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Finding a good bartender is like finding a good friend, as anyone who loves the nightlife can attest. It's someone you can count on to be there with a smile and an outstretched hand, and in the bartender's case, that hand holds a delicious drink. While most people walk into a bar to relax, bartenders are there to do a serious and difficult job. What skills do you need to be a bartender? Speed, coordination, attentiveness, and an ability to do basic math are all useful. It also requires good judgment because this is a job with life-and-death stakes.
Basic Bartender Duties
Bartenders aren't always called by that name. Depending on the geographical location and the nature of the establishment, the person who works the bar may be called a barman, barmaid, barkeep or mixologist, a term that tends to be used in upscale or trendy bars and not so much at the corner pub.
They're primarily responsible for making and serving drinks, receiving payments, and keeping the bar area clean and stocked. Monitoring the intoxication levels of patrons is also an important part of the job. The specific duties of a barman vary from place to place, so the job description for one bartender may be different from that of the bartender working at the club next door.
Making and Serving Drinks
As far as patrons are concerned, supplying drinks is the most important of all bartender duties. When a person walks up to the bar, the bartender may hand over a drink menu or wait for the patron to order a standard drink such as a gin and tonic, rum and soda, or a pint of beer. Because beer taps are usually on display, bar customers can see the draft beer options without the bartender having to explain them.
The bartender then sets to work creating the drink by choosing the appropriate glassware: a white wineglass for a chardonnay, a red wineglass for merlot, a rocks glass for whiskey and so on. Some drinks are super simple to make. When a customer orders a soda, it shouldn't take the bartender more than 15 seconds to scoop ice into a glass and use a soda gun to fill the glass.
Pulling draft beers is equally quick, but there is some technique to it. The bartender should hold the glass at an angle while filling it to prevent a ton of foam from building up on top of the drink. Pouring a Guinness is particularly tricky. It's done in a two-part process: The bartender partially fills the glass on an angle, lets its settle for a few minutes and then tops off the glass while holding it level. Using that technique is the only way to create the distinctive white layer of foam above the dark beer.
It's the bartender's job to know how to make a wide range of basic cocktails. Upscale bars and restaurants often have cocktail menus full of specialty drinks. These cocktails can be complex. They may contain a half dozen ingredients in varying amounts, require that ingredients be muddled (crushed), and have delicate garnishes. Because bartenders have to work quickly, they should have all the custom cocktail recipes memorized.
Even in bars that don't use cocktail menus, bartenders have to know the names and recipes for a wide range of popular cocktails. If a customer comes up and orders a gimlet, for example, the bartender should know that it's made with gin, lime juice and simple syrup and be able to combine them in the correct ratio.
Sometimes bartenders develop cocktail recipes, either for short-term specials or to be added to the bar's permanent menu. It takes a knowledgeable mixologist to be able to create cocktail recipes that are inventive, popular with guests and not too complicated to make. If a drink takes five minutes to make, it's probably not viable for the bar to keep serving it – bartenders have to be able to serve a lot of customers in a short time.
If you're going to be a bartender, you need to be able to do basic addition in your head. Patrons have to pay for drinks when they receive them, and the bartender has to know what to charge and handle the transaction. Most bars have POS systems, which are basically computerized cash registers, which are used for ringing up sales, so a bartender doesn't necessarily have to have every drink price memorized.
In this profession, time is money. The faster bartenders close out a transaction, the sooner they can start another, so it pays to know what every drink costs. When one person orders three or four drinks, the bartender has to add up the total and give one price. Also, a bartender opens and closes tabs for customers who want to use credit cards to buy multiple rounds of drinks and remember to add each purchase to the tab. When patrons pay with cash, bartenders make correct change and collect cash tips left on the bar.
Filling Drink Orders for Diners
Bartenders who work in restaurants have to make drinks for both the people at the bar and the people sitting down to eat. Waiters either enter drink orders into a computer system that transmits them to bar staff, or they walk over to the bar and place their customers' drink orders in person. Either way, a bartender prepares all the drinks in the table's order so the waiter can deliver them all at the same time.
Stocking and Prepping Ingredients
Have you seen all those containers of lemon wedges, lime slices and cherries behind a bar? Most bars have them. They're used as garnishes or ingredients in many different cocktails. It's typically the bartender's job to cut that fruit and fill those containers. A bartender might also stock containers of napkins and straws, fill the bar's large ice bins and replenish bowls of free bar snacks.
It's also usually the bartender's job to maintain the drinks inventory. At the beginning of the shift, the bartender might assess whether any liquor bottles need to be replaced and whether the cold cases are stocked with enough bottles of wine and beer. During a busy shift, the bartender might have to go and grab more bottles from wherever they're stored or replace beer kegs when they're empty.
Maintaining the drinks inventory is a responsibility that's divvied up differently in different bars. If the bar employs barbacks, who are bartenders' assistants, they typically handle the bulk of these tasks.
Keeping the Bar Clean
Even the most easygoing bar customer doesn't want to see a drink being prepared in a filthy space. It's the bartender's responsibility to keep the work area and the bar itself clean by wiping down the bar whenever anything spills, quickly removing empty glasses from the bar and keeping the area behind the bar as neat and clean as possible. This isn't just for the sake of appearances: Failing to keep a clean bar space could result in a health code violation.
In a bar that has barbacks, they are also responsible for cleanliness, perhaps doing tasks such as washing cutting boards, emptying trash cans and swapping out containers of garnishes that have been contaminated.
Maintaining a supply of clean glassware is critical for the smooth operation of any bar. Without glasses, there can be no drinks. The bartender should put dirty glasses in a rack for washing. If there's no barback, it's usually the bartender's job to load dirty glasses into the glass washer and unload them when they're clean. In bars that use a hand-washing system, this task can be an unpleasant but necessary part of the job.
Welcoming and Watching Patrons
Bartending is ultimately a customer service job. When the place is quiet, the bartender may be able to personally greet everyone who bellies up to the bar, make a little conversation and ask for their order. It's not always possible to exchange pleasantries with customers when the bar is mobbed, but bar owners still expect their bartenders to be polite and respectful to each customer.
Not every customer behaves politely and respectfully in return. Every bartender can expect to deal with jerks, even sober ones. When annoying customers are intoxicated, letting them stay in the bar can become a problem. In nightclubs and bars that have doormen or other security personnel, the bartender generally has the power to have a problem customer removed.
Bartenders should also be aware of customers who are behaving aggressively toward other patrons and alert security of any issues. Unfortunately, that's not always possible when the bar is crowded, and bartenders are struggling to keep up with drink orders.
Checking Patron IDs
Some bars and clubs have doormen who check the IDs of everyone who enters so that bartenders don't have to handle this task in addition to everything else they do. However, in many bars, bartenders are responsible for making sure that they only serve people who are old enough to drink legally, which is age 21 in all 50 states in the U.S. They should be given some training in how to identify a fake ID.
Legal Responsibilities of Bartending
Everyone else in the room may be drinking and having fun, but bartenders have to remain clear-headed and careful. If you're working at a bar and continue to serve a customer who is already intoxicated and that person then drives drunk and hurts or kills someone, it's possible that you have some legal responsibility.
Your state laws dictate your liability as a bartender. If you overserve a customer and he later kills someone or causes major damage while driving drunk, your state's dram shop laws (named for an old-fashioned type of bar) determine whether you or your workplace bear any responsibility. In most states, overserving someone makes you liable. Every state is different, though; in some, you are only in trouble if the person you served was visibly intoxicated at the time you served them.
No matter what your state's dram laws say, you could land in serious trouble if you knowingly serve alcohol to someone who is already intoxicated. Families often bring legal charges against bar owners and bartenders when their loved ones are killed or seriously injured in these instances, and you'll almost certainly lose your job if you serve someone who has already had too much alcohol. More importantly, making this critical error can end lives, which is why bartenders should always remember that one of their most important duties is knowing when to cut someone off.
Kathryn has been a lifestyle writer for more than a decade. Her work has appeared on USAToday.com and Indeed.com.