Food & Drink

Unexpected Ways Bartenders Make Money Beyond Tips

Laura Hayes/Thrillist

Early in their careers, most bartenders live exclusively off their wages and gratuities. But after a few years of experience in the industry, doors open to all types of side hustles. To learn how a resourceful bartender maximizes their earning potential, we spoke with Abigail Gullo of Compère Lapin in New Orleans. She outlined seven auxiliary sources of income that help pad the pockets of enterprising barkeeps. Naturally, they include going all Tom Cruise during heated competitions.

Writing books

“I'd like to be like the Julia Child of cocktails,” says Abigail. “What she did for French cooking, making it accessible. She raised the level of everyone in America.” It's an ambitious goal, but Abigail isn't the only bartender to turn to publishing as an alternative revenue source. Once a bar hits a certain point of prestige, publishers come knocking. For example, New York institutions PDT and Death & Co. have put out successful cocktail books to help home bartenders do pretty much everything except grow twee mustaches.

Gaming the competition circuit

Larger spirits companies regularly host cocktail contests with prizes ranging anywhere from a simple trophy, to a huge check (the novelty kind and the kind you can cash), to $100k brand-ambassador jobs. Every contest has its own rules: some are looking for a simple cocktail they can sell in all 50 states, others want something more creative. “If you know how to game the system, you can run the circuit,” says Abigail.

Starting cocktail companies

Syrups, bitters, and bottled cocktails are all easy entry points to entrepreneurship for bartenders with established reputations. “It's a big hustle,” says Abigail. “You're taking a chance, but if it blossoms it can turn into something huge.” Case in point: Charles Joly from Chicago's highly lauded Aviary started a batch-cocktail company and even landed a contract with United Airlines.

Becoming brokers

“Before I was a bartender, I worked for a small brokerage,” says Abigail. "I would go around and sell my wares... just a few spirits. It was all commission, there was no salary.” Brokers supply retailers with a portfolio of liquor, and much of the business depends on personal relationships, so working as a distributor is a good way to get your foot either in or out of the bartending door.

Consulting on menus

Even if a restaurant or bar has an in-house beverage director, they'll often bring in a heavy-hitting outside consultant to give their cocktail program a shot in the arm. The tough part about consulted menus is keeping up the quality as the staff turns over. “I ask that we write into the contract that I'm going to come back once a month and do training,” says Abigail.

Becoming brand ambassadors

Much like being a broker, a brand ambassador is basically a lobbyist for a specific spirit. “A lot of times as a brand ambassador, your expense account is the same size of your salary. That was one of those dream jobs about five years ago,” says Abigail. Much of the position involves traveling to other cities and visiting bars and restaurants to sell them on your product. This can easily become a full-time gig, but bartenders often still have time to pick up shifts on the side.

Teaching the next generation

Cocktail education is so prominent these days that even the Culinary Institute of America has a class on how to craft drinks. Hosting small classes or giving seminars at conferences is a popular way for bartenders to make a few bucks, enrich their local following, and build more of a national reputation. Plus, it finally gives them an opportunity to explain to a whole new generation why a drink needs to be shaken for five full minutes.

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He's always wanted to ask a bartender for some fries with that shake. Follow him to deadpan stares at @Dannosphere.