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What it Takes to Be a Professional Bartender

What it Takes to Be a Professional Bartender

One of the most coveted positions in the food and beverage industry is that of professional bartender. Bartending is a social job, more glamorous than bussing tables with lots of opportunity for working in unique and exciting venues. With few traditional educational requirements, bartending appeals to many people, especially young adults. Although you do not need a degree, bartending involves a little more than pouring beer in a mug. Bartenders must understand how to talk to people, how to make and sell drinks and, most importantly, how to deliver a great experience to guests. Learn about the responsibilities, character traits and skills required to make a great bartender.

Bartender Job Responsibilities

A bartender works behind the bar, making drinks for customers as well as for waiters who need to fill a drink order at their tables. Bartenders prepare alcoholic beverages every day, but they are also required to have a good handle on serving people—especially intoxicated people—handing cash and credit cards, and working with specialty equipment.

A female bartender with a bottle openerServing Customers. This is arguably the most important part of the bartender’s job. Serving customers involves acknowledging guests as soon as they walk up to the bar, and especially if they sit down to order a drink. Placing a cocktail napkin in front of the guest shows that they are being served, and smiling with a friendly greeting makes them feel as though they will be taken care of. The bartender’s priority is to serve customers well, and happy customers typically reward the bartender with a bigger tip. Additionally, the bartender must be prepared to cut off a guest who has had a one too many, then call a cab if needed. The bartender must maintain a responsible service ethic at all times.

Mixing and Pouring Drinks. Bartenders are masters of the alcoholic beverage industry. Great bartenders have all their recipes memorized, and never need a cheat sheet when it comes to mixing and garnishing cocktails. Bartenders need to be comfortable pouring liquor, using a cocktail shaker, opening wine bottles and pouring beer from a tap whether it’s a slow afternoon or a busy evening.

Handling Cash Transactions. Cash-handling is important to just about any food service operation, but in a fast-moving bar environment where cash is constantly flying across the counter, it can take some organization and quick thinking to keep it all straight. Bartenders must be able to show integrity when handing cash, tip money and guests’ credit cards, and must be able to learn point of sale (POS) operations.

Strong Knowledge of Drink Menu. Bar customers often take a seat at the bar and ask “what’s good?” The bartender needs to be able to educate the guest on everything from happy hour specials to reserve bottles of wine, while also asking questions to determine what it is the guest will enjoy the most. A strong knowledge of the entire drink menu, and even the food menu, if there is one, is important to helping the guest enjoy the experience.

Understanding of Bar Equipment. Bartending is not rocket science, but it sure would be a detriment if your bartender looked confused about how to use a hawthorn strainer. As a bartender, it is important to know how to use a few bar-specific tools and utensils, be it a cocktail strainer, a corkscrew or a jigger. Bartenders need to know their environment and the tools of the trade in order to do the job well.

Getting Certified

Bartending is accessible for people with experience and training, but in order to get hired most people need to have a bartender’s certification. Bartenders can get certified by going to bartending school, completing an online training course, or by enrolling in training classes offered by the restaurant they are applying to. Many restaurants offer casual in-house training for servers or new hires who want to apply for a bartending position. Certifications involve basic coursework on different types of alcohol, making drinks, basic liquor law and how to work with the equipment and supplies.

Bartending schools. These schools offer classroom-based courses for groups to get hands-on experience, where they work with an instructor and other students while they learn and practice their skills. Many bartending schools have mock bar set-ups with sinks, blenders and bartending tools to practice real-world scenarios. Bartending schools are great for those with wider windows of availability and who learn best in group settings with hands-on experience. Students take an exam at the end of the course study in order to get certified.

Online certification. Online bartending courses typically offer certifications that take a set number of hours, such as 40 hours, to complete. Online certifications like TIPS are widely approved in many states and by many top restaurant chains around the U.S. TIPS also offers the certification course as a classroom setting with a certified trainer or online. At the end of the course is an examination, and students who pass receive a certification card valid for up to three years. The most trusted online certification service is TIPS

Choosing a Path to Success
The pretty face behind the bar might seem like an easy position to fill, but more often than not the attractive person filling your glass does indeed know what he or she is doing. A common delusion is that attractive bartenders make the best bartenders. Unless they have ample training, a way with people and a solid track record when it comes to selling drinks, a bartender is not holding up to his or her end of the bargain.

Attend Bartending School Many bartenders decide to get involved in the industry by going to a bartending school. Bartending schools are institutions that have begun to gain extra popularity in major metropolitan areas in the past decade. Many see bartending school as their first step into an industry where few can make real money without first getting experience actually making drinks.

A bartender pours liquor into glassesPros:

  • Unlike traditional 2-year or 4-year colleges, these institutions offer bartending courses specifically to train and certify aspiring bartenders in as few as 10 four-hour sessions
  • Bartending school gives students hands-on experience in many cases
  • There are structured courses and learning modules for students

Cons:

  • There is no substitute for real-world experience; employers may prefer someone who has actually worked in restaurants and bars to someone with a degree and no experience 
  • Bartending school is sometimes seen as an exorbitant means to becoming a certified bartender

Opinions about bartending schools vary widely. To many career bartenders, attending bartending school is unnecessary. They might argue that what establishments really want are experienced professionals who have put in the work. Even someone with a certification and a degree from bartending school might not get a job at an upscale establishment if they have not worked their way up the ladder, first.

Get Experience on the Job
For those who are willing to put in the time and effort to get the most of their career, starting small is the way to go. Working as a “barback,” also called a “runner,” is a common place to start. Barbacks are bartenders' assistants. Barbacks work in clubs, resaurants, catering halls and bars to make sure the bartender always has whatever he or she needs.

Pros:

  • Being a barback offers real-world experience working alongside a bartender, much like a paid apprenticeship
  • Barbacks are usually “tipped out” by bartenders—bartenders give barbacks 15-25 percent of their own tips—which helps increase nightly income
  • These positions are usually fairly easy to get into without much experience

Cons:

  • Barbacking involves preparing and cutting up garnishes, refilling ice in the underbar icebins, or wells, restocking empty liquor bottles, washing glassware, changing beer kegs, and retrieving empty glasses from guests who are finished with their drinks—not the most glamorous work
  • Barbacks do not make drinks nor handle money, except for gathering tip cash left on the bar to put in the tip jar
  • Not all bars have barback positions available
  • It takes time to gain experience and confidence as a barback, and it may take time to get promoted to full-on bartender

Although the work is not as glamorous as bartending itself, this is the very best way to gain experience and exposure to what bartending is actually like. Not all bars have barback positions, but those that do are often willing to take someone with less experience but the drive to execute well.

Being a bartender is often more challenging and involved than it looks. Just because you can make a mean margarita for your friends does not mean you’re ready for the mad happy hour rushes, the guests who have had a few too many, and the nights when your tip money is looking slim. In order to be prepared for this line of work, you need the training, the certification, the experience and the passion to be successful.