Every bartender has a different reason for taking their turn behind the bar and learning the skill of mixology.
In most cases, a family member or a friend who has a connection at a bar or restaurant asks you if you’re interested in giving it a try. In other cases, you’re already working at a bar or restaurant and you want to work your way up from a hostess position.
Sometimes all it takes is seeing your first student loan bill after you start your entry-level job and you know right then that you need a well-paying part-time job.
The list goes on.
Some bartenders started in this industry just to make extra money and then get out when the time is right. Others started on a whim and decided to make it a lucrative career path.
Regardless of why you decide to get behind the bar, everyone starts the same way: nervous and naïve.
Of course, there will be people out there who argue that they were never nervous. They are lying to you. They were probably the arrogant new person who everyone else on staff dreaded working with for the first month.
Customers and curious applicants will ask, “do you have to go to bartending school to be a bartender?” Most establishments do not require you to go to bartending school. (Keep in mind that Training for Intervention Procedures [TIPS] certification is a completely different requirement.)
There is nothing wrong with a formal training; event and catering companies may even prefer it. That works for that sector of the industry. I worked at an event company affiliated with a bartending school, and we only staffed program graduates for our events. It worked for us; it worked for our audience. It does not work for most bars and restaurants.
Before you walk into your first shift at a local bar, do yourself a favor and release the death grip you have on the certificate. Being hyperaware of how many tumblers you should be using to make a Cosmo is not going to get you through the shift. In fact, clinging to the specifics you were taught are going to slow you down when you first get started.
The most valuable resources in training to become a bartender are your peers. They know the bar, the crowd, and the newbie jitters. Watch the veterans. Study them. Befriend them. Take their advice, whether you asked for it or not. The experienced staff are going to show you how to make an Old Fashioned, and a Skittle Bomb, and a hundred other drinks you forgot how to make or simply have never heard of. While they’re listing off the ingredients and the portions, they are also going to give you the most valuable tips you will ever receive.
Your peers are going to smile and wave to the demanding couple that just walked in and under their breath they will say to you, “they are great tippers, but they absolutely hate garnish and only drink out of a chilled glass.” That just made the difference of starting off your first encounter on the right foot or getting laughed at.
When it is time to get thrown into the fire, jump!
Jump in with both feet and don’t stop moving. Take that literally: do not stop moving. This is not a spectator sport. Even if you don’t know what to do next, keep moving. If the registers are all occupied and a customer is not waiting, look around and take notice of what is running low and what is out of place.
A lot of new bartenders say that being thrown into the mix was the best way they learned. Part of it is repetition. On a busy Saturday night, making nine rounds of Mai Tais is a sure-fire way to never forget the recipe. Another part of it is making mistakes that you don’t want to repeat. After re-making a vodka and soda a handful of times because you forgot to ask which type of vodka they prefer, and they didn’t specify, will teach you to always ask before you pour. You will build your routine, which ultimately builds your confidence (and speed).
Take the “slow” shifts. There are bartenders that only work Friday and Saturday nights. Ninety-nine percent of these bartenders did not just slide into that shift. They started with a Saturday lunch, or a Tuesday night spot and worked their way up. Don’t turn your nose up at the day shift. Those bartenders are in league of their own.
Put in the due diligence on a “slow shift” and suddenly you’re making weekend night money in an afternoon. Congratulations, you can take the weekend off.
Don’t get bogged down with the written rules. If you want to become a bartender, come into work ready to roll up your sleeves and let your guard down. Take whatever shifts you can. Be prepared to make mistakes. Don’t stop moving. Listen to and watch everything your experienced co-workers say and do.
And, most importantly, play the part.