I need to learn to be a bartender very quickly.
March 29, 2014 3:09 PM   Subscribe

I just got hired as a bartender. Yay! I know nothing about being a bartender. Uh-oh. I need to learn about making drinks as fast as possible. How do I best do that?

The situation isn't quite as desperate as it seems. It's not high class bar. It's basically a little bar/pub at a train station that serves a little of everything. My area, however will be in the bar section.

I know a lot about beer. I know more than most people about wine. But other than the most basic drinks (gin and tonic, rum and coke, etc.) I know very little about making cocktails. I did not lie about this fact. I was honest and admitted I have very little knowledge of how to make cocktails, but I didn't think it would be a problem learning how to do so.

The person that hired me didn't seem to make a big deal about it. She simply said 'if you don't know how to make a drink, just ask the customer how to make it'. But I'd rather be as knowledgable as possible, as quickly as possible.

Orientation is tomorrow, so I doubt we'll be mixing drinks. But it will be sooner than later. So my question is: How do I learn the basics as quickly as possible? Is there a list of drinks I should have knowledge of? I realize it will take time, and knowing what goes into a drink isn't the same as making the drink, but I'd like to do this as efficiently as possible.

Any advice that helps me stay calm instead of freaking out would be wonderful.
posted by ratherbethedevil to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There is in fact a list of drinks you should have knowledge of! The International Bartender's Association Official Cocktails are the drinks that are common enough that they can be used in cocktail-making competitions. I mean, nobody is going to ask you for a Monkey Gland at a train station bar, but you can probably get a good sense of what people are going to ask for by eying that list and seeing which drinks you recognize (an old-fashioned; a daiquiri; a Long Island iced tea; etc.).
posted by snarkout at 3:19 PM on March 29, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Get some bottle pourers (the little spouts that plug into bottles of liquor) and a little jigger/pony thing or precise shot glasses and practice pouring specific amounts. No matter what you are making, you will need to be able to do that confidently every time. Then, practice doing it just a hair longer to make your customers happy.
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 3:31 PM on March 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: To your last sentence: I attend a lot of bars, and in my zone, if you are a bartender at a bar that is not a dedicated cocktail bar, and you know 10 drinks, then you're ahead of the game.
posted by ftm at 3:37 PM on March 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Get a drink recipe book and have it behind the bar, or just google it on your phone. Anyone ordering a Grasshopper at a train station deserves what he gets.

Good luck!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:41 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks: Six Basic Drinks
posted by Tom-B at 4:00 PM on March 29, 2014

Best answer: Consider an app. I am pretty much exclusively a beer drinker myself, but I put Mixologist on my phone so that I could learn to like cocktails, or at least not sound stupid when ordering them at cocktail bars/making them for friends. Not that you necessarily want to refer to your phone all the time while you're serving, but it could be useful as a learning tool, or in a pinch.

(And yeah, seconding ftm - I'm from Wisconsin, right, and one time I ordered an Old Fashioned at my corner bar here in Chicago, and the bartender looked puzzled and came back ten minutes later with a screwdriver. Sooo. Standards most places are not too high.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 4:44 PM on March 29, 2014

Best answer: This previously was about a different setting, but has useful comments on the logistics of prep and taking orders.

Frankly, if it's a railway station bar, then the clientele are not likely to be picky. If you can make a martini, a cosmopolitan and a margarita you're a good bit of the way there.
posted by holgate at 4:57 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'd start with dropping by the bar and chatting with the bartender, asking what drinks people order the most, and then learning how to make those. A lot of people these days just order drinks by the ingredients, rather than by their name, they'll say "vodka and orange" rather than "screwdriver", so that makes it a lot easier for you. Also, a lot of drinks have several variations in the recipe, so if you're not sure how a drink is made, it is fine to ask the customer "how do you like it made?" which makes you sound more knowledgeable than "how do you make that?"

Bartending is nice because people have to come to you for service; you are more in charge of the interaction, and people tend to be nice to you - you're the gatekeeper of the drinks! Also, the fact that you meet each person face-to-face means that you get a moment of eye contact, and a chance to chat a bit while making the drink. Laying on a little charm at that moment will smooth out any initial roughness you may have while learning to mix.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 5:23 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a customer: don't be afraid to measure. I'd rather wait longer and get a good drink than have someone poorly eyeball it and get a bad one.
posted by fiercecupcake at 5:59 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's analogous to learning how to cook. You will do well to learn the basic techniques properly.

There are some good YouTube videos on how to make various drinks and the proper techniques to use, like this one. This guy (Chris McMillan) has a bunch of these videos, and I think they're quite good.
posted by mikeand1 at 6:05 PM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: go forward with confidence. every bartender mixed a professional drink for the first time. bartending is actually more people skills than mixology, and if you're an experienced drinker who doesn't have a crippling fear of stranger socialization, you can be a bartender, particularly starting out in a train station. if someone orders something labor-intensive like a mojito, feel free to tell them "we don't do that here." they'll order something simpler, we all do.
posted by bruce at 6:17 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

To Tom-B's excellent suggestion, I would add: the classic highball proportion (alcohol to nonalcoholic mixer, such as gin&tonic, rum&coke, jack&ginger) is: 2 ounces booze to 5 ounces mixer with ice. Personally, I mix 2:4.

Also, if someone orders a Manhattan, ALWAYS ASK if they want it up or rocks. I can't imagine ordering it on the rocks, but if the bartender fails to ask--or I fail to specify--I always end up with some horrible ice filled drink, instead of my Manhattan. Seriously, no-one ever gives you a martini on the rocks, so why would you serve a Manhattan that way?
posted by crush-onastick at 6:34 PM on March 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I learned to tend bar in exactly the same way that you are about to do -- no training, just trial by fire. I learned at a place that still free-pours drinks (many corporate places use automatic pourers; these things are the devil), in a college town, which means that there is a potential to get very busy, but that most drinks are on the simpler end of things (and a lot of it is beer). Here are some random things that come to mind that I learned (some how-to, some a little more philosophical):

1) Learn to free-pour if you can. Experienced bartenders measure by counting (in their heads), not by using a jigger. You may want to start by using a jigger on your first day, but it's super impractical in general (it slows you down, you have to clean it, etc.). Get a pourer and a bottle (of water) and practice it at home. Most bartenders are taught to use a 3-count, but individual variations on counting speed and the intended strength of drinks make the practice of counting a little less straightforward than it sounds. You just have to practice. If you serve a lot of bottled beer, keep a speed opener in your back pocket at all times. Many modern beers have twist-off caps, yes, but by no means all, and you will tear your hand up learning which is which if you're not careful.

1b) Learn how to pour a draft beer properly. Generally speaking, you tip the glass about a 45 degree angle (between horizontal and vertical, mouth-up obvs) and begin pouring, then slowly lower the bottom of the glass as it fills until it's full (at which the glass should be nearly vertical).

1c) Learn how to change a keg. Different kegs use different systems, you'll have to ask how theirs work.

1d) Learn how to change the syrup for the soda guns. This is pretty easy, but you'll need to know where to go.

1e) Learn how to open a wine bottle properly using a restaurant-style corkscrew. A good trick is to slide the foil off the top with your hand (rather than fumbling around with cutting it) then go to town with your corkscrew.

2) Learn how to make the most popular drinks ahead of time. Gin/vodka tonic (and vodka+cran/screwdriver -- same thing, really, just different mixer); rum and coke (same template, substituting rum for vodka/gin and coke for tonic, add a lime wedge to the glass rim); etc. Probably ninety percent of the mixed drink orders will be one of these variations on a theme (alcohol plus mixer, possibly with garnish of lime/lemon/cherry).

3) Outside of the 90% I just mentioned, most other mixed drinks will be one of the following: shots (almost always 3 or fewer ingredients), martinis, margaritas, long islands, manhattans (and their cousins), sex on the beach/tequila sunrise (same basic ideas as the 90%, just adding a second mixer and/or a bit of schnapps; I used to have a hard time remembering which drink used which mixers until I just forced myself to memorize them), straight liquor (e.g., a bourbon on the rocks). For that last one always ask (when there is the option) whether the customer wants it up or on the rocks if they don't specify (most people will).

4) Don't be afraid to ask what's in a drink you've never heard of. Believe me, people will ask for some random stuff that another bartender across town made up and named. If they don't know what's in it, then you can't make it, and that's not your fault.

5) Don't walk around empty-handed. Any service industry person will tell you that it makes life easier if you clear empty glassware or signed tabs on your way back from delivering a drink or closing a tab.

6) On the subject of martinis: Almost everyone will say dry, many will also add dirty. My default approach to making a dry martini is to first put ice in a shaker, add a little vermouth (enough to get the ice wet, basically, less than half a shot) and POUR IT OUT (just the vermouth, not the ice), then add gin/vodka and olive juice as needed. Use dry vermouth, not sweet vermouth (goes without saying, you'd think, but I've seen a new bartender not know there were two varieties, so I'm erring on the side of caution).

7) Do thank people when they tip, but don't pay attention to how much anyone tips if you can avoid it (ignore if you live in one of those countries that don't have a tipping culture). A lot of people are cheapskates about tipping, but it helps your sanity to not notice every time someone does that (and it also helps you give good service regardless, which can turn a cheapskate into a regular loyal customer). Servers and bartenders often pay too much attention to tips (you will learn what I mean when you start hanging out with them) -- some of the best advice anyone gave me is to look at your tips in aggregate (i.e., for the night, not per table/customer) and on average (some shifts are better/worse/busier/slower than others - they can't all be winners). It helps to stress less about it if you can take a step back.

8) Drinking makes people act weird, at least, sometimes. Expect a certain amount of random shit to happen. It may be stressful at the time, but it makes for good stories later. Learn how to cut someone off (gently) who's had enough. For some reason drunk people always want to argue about being cut off (or thrown out), as if you're going to say "No, you're right, here have another drink!" This never happens, but they always try it. It's a mystery of human nature.

I'm sure I'm forgetting stuff but I've not been a bartender for several years now. Good luck!
posted by axiom at 7:16 PM on March 29, 2014 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Learn basic jargon like "neat" and "up".

posted by intermod at 8:07 PM on March 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Find out the standard pour for drinks at the bar. Then determine what count on a speed pourer hits the standard pour for the bar.

Also watch a marathon of bar rescue for what not to do.
posted by TheAdamist at 8:09 PM on March 29, 2014

Best answer: Start by reading the front section of this book. Read every word up until the recipes begin. This is the book I keep at work whether the bar has its own copy or a different drink book. It's spiral bound so it's easy to keep open to a page, well laid out by drink name, and good references in the back. Lots of other drink books are interesting for information, but for work purposes this is the best I've found. Personally I would never use an phone app. You're working with liquids, and that shiny phone is either going to get doused in liquor, backwash, or crushed in your pocket against the bar. Set that damn thing somewhere else when working.

Get a decent bottle opener and wine key. On the bottle opener, the vinyl is easier on the hands, as non-covered (flat) models are sharp on the edges. If you want to be really neat or save your fingernails, use the metal round end of it to open beer cans by slipping it underneath the tab and flipping it up. The wine key I linked is 'double-hinged' and makes opening bottles a lot easier. Unless the place you're working at has an established wine service policy, don't worry too much about being fancy with the wine, aside from knowing which glasses to use for red or whites.

Ok, now you've got some basic tools. Posters above have mentioned good ways of pouring beers. When making 'drinks' there are kinda two ways to go about this. Option one, your basic drinks (rum and coke, gin and tonic, etc.) can be made right in the glass. Fill your desired glass with ice, like way over heaping with ice. You're filling it up this much because a lot of mixers cost more money than booze, thus saving money for your bar, the drinks taste stronger and stay cold longer. If a couple cubes fall off it's full. DON"T EVER DIP THE GLASS INTO THE ICE TO FILL IT UP, use a scoop. If you ever break a glass around your ice storage, and there's even a REMOTE chance glass got in there, dump it all out or flush the bin with hot water until NOTHING is in the bin. Use your hand to feel every surface, then re-fill with ice. I used to dip the glass in with rather thick pint glasses and rocks glasses, but not any more. At some point one of the glasses will chip, and that glass chip will end up in someone's mouth/body. This is not good. Getting back, you pour your bar's 'standard shot', usually 1.5ozs., top with mixer (coke, tonic, etc.) and add garnish, like lime wedge and straws. At casual places, this works for the overwhelming majority of drinks. Some drinks MUST be made in a shaker. Martinis to start. So the overarching second option of making drinks is to make everything in the shaker. This is more of a pain in the ass, but for more complex drinks they do come out better. It sounds like you can go with option one, make most drinks in the glass, specific drinks in the shaker.

Using the shaker - fill the metal part a good way up with ice. 2/3rds or so is good. Pour in all your ingredients then cap the metal part with an inverted pint glass. Try not to have the metal part, or the glass parts be overly wet on the outside or bad things will happen when the assembly slips out of your hand. If you have large hands, grab in the middle keeping a finger on the top of the upturned pint and shake for 5-10 seconds (99% of drinks). This is hard to describe but you're going to separate the two parts over the intended glass and let the liquid drain out into the glass, without the ice going in. Think of a highly obtuse angle being made with the shaker and the pint glass. Or you can use a strainer, but I find that a lot of times ice slips through these bad boys, and getting that one cube out of a martini as a customer is watching is awkward.

Knowing your pour - get a used bottle of 'well' vodka or gin, whatever size is standard for your state (usually 750ml or 1L), get an extra pour spout of the type they use at you bar and a bunch of shot glasses from your bar. If you're lucky, the shot glasses will be something like this. I'd double check the measurement using a jigger. Now, start pouring your spare bottle filled with water into the shot glasses. Try to establish a cadence as you fill a glass. Mine is kinda wonky, but works for me. Most places will test bartenders on 1oz, 1.5oz, 2oz, and 3oz pours. You want to establish a cadence that lets you know, for instance, your 2 count is 1oz, while your 3 count 1.5ozs. Every bartender's cadence is different but the point being to establish that pour over time so you don't have to really think aside from counting. You could get a 4 count for an ounce, 6 for 1.5 so you can accurately pour in the 1/4 oz range, for instance. Also, you will slowly go crazy from counting liquids being poured, everywhere, all the time. On the bright side, once you learn this, it's like riding a bike. I've taken roughly a year off from strictly bartending, but confident I could ace a pour test with 10 minutes of practice. Things to realize with this practice though, bottles pour a tad slower when full, faster at the end. 'Thick' liqueurs like Bailey's tend to pour slower.

So there are a few basics. The Black Book I mentioned at the start will fill in a lot of mundane things, and you should be able to find this at a reasonably sized book store or a decent liquor store.

Now, getting behind the bar. When you are new, don't worry about it. It's hard to relate this, but a lot of people are sympathetic if you say you're new and please wait one second while you look up that drink. No one is born knowing what is in a Cosmo, or Old Fashioned. If you have to check the book when someone asks for a vodka tonic, then you will definitely have problems. Also, checking the book, and making a drink correctly is one way to start recognizing the similarities of drinks, and getting started memorizing them. Too many shitty bartenders will 'approximate' a drink and it will suck. Someone asking for a Blue Hawaiian wants that specific drink. Shitty bartenders will think, hmm, sounds like there should be rum, and Hawaii, so coconut, and blue, so blue curacao (btw it is pronounced 'cure-a-sow', not 'curr-ahh-ko'). Truth be told, there is a weird logic to drink names, probably designed to help bartenders remember what goes in them, but still... Making the drink correctly will make people happy. However, many drinks are made in untold varieties. No two people think a Mai-Tai is made exactly the same way, nor is there one specific recipe for a 'Coffee Nudge'. But you can't go that wrong by following the recipe you have with you.

Now here's the really hard part. You are in charge of your customers. You're the boss/parents/first-responder to some really shitty things. Depending on your location, you have a huge amount of liability on your head. Over-serve someone and they cause an accident or die, and its your ass in court. Card everyone at the start, until you get a feel for age. This will come with time, but good cues to look for are the eyes (crows feet) and the hands (the knuckles and back of hand inevitably will become less smooth with age). Serve a minor and you're likely looking at personal fines, loss of your job, possible loss of ever getting another job serving liquor, and worst case jail time. CARD people. The second shittiest part is learning to cut off, or refuse any service to someone. It's not in most people's nature to know how to do this kind of thing well. It really only comes with experience. Look for blood-shot eyes first (could be sleep loss from traveling!) but always engage the customer with conversation. "Hey where are you visiting us from?" elicits more of a response than "Hows it going?" If they slur, stumble on their words that is a bad sign. It's tough, but you will need to develop this skill ASAP. Check with your management about procedures for cutting off guests, when security is needed, etc. With a highly transient customer base like a train station, you're likely to get people in for one or two drinks on their way in or out, but you might get someone that's been shooting heroin the whole day and that one drink you served them places you in a bad situation. It sounds horrible in a way, but it becomes a learned skill.

Money - Make sure you are getting paid fairly during your training period (should be at least federal minimum when not making tips). After that, make sure you are getting paid whatever you should be as a tipped employee (the west coast is awesome in this regard). As mentioned above, try your best not to count out every tip. Some are good, some are awful. At the end of the day hopefully you are grossing 15-20% or more of your sales. Do check with management as to who you should be tipping out at the end of the day. Do you have a barback, busser, cleaning staff, etc that is mandated to be tipped? What about food service? Do you have a food runner? That's going to come out of your gross tips, usually based on sales. If you want to win friends the easy way in the restaurant business, make sure everyone that you are tipping out, is tipped well. Kitchen staff may not be a mandated tip out for you, but some cash going to the cooks tends to make sure your customers' food is done well, and as a bonus, that you will be hooked up with free food. Conversely, NEVER EVER talk about what kind of money you make in specific terms with employees in different positions. Another bartender asks how your Friday was? Awesome tell him you made $xxx. A busser, cook, food runner asks how much money you made in a shift, paycheck, etc., NEVER BE SPECIFIC. This will only sow bad things. You will likely earn a rediculous amount more than them, and if you walk with even $50 for a day, they likely earned less than that and will very quickly start to hate you. My first job in the industry was as a prep cook and the servers made more in 4 hours than I did in a paycheck. Things were just better when we didn't deal with talking about money. If you walk out with cash every night, get your ass home and put it somewhere safe until you deposit it in your bank. Want to go out for the night after work? Take your money home first, put most of it away, then go out. If you have sketchy neighbors, do not tell them you work in a tipped industry, unless you like having your home being broken into.

So this might sound like a lot to take in, but congratulations, you have one of the most awesome jobs in the world. You get to talk to (hopefully) interesting people all day long, probably keep up on the sports world, and will likely get more exercise at work than most people get with a gym membership. You will have the most incredible stories about your experiences on a daily basis.

I've traveled all over West of the Rockies doing this work, hopefully will start expanding to the Caribbean and East Coast and 99% of the time any job issues arise from management, not the customers. Also, people have to talk to you! I'm absolutely, completely terrible at talking to women in normal life, but for my job, I get to talk to them all day and I'm not some kind of weirdo!

Somewhat on topic...

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posted by efalk at 12:45 AM on March 30, 2014 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry it took me so long to thank everyone. These were all great suggestions. Thanks to everyone, especially the couple of you that took the time to write such long, informative answers. I'm loving being a bartender, and you've helped more than you know.
posted by ratherbethedevil at 8:42 PM on October 26, 2014

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