What’s It Like Being a Sober Bartender?
Abstaining from alcohol while working in the bar industry comes with both challenges and joyful rewards.
Andre Barnhill has been sober for seven years and working behind a bar for more than 10. The bar director at Clavel says that not drinking has affected relationships within his career—“sort of like never trusting a skinny chef,” he says. But in recent years, tides are turning and the feedback has been more positive. “I don’t feel a tremendous amount of pressure to drink . . . I’m not alone in sobriety as a bartender.”
For many people, the only reason to set foot inside of a bar is to drink alcohol. And it’s no secret some in the bar industry drink on the job. Consuming alcohol is seemingly part of the profession—bartenders might taste cocktails as they go, accept a customer’s offer to buy them a shot, or enjoy well-earned drinks at the end of a long shift. Night after night, professionals in the bar industry navigate a career that is structured around drinking. But what about bartenders, like Barnhill, who have cut alcohol out of their own lives entirely?
While the common term “alcoholism” doesn’t capture the full experience of those struggling with alcohol or substance abuse, Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) encompasses a much wider set of experiences. According to the National Institute of Health, nearly 15 million people in the U.S. have mild, moderate, or severe AUD. A 2015 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that the hospitality industry reports the highest rate of substance use disorders and the third-highest rate of heavy alcohol use.
All that is to say, it makes sense that bartenders are on a wide spectrum when it comes to alcohol consumption, and in recent years, a growing number of them have stated their intentions to never drink while working. Some are saying drinking on the job would be inappropriate. (Would you trust a drunk dentist?) There is even a formal initiative, called The Pin Project, that helps to communicate your intention not to drink.
Jade Golden, a sober bartender-turned-butcher in New York City says it was “very isolating” being in a bar all the time.“Working 40-plus hours a week around inebriated people—I honestly felt like an alien on planet earth,” she says. “Like I was the only one.”
The loss of trust and camaraderie was a common thread amongst sober bartenders. Connections are built over shared experiences, whether it’s between bartender and guest, or between colleagues—and sobriety can create distance. “I have a constant fear that I’m just not as good at my job as others are because I am inhibited by the fact that I can’t imbibe,” confesses Ashely McMichael, the bar manager at NiHao in Baltimore.
But she has found clever workarounds—comparing it to being a chef who is allergic to shellfish or nuts, but might still need to work with those ingredients in the kitchen. When she was off the clock (but still researching) at her bachelorette party in Puerto Rico, she did what many considered to be unthinkable: asked for a spit cup at a cocktail bar. “I went up to every bartender and was like, ‘I have been wanting to come to this bar forever,’” she recalls. “‘Can I have a spit cup? I know that’s gross but I want to try your entire cocktail menu.’”
From a practical standpoint, tasting is perhaps the most challenging aspect of avoiding alcohol while working in the bar industry. Sober bartenders typically navigate tasting by relying on kitchen staff to help taste or by being extremely selective. Giuseppe Gonzalez worked for years in some of New York City’s most iconic bars—including Pegu Club and PKNY—before moving west to Las Vegas, where he now bartends at Mott 32 in the Venetian Hotel. “I tell my liquor reps, ‘If you’re going to taste me on something, I don’t want to see 20 bottles,’” he says. “‘Taste me on two or three. If you had to bet the farm, what should I have?’”
Despite logistical challenges, awkwardness, and feelings of isolation, many bartenders believe that their avoidance of alcohol makes them better at their jobs. For those in leadership positions, staying sober sets a disciplined tone for the other people they work with. “It definitely has a halo effect, or a sphere of influence,” Barnhill says. “I’ve noticed that everyone else has toned down.”
But the people behind the bar aren’t the only ones avoiding alcohol. The culture around sobriety is shifting, with a recent explosion of non-alcoholic drink brands, more guests ordering zero-proof drinks, and a greater integration of “normal” cocktails with non-alcoholic cocktails on menus. Abstaining from drinking helps bartenders better cater to these customers. “I just don’t know how serious of a bartender I could have considered myself up until this point without putting some real energy into the spirit-free side of things,” Barnhill says.
Despite the myriad ways bartenders are navigating their sobriety and creating spirit-free menus, there is one thing they all agree on: just don’t call them “mocktails.”
“To mock something is to make fun of it,” McMichael says. “We should do away with that word completely. Whenever someone who is obviously an adult of drinking age orders something non-alcoholic, in my mind I grab my chest and I’m like, ‘kindred, you and me!’ I feel something.”
After all, isn’t that the real reason people walk into bars, night after night—to feel something? The job of the bartender is to provide an experience, a space for connection. And whether you’re drinking alcohol or not, we all deserve that feeling.