Food & Drink

Is the $1 Tip Still Sufficient in the Age of Fancy Cocktails?


When I first started drinking, I -- like most 21 year olds I knew -- was broke. This means I drank $5 well cocktails, ordered PBRs at bars, and took shots of cheap vodka that could definitely be mistaken for nail polish remover. The standard rule of thumb that was passed down to me was to always tip a single dollar per drink -- after all, how much trouble was it really to pour a beer or dispense a gin and soda?

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to appreciate more nuanced cocktails. Bartenders are experimenting with more daring and complicated methods, using infused liquors with exciting flavors, making their own bitters, and really investing in fancy ice. Some cocktails are set on fire; others change color -- from deep blues to swirls of indigo and magenta -- mid-drink. Garnishes are delicately displayed, and at times salt and sugar rims contain jolts of extra flavors that tie the entire drink together.

It’s an exciting time to be a fan of cocktails, because there are so many incredible ones out there. But with all this extra labor that goes into your drink -- are bartenders more like chefs? How much should you be tipping now? Is $1 still enough? I turned to mixologists, bartenders, and drink directors from around the country to gauge their opinions:

Julia Huang

Bartender, The Garret (New York City, NY)

"I think that the $1 tip rule should only apply to beers or wine that don’t require extra explanation or knowledge from the bartender. For example, we all know what a Stella is, but we might need some explanation for what a Petit Verdot is.

When it comes to cocktails, most bad tippers are unaware or just don't consider the amount of creativity, work, and time that goes into creating that perfect drink. With every complex cocktail, let us not forget that there is someone who had to sit there and cut and squeeze fresh juices, slice and dehydrate your blood orange garnish, separate fresh mint leaves from their stems, or infuse your spirits with various herbs and spices days ahead. It takes a lot of preparation to keep those ingredients constantly fresh.

A rule for tipping that I follow myself, and I think most others in the industry can agree, is that the baseline for tipping should be 20% in NYC. If the server went out of their way to make me smile, have a conversation, or explain the aging and fermentation process of this tequila made from whatever region and whatever species of agave, you should consider the level of knowledge, expertise, and genuine want to teach others."

Sarah Meade

Co-Owner, Here and Now (Los Angeles, CA)

"I think the only time $1 tip per drink worked is back in college 15-20 years ago when drinks were served out of clear plastic cups and cost $4-$5… If it’s a tipping venue, then I’d say 18-22%. 18% if service was just okay or mediocre. 20% for good to great. 22% or more if mind blowing service. The idea of tipping $1/drink and switching to tipping by % if it is quality ingredients seems a bit far-fetched to me. Stick to 18/20/22. Anything less, I’d expect the guest to ask to speak to a manager."

Logan Demmy

Lead Bartender, The Citizens Trust (Columbus, Ohio)

"We always appreciate and feel that tipping on drinks is appropriate, as it is a large part of the bartenders wage. I would say on average that our guests tip 20% of the total bill, as we open tabs and are not closing their bill after each drink/round. For single rounds of drinks we often see guests tip $2 per drink, but it is of course up to the guests to decide what they feel is appropriate based on their experience/drink received."

Joel Schmeck

Bar Manager, Irving Street Kitchen (Portland, OR)

"Being a member of the service industry means that my tipping mantra will not mirror that of the public at large, but in general most can agree that $1/drink applies in many situations where beer, wine, and simple well drinks are being prepared. If your bartender takes time and great care to prepare a specialty cocktail with multiple ingredients and elements, a $2/drink tip is often appropriate. Behind the scenes many hours are spent preparing the necessary ‘mise en place’ at cocktail bars so these tips could also be seen as an acknowledgement and thanks for the preparation taken to provide an enjoyable drinking experience.

Additionally, bartenders are providing a service beyond just whipping up a tasty beverage; if you enjoyed your interaction or had a good laugh with your bartender, feel free to tip as you see fit!"

Rael Petit

Beverage Director, The Williamsburg Hotel (Brooklyn, NY)

"Bills need to be paid! The $1/drink rule is more for when you are ordering a beer. When a bartender is spending time making you a cocktail, it should be around $3-4 per drink. The person is spending over a minute to make your order, and if you are asking for something with egg white it will take the person almost 2 minutes to prepare your drink, which is something to keep in mind when determining tip."

Lawrence Main

General Manager of F&B, Delphine (Hollywood, CA)

"Personally, I don’t think the use of thoughtful ingredients alone is a reason to increase your tipping on beverages if you generally follow the dollar-a-cocktail rule. However, I would follow the standard 15-20% tipping practice if the cocktail includes extra labor, sometimes displayed through ingredients. If the bartender has smoked the cocktail, hand-chipped the ice, used house-made products like bitters, shrubs, or infusions, then I feel the work that goes into your cocktail is beyond the moment it took them to assemble the drink. In these cases, you should tip on the planning and preparation time that also went into your beverage."

Jeremy Barrett

Bartender, Billy Sunday (Chicago, IL)

"I believe that the $1 per drink rule is a bit outdated. I was taught 20% is the standard now, or $1 per every $5 spent. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule. If you order one beer, a shot, or something very simple, then a $1 tip for pouring a draft is acceptable. However, with the craft cocktail renaissance in full force, you're seeing more complex drinks.
From my standpoint, if I order a complex cocktail and see the bartender working to make this beautiful piece of liquid art, I'm definitely going to tip them 20%. (In reality more like 25%, but that's because I'm industry). What some people don't seem to understand is that most of us are making minimum wage plus tips, with typically no health insurance, so our livelihood depends on people's generosity."

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Kat Thompson is a staff food writer at Thrillist and a former waitress who thinks you should tip generously and show kindness to those in the service industry. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.