipe of an obscure spirit made by monks that have taken a vow of silence. I am amazed at the differences in the flavor of limes that have been juiced a few hours apart. I will take detailed notes on the different aromas I can find in different gins. I will go well out of my way to hear an author talk about a person that died well over a century ago. I am actively trying to learn Excel! Some of the best bartenders I know are total Poindexters. When did being a bartender become so uncool while remaining the coolest job ever?" —Nick Bennett, head bartender at Porchlight

“No one told me that in order to advance my career as a bartender I would need to read more in my first four years than I did in all four years of college.” —John deBary, bar director at Momofuku

“I wish someone had told me that growth within this industry is a journey. When I started out, I was intimidated by the amount that there was to master, and how much everyone around me already knew. Looking back, I realize that while I'll never be done learning, my biggest asset will always be my sense of hospitality.” —Lauren Corriveau, head bartender at Nitecap

"No one told me that to become a great bartender that I would have to write so many emails. On the bright side, I also never would have guessed that, being a career bartender, I would get to travel to so many wonderful places and meet as many like-minded people around the world that share my same passion." —Jillian Vose, bar manager and beverage director at the Dead Rabbit

“No one told me that to be more efficient when making multiple drinks, you should only touch the liquor bottle once before you put it back. It saves time and energy if you use one ingredient for as many drinks as you need it for, in one move. That would've been really great information for me when I first started out when I was in the weeds!” —Warren Bayani, bartender at Chao Chao

“My biggest revelation behind the bar came early on in my career. At Balthazar, I was taught the cardinal rule to live by in the service industry: It is more important to treat people respectfully than it is to make perfect cocktails. You can eliminate so many problems behind the bar—and anticipate your customer's needs—just by observing your patrons mannerisms and listening to them carefully. A quote from an old timer at the Waldorf Astoria that stuck with me read, ‘I don’t mix drinks. I mix people.’ Bartending is two-thirds about reading people, creating a memorable experience for my guests, and giving great service. The other third includes, but is not limited to, making great cocktails. You can be a great bartender anywhere in the world if you remember this. These are the basic requirements of the job and they haven’t changed in centuries.” —Jim Kearns, beverage director and partner at Slowly Shirley