So, you want to become a bartender.
Here’s the thing; I hear it come up all the time. It might be from a friend who, in between jobs, realizes that they’re tired of their current lifestyle and they just want a chance to “start over.” They mull it over, see me living what they believe to be a more carefree life, and inevitably approach me to let the big idea drop: They’re thinking about starting a career in bartending.
Setting aside all the potential ways this could be offensive (i.e., acting as though my career has taken little to no effort to achieve, was decided on a mere quarterlife crisis whim, and is as easy to pick up as, say, becoming an Uber driver), let’s dive into what getting a bartending job actually entails.
First things first, it’s time to dispel the myth that has lived on for far too long. There is no point—absolutely zero—in getting “licensed” or receiving any form of paper certification stating that you are a bartender. So-called bartending schools are a fake industry that was built on the ignorance that the general public has about what is required to make drinks for a living. In fact, getting certified as a bartender will actually get you further from a job offer, although it’s always good for a laugh to the manager on duty if you’re trying to appeal to their humor.
The reason is twofold, and leads to some actual advice on what to do instead. For starters, bartending schools are all a joke. Often, they’re led by people who have little to no experience actually working in a bar. There’s also the matter that, contrary to popular belief, becoming a successful bartender has little to do with drink recipes. Yes, you should memorize the basics and understand simple combinations and techniques, but that takes roughly a week to learn, and then you’re stuck with the real work of learning to tend bar.
There are likely a few exceptions to this, but at this point, the reputation of these “schools” within the industry is so poor that it’s not worth even attempting. Your time and money would be much better spent in other areas like, say, buying $3,000 worth of booze and using it to make drinks in your living room.
However, this doesn’t mean you need to throw your bartending dreams away. There are very real and clear ways to become a bartender, the first of which is almost always overlooked. Simply, you need to start by working in a restaurant. This is the only way to understand the basic principles. Once learned, though, these can apply to just about any position in the industry.
Working in a restaurant is incredibly physically taxing and emotionally demanding, so to start, just try it and see. Can you hang, and do you even want to do this? By bussing tables for six months, you’ll be able to determine if you’re cut out for the work. Likely, it will only take a few weeks for both you and the manager to figure this out. Tending bar takes a certain kind of person. If you’re good and find that the work comes naturally, you will be promoted quickly. If you’re not, you will be fired, also quickly.
The second key is much more complex, but probably equally important: You have got to be comfortable talking to people. And I’m not talking about the people you associated within your Monday morning meetings in your white-collar job; I’m talking about the whole spectrum. You may get C-level executives sitting at your bar, but they might also be sitting next to the guy who lives paycheck to paycheck in that crappy basement apartment next door. It’s your job to make both of them feel welcome at the same time. This technique takes years of studying customers, but once learned, it is usually the part of the job that bartenders find hardest to leave.
Like any industry, landing a bartending gig means working your way up. You didn’t walk into a management position right out of college, and you don’t walk into a bartending job right out of the gate. It also helps to know people, build a network and go to bars. You need to get to know the culture, who hangs out at bars, and what to expect, though it’s worth noting that this will wildly vary depending on where you’re working.
You also need to know how to hustle, and I mean that in just about every application of the word. Know how to work your ass off. Sprinting the length of a bar while making a drink and scooping ice into a bin requires coordination, yes, but mostly it requires moving fast and moving hard. Know how to work for your money, when to make suggestions to increase your sales, or when to buy a customer a drink. Learn how to keep a crowd of regulars coming in on your shifts just to see you. Keep up the hustle every single time you walk in the door of your bar and earn your place there.
It also pays to know your craft. Initially, it won’t matter if you know how to properly peel a lemon twist to ensure it releases just the right amount of oil into a cocktail. But if you take to bartending, developing these skills and focusing on attention to detail will elevate you from your peers.
Oh, and don’t take things personally. Ever. Sensitivity is not a valued trait in the world of bartending.
Ultimately, becoming a bartender comes down to you and your dedication. There is no simple answer, because it’s a complex line of work, riddled with potential pitfalls and relying mostly on skills and techniques that you need to actually be behind the stick to learn. Work hard—way harder than you have any intention of working—learn how to communicate, start at the bottom, and, eventually, master it. It’s not an easy job to land, but it’s certainly one of the more rewarding ones.