Things About Bartending I Did Not Know Until I Tended Bar
December 10, 2009
Until recently I was one of the most over-trained bartenders who had never really tended bar. I've passed BarSmarts and the full B.A.R., attended zillions of little classes at places like Tales of the Cocktail and Bourbon & Branch's Beverage Academy, watched and reviewed about a dozen bartending DVDs, and even won an online cocktail contest or two.
Then a couple weeks ago I actually got behind a bar to work. It was a large private party and I was one of many San Francisco bartenders hired to work the gig. We didn't have to take money, people weren't eating at the bar, and we only had a few specialty cocktails of the night, so I know I got off pretty easy. That was good because I was nervous as all heck, but within minutes all that training actually kicked in and I did an okay job of it if I don't say so myself. (And if any of the patrons disagree, they're not here to argue.)
Things About Bartending I Did Not Know Until I Tended Bar
- Time flies. Writing is a long tortuous nightmare that takes all day, invades your dreams at night, and pays less than minimum wage. Bartending went by really quick and left me mentally alert if physically exhausted.
- I'm not used to standing up for more than half an hour in a row. The entire next day my legs were sore.
- When you're busy, it's kind of zen. You have to be so in-the-moment it's really quite peaceful. Who needs yoga?
- You can feel all of their thirsty, beady, greedy little eyes on you.
- Most customers don't remember who you are- they go back to the same spot at the bar and talk to the new bartender there as if he's you.
- It's just as dirty and sticky as I thought, but I minded it less than I thought I would.
- If you like the smell of good liquor, and I do, I do, every bottle you open is like a happy little memory.
- It can be very hard to hear.
- Some people watch every pour to make sure they're getting their full amount of alcohol.
- But it would still be easy to fool those people and put in less if you wanted to.
- Drunk people are kind of cute, and also kind of annoying.
- I never mind when bartenders grab straws and garnish with their fingers and stick them into drinks, but when I did it I felt guilty every single time. I think this is an area where even most high-end bars could use some improvement.
- It made me really happy to make non-alcoholic drinks for people. My feelings toward non-alcoholic drinks have been well reported, but now I think maybe there should be more of them in the world.
- The scariest part of the job is worrying if people have planned to get home safely without driving.
- Paying attention to whether or not there are customers at the bar waiting for drinks seems to be the most important part of the job. I can no longer tolerate inattentive bartenders.
- That said, patrons can just pop up out of nowhere.
- I need to learn to do the nod that says, "I see you and will get to you just as soon as I finish this drink."
- They don't teach you the recipe for a Long Island Iced Tea in fancy bartending classes, so I had to ask a co-bartender with practical experience to handle the request.
- Driving to a busy bar, working for 12 hours, then driving home feels exactly like my early-1990's existence: driving to a rave, dancing for 10 hours, and driving home.
- Minor scrapes and bruises are part of the job.
- I now understand why bartenders tend to remember a person's drink and what they look like rather than their name. As I almost never have two of the same drinks in a row that must make it hard for some bartenders to recognize me.
- I have never been in a bar anywhere close to that long without having a drink. It was surprisingly not as uncomfortable as I thought it would be.
- It's hard to not hate customers who stick their fingers in your garnish tray.
That was fun! Now it's your turn for a list to put in the comments.
Things About Bartending Camper Thinks He Knows but Doesn't:
just did my first shift last Saturday night, too, after much of a similar background to yours... and can't agree more... 'cept I was also dealing with food & money... so it was a quick wake-up call, for sure! thanks for putting this into words...
Posted by: Matt | December 10, 2009 at 10:27 AM
great take on the experience, Camper. you were very natural and comfortable at the bar (or so it seemed from the outside). it was a pleasure and honor to work by your side on your very first bar gig. hope there's more to come! :) (working with us this Saturday?)
Posted by: Alex | December 10, 2009 at 01:21 PM
Love this! Drunk people are kind of funny. haha. Now the million dollar question--will Mr. Camper be bartending at a bar near you anytime soon???
Posted by: Jamie | December 10, 2009 at 01:24 PM
yep, I'll be doing it again this Saturday, and there is a very exciting super secret project on the horizon that may put me behind the bar in the city for a bit!
Posted by: Camper English | December 10, 2009 at 01:24 PM
Regarding touching garnishes with your hands: The person chopping the garnish wasn't using a silly little set of tongues, so why should you? You wash your hands a lot when you are behind the bar don't you?
Posted by: Michael | December 10, 2009 at 03:45 PM
Five years ago, my partner convinced me to leave my job as a social worker and open a bar with her. On our opening night, when Felicia's Atomic Lounge was packed with patrons waiting for drinks, I stood behind the bar, mortified, as I realized I didn't even know how to make a gin and tonic.
Posted by: Amelia Sauter aka Felicia | December 10, 2009 at 05:13 PM
I bet you are one hell of a funny bartender!!
On point 17:
it´s nice when you learn the nod and it even better when your cutomers learn to nod back(understand you´re swamped).
Posted by: Tony Harion | December 10, 2009 at 09:52 PM
I had a great time bartending with you at the event. This Saturday's event should also be a lot of fun. When I tend bar on busy nights I like to give people the nod or tell them I'll be with you in one second. It really makes me people or content that they have been acknowledged and they will be more patient while waiting. It keeps them from saying that they've been there for 20 minutes when in actuality they've been there for 2 minutes. I also love the idea of not handling fruit and using tongs. I've been practicing it the days I work. I will say though, it's hard not to touch garnish on a Saturday night when it's 5 deep and you get an order for 2 horse's necks, 3 gin and tonics, 2 draft beers and a singapore sling. Plus, how do you feel about slapping herbs?
Posted by: Jayson Wilde | December 11, 2009 at 10:13 AM
This was probably the most practical writing I've ever read on being a bartender.
Posted by: blair frodelius | December 11, 2009 at 10:23 AM
Jayson- agreed on all accounts. Not touching anything that goes into a drink is more of an ideal than a practical matter in most every bar. And mint and other herbs need to be spanked. It's not like bartenders are sending customers to the hospital with germs or anything and as I said when I'm on the customer side I don't mind it as long as the bartender keeps his fingers off the rim of my glass. But actually being behind the bar made me want to do better than most bars are doing. A work in process.
Posted by: Camper English | December 11, 2009 at 10:23 AM
haha I love it and also agree with this entire post!! It is definitely ideal to not touch it. To be honest, I have to be very careful with touching citrus (especially at this time of year). Needless to say, I'll never make it as a hand model!!! In all honesty, I believe that striving to do better than most bars will make you an excellent bartender! See you tomorrow!
Posted by: Jayson Wilde | December 11, 2009 at 11:08 AM
It is the most lovely thing in the world, to be in the weeds, when i am in my space, and I know where my tools are, and I can reach without looking, and think by touching. The roar of the beady-eyed crowd, breathing heavy for liquor turns into a low hum, and I revel in the most minute and mundane movements of my own body. The way the last drop of gin falls from the jigger, the cadence of a proper shake: as if I could feel and visualize each cube of ice inside, like we were old friends.
behind the stick, such a peaceful place. I hope you get the chance on many more occasions.
Posted by: [email protected] | December 11, 2009 at 11:28 AM
you didn't seem nervous at all and in fact you were super intuitive about what your coworkers needed. . . someone would order a drink, i'd turn around to grab the glass and when i turned back around you'd already grabbed the ingredients i'd need to make the drink. how many other bartenders can say they even have a barback that does that not to mention a fellow bartender.
as for touching things. . . i strongly feel that a gin and tonic gets a squeeze of lime. . . and that the customer shouldn't be the one squeezing it.
Posted by: ihatecocktails | December 11, 2009 at 02:19 PM
Don't forget that you are 50% better looking when you are behind a bar or on stage.
Posted by: Erik | December 12, 2009 at 01:15 PM
Hmmmm.... now I'm trying to figure out if I'm cute, or just annoying. Probably just annoying. Oh well.
Posted by: Jimmy | December 13, 2009 at 09:16 PM
Great blog Camper.
In response to loving the smell of good hooch and enjoying every bottle you open: most of us real bartenders unfortunately are hungover somethin fierce and the smell of opening 7 bottles of jack daniels throughout a shift is a nightmare.
Not to mention when youre in a hurry and opening several bottles per night, you know it only increases your odds of getting one of those lovely little inevitable cuts you mentioned (grey goose bottle and casadores bottle, im lookin at YOU).
thanks for giving us all some cred Camper!
Posted by: Jason C | December 15, 2009 at 12:19 AM
I don't get to bartend often these days, but when I do make a drink here and there, I like to use the tongs to grab the straw and set it in the drink. It can be easier than using your fingers actually. Citrus garnish, depends on how it is cut. If I was really focused on it, I would use tongs to set a very thin lemon or lime wheel inside the edge of the glass, and use a citrus press to add a tsp. of juice. I would smack the herbs. I think alcohol will kill what comes in contact with it.
You look very comfortable behind a bar. Your first gig was like an Iron Man tri-athalon with the travel time and bar to storage break down distances.
Posted by: Greg Lindgren | December 15, 2009 at 05:18 AM
What a beautiful comment, Ian! Lovely stuff and exactly the trance state that makes sitting at the bar watching a good bartender work such a pleasure.
Great post, Camper! Looking forward to a drink from you sometime. :)
Posted by: Dinah | December 25, 2009 at 11:45 AM
As a bartender, how many of you have had to laugh at the same joke over and over...the patron thinks he is being witty and original...you just want the tip, so you humor him...
Posted by: Purg | January 12, 2010 at 12:07 PM
just bartending, me and my bartending tools
Posted by: rgmania | February 18, 2010 at 08:17 AM
Hey Camper, great blog. I agree with you on all your points, especially not touching straws and garnishes. I've tended bar for 4 years and am trying to make that extra effort second nature but its tough!
I was curious about your thoughts between the Barsmarts course and the B.A.R. 5 day course. I just got invited to the Barsmarts course but have to fly out for it. I want to get as much education as possible but the price difference is huge. What do you recommend for a career bartender? Thanks!
Posted by: Dan Chavez Stahl | February 28, 2010 at 12:54 AM
Dan- I think the BarSmarts course is really great, especially if you can attend one of the BartSmarts Live sessions as opposed to the all-online version. I also think that it is enough for most people- it gives you a solid foundation of what there is to learn about cocktails and spirits so you can continue to grow on your own.
A big component of the 5-day course is blind tasting of both spirits and of cocktails. It's also the hardest and scariest component of the exam. You can get a lot better at this without BAR by attending any of Steve Olsen's talks as he always goes into it, or Paul Pacult's "how to taste like a pro" talk at Tales of the Cocktail. Then it's homework, homework, homework.
Posted by: Camper English | February 28, 2010 at 12:02 PM
Camper, make sure when you grab a straw, you're grabbing it as closely to the base of the straw caddy as possible. As a patron, MY fingers are going into MY drink, so it doesnt matter what germs MY fingers extend to the top of MY straw. As a bartender though, there's no way to make sure every straw is clean other than washing your hands each and every time you serve a drink. That's just not practical.
Posted by: Travis Sanders | May 19, 2010 at 05:13 AM
i dont usually say much on threads, but this one i had to chime in on,.. i have been a bartender for 10 years, give or take a few months,.. i did take a bar-tending class before dropping myself behind a bar,.. but,. judging from the long list of classes that some of you have mentioned, my comments might seem a bit foolish, but,.. here it goes,..
as far as the tongs,.. that may be really nice and fancy for a country club, or a private party,.. but,.. in a real world application,. it just wouldn't fly, the precious seconds that would be lost reaching for them would be a bit pointless, not to mention if they were dropped and needed to be washed,. i myself have never worked in a "nice" place like that,. i tend to stick to the more "blue collar" or "hole in the wall" places,.. and in doing so, i don't have or have never had a bar-back,.. i make the drinks, deal with the trash, cut the fruit and stock the bar, break up the fights, tend to the issues in the bathroom (no ned to go to far on that) so,.. in doing all of those things, my hands are washed just about every 4 min while i am working so if by some slim change that a germ would get passed the bombardment of soaps and sanitizers, the alcohol in the glass "in theory" would take care of it,.. ,.. in these types of places, you (the bartender) is a one man show, you don't have anyone to help you or to call when you need something done, so every second can be the one that keeps you afloat, or can be the one that starts your rapid demise,
all of the classes and information they teach is great, but, if you don't know how or can't put it to use when behind the bar when there is really no point to it, other then just the enjoyment of learning it, i mean,. a customer really does not care what you know, or don't know, all they care about is that they get their drinks fast and properly,
Posted by: james | December 03, 2010 at 12:25 PM
Is this the schmuck that filled my glass with so much ice that It was done by the time i took two sips?
Posted by: rmstudio | January 01, 2011 at 12:31 AM
I like number 16..its so true but they can get annoying after a while. Overall great article!
Posted by: Mike Surdyka | August 13, 2013 at 03:58 PM
Posted by: Nycbehindthestick | March 24, 2014 at 01:49 AM
yeah, maybe you passed the training or your certification but doesn't assure you that you always have the situation under control. You'll never know until you finish your very 1st shift, 2nd, 3rd and so on..
Posted by: Shaun Naborn | April 12, 2014 at 10:09 PM
Wait, one of the prerequisites for being a cocktails and spirits writer is not being a bartender for at least 8 years? Well that just makes a ton of sense. But now that you have worked one shift at some easier than hell, 5 drink choice, dog and pony show, you now know everything there is to know, and you totally deserve the right to be an expert enough on bar tending to write a list about things a bartender knows and what they go through. Please feel free to judge bartenders from now on, because you know everything there is to know about being one. Whoops, please excuse me, I am being inattentive to a customer now, I need to get my tongs ready to garnish another blended virgin margarita. Ta ta
Posted by: Menta Rocks | July 31, 2014 at 12:01 PM
Nice work. As a guy who spent much of his late teens and early- to mid-20's a server, server trainer/manager, and then bar manager/occasional bartender, and then moved to playing acoustic cover gigs in bars 6-7 nights a week in my mid/late 20's (Jeez, has it really been TEN YEARS???), I've been around the service industry so much that the habits of a good server or bartender have crept into my daily life. And, I constantly find myself sort of assessing/reviewing every server & bartender I come into contact with and unfortunately always seem to have the urge to point out when something is being handled in a manner which could be easily improved, be it how long a server or bartender took to greet a customer to the cleanliness/sanitation practices of a particular joint.
That being said, I think the best thing any bartender can do in terms of their garnishes & garnish trays is to keep them out of the customers' reach, as patrons often notice when another patron reaches in there, and it always seems to gross them out more when a patron does it versus a bartender or server. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because they just assume an employee touching their garnish is somewhat unavoidable. Also, not actually dropping the fruit into the drink after it has been squeezed is a definite plus, as most patrons now realize that restaurants categorically do not wash the fruits before they're cut; I see this all the time, especially where water & lemons are concerned. Lastly (this goes 100-fold to servers, as they're definitely the worst offenders), do NOT serve a glass by gripping it along the rim with the tips of your fingers. Biggest bozo-no-no any server or bartender can make, and trust me, it WILL affect yer tips.
Thanks for the great list. I agree wholeheartedly with it. And I completely feel ya on the standing issue: I stand for at least 4 hours in a row in a single spot without the benefit of being able to walk back and forth behind a bar, playing cover songs for bars & restaurants full of patrons who aren't listening to me. ;)
Posted by: Johnny Don't! | August 26, 2014 at 12:56 PM
Things you don't learn - working with multiple bartenders with various skills an temperaments is a challenge. You more than likely need to work as an event bartender to get experience, that means every-night is different. Starting a new job every night is a big challenge.
I have stand-up and acting experience so owning the patrons was easy... the bartenders were the biggest challenge. Let em know your experience but don't get pushed around.
Posted by: mike sniezek | October 19, 2014 at 04:32 PM
Bartending can be a lot of things, for some people it’s a temporary job where they earn the income needed to survive, while others turn it into a solid career and earn quite a lot of money from it. Just like any other job however, bartending might come with its dull moments, but on the other hand it allows you to meet a plethora of new people, sometimes very influential, and through that you can make great connections. Bartenders can gain a good income that ranges from $10000 per year up to $20000. And this doesn’t even take the tips into account, which might double the revenues.
Posted by: junrelle | November 27, 2014 at 10:28 PM
Posted by: a | January 19, 2015 at 10:57 AM
As a bartender, how old can you work? Where are the old bartenders? I'm picking up side money setting up and serving for banquets. They occasionally need bartenders. It looks easier than running, serving from large trays, refiling drinks, and bussing all in one night. I don't drink much, but I've always appreciated a good bar tender and tipped well.
Posted by: Judy | May 15, 2015 at 03:57 AM
For many years, bartending has been looked upon as a temporary job while one is trying to write a book/get acting gigs/make their band popular, but in the cocktail renaissance there are many bartenders who, from a young age, are looking at it as a long-term profession. This has spurred a bunch of seminars like this one:
and this Facebook group:
both dealing with health, wellness, and long-term thinking for bartenders; especially around the issues of reducing boozy/risky behavior and long-term career planning. Hopefully, and this looks to be the case, the great career bartenders I know getting into their 40s now will still be behind the stick in another 20-30 years.
Posted by: Camper English | May 19, 2015 at 02:13 PM
I know that this Is from 2009, but as a bar tender (bar maid if you prefer) I agree with your list. The pub I work in is full of polite customers so I don't usually have to worry about anything. As the winter is fast approaching we are starting to become less busy.
One thing I love about working behind a bar is that it has improved my confidence significantly over the past few months of working. My friends, family and class mates have noticed the increase of confidence and that I can pretty much talk to anyone now, even to people I don't know.
Having had a rude customer throughout my shift this evening, it's been great to see that most of the regulars are willing to stand up for me.
I'm not sure how long I will be working as a part time bar maid for, but I don't see it as a full time job. I know that eventually I'll have to move on and it'll be difficult as I'm loving working there part time whilst studying.
Posted by: Charlotte | October 18, 2015 at 03:11 PM
Actually, most of the bars that I have worked for require you to wear gloves while doing prep work.
While we wash our hands a alot, when we are busy we don't. The guilt stems from knowing we grabbed a dirty glass, or handled money recently.
I keep a wet towel tucked into my belt, doused in hand sanitizer, so when I reach into the garnish tray, I wipe my fingers on this first. Then freshen the towel throughout the night during down times.
Posted by: Cecilia Steele | September 15, 2016 at 03:16 AM
To say you were " one of the most over-trained bartenders who had never really tended bar" is total rubbish. You can't call yourself a bartender, let alone an over-trained one, without ever having actually tended bar. I don't care how many DVDs you've watched or how many little classes you've attended, if you haven't spent several years, or at least several summer seasons, working long and late busy shifts when the place is thronged constantly and there are messy drunken situations to sort out, tapping heads on kegs to replace/repair, unhappy customers to placate, toilets to unblock etc.etc. then you are simply not any kind of bar tender yet. Regardless of what you think your 'qualifications' are, I wouldn't hire you, firstly, because you had zero of the above experience and secondly, the very fact that you think you were 'over-trained' means you haven't got a clue. To anyone reading this guy's blog and thinking you want to be a bartender, get a job as a bar tender first.
Posted by: Bar Owner | November 28, 2016 at 02:35 AM
I had a similar experience. I have yet to attend bartending classes (which I will as soon as I have a place to live in and money) but despite not having classes I pretty much have taken bartending and the art of cocktails as my hobby. I have the tools at home and my own stock of alcohol and just recently I had the chance to share delicious cocktails with others that are not my family in a wedding and I have to say, that was a great experience. I was very nervous and the first few cocktails were a bit sloppy because my hands were shaking and I didn't know how to answer the questions my guests had. They kept touching my work space and some even attempted to make their own cocktails. (I have to learn how to be firm) but after about half an hour I got the hang of it and at the end of the night I was making cocktails without the jugger and with great speed. I am still excited from the experience and I can't wait to work at a bar. I had many compliments for the drinks and that it was thanks to me that people didn't get wasted at the wedding and had a good time
Posted by: Spocins01 | August 20, 2018 at 03:24 AM
Where are you now?
Posted by: Lindsay | August 27, 2018 at 12:46 AM