From Behind the Bar: So You Want to Be a Bartender

From Behind the Bar

Tales from our resident bartender.

About the Author: You may have seen Michael Neff behind the bar at New York's Ward III and The Rum House. He'll be stopping by each week to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman, with occasional recipes.


[Photographs: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm drinking: Stone IPA (bottle) Van Winkle 12 Yr Bourbon (water and ice on the side)

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In many ways, I have the perfect job. I drink for a living, sleep until noon, and spend my nights haunting various bars around New York City. I might start my day sampling rare single malt scotches, or creating a cocktail for Penthouse Magazine (true story). I never get "the call" from my wife before seven in the morning. When invited to yet another fancy launch party for yet another new brand of spirits, I kiss my kids and say, "Daddy's got to go to work."

Here's the fly in the ointment. There's a lot of what bartenders do that is not as sexy as mythology suggests. Before quitting your day job, there are a few things you should consider.

Do you like unclogging sinks? I do that a lot. Toilets too, though if I'm lucky enough to have a bar back, I can sometimes foist that duty off on to him. We are the gatekeepers of the booze, and everyone knows it. You'd be surprised at the effort and ingenuity people use to try to hustle themselves something for free.

As in most things in life, my career can be broken down to pros and cons:

Pro: I am constantly surrounded by some of the best spirits on the planet. My job is to sell them, and I can't do that without knowing what they are. As a result, I enjoy more than my share of fine beverages.

Con: I drink too much for my doctor's comfort. I might disagree, but what do I know? I'm a bartender, not a doctor. When your career requires drinking, you quickly get to the point where the "fun" part gets trumped by the "work" part.

Pro: Bartenders are famous for *ahem* getting laid all the time. Drunken members of the opposite sex are plentiful, and the first place many of them look to bestow their affections is the guy behind the stick.

Con: Much like any career, we are here to make money. All the "intangible benefits" in the world will not appease your landlord. Professional bartenders who want to survive in this business quickly learn that whatever short-term benefits that might be gained from an irresponsible liaison do not outweigh the detriment of lost income, expectation of free drinks, and the ultimate degradation of your reputation.

Pro: I sleep until noon.

Con: I often get home when my kids are waking up. They don't mind, but my wife sometimes has something to say about it. It's difficult to sync a life as a bartender with that of a "normal" person. We work when most people are asleep. That usually applies to our partners as well, which wears thin after a while. Blame the hours, the boozy lifestyle, or the proximity of drunken members of the opposite sex, but it's a rare person that will tolerate a partner who has a career in the Sin Trades.

And make no mistake, sin is what we sell. Then we watch the dregs of humanity act out their farcical plays every night, knowing full well the outcomes of their inebriated decisions. The more conscientious among us might try to effect a responsible outcome ("Are you sure you want to get in a cab with this guy?"), but at the end of the night we're all adults, and there's only so much we can do to protect you from yourself.


With all that, why do I keep doing it?

Some nights I can't tell you. After working grueling hours for people who have no appreciation for the care I put in to my craft, I sometimes pour myself a beer and ask myself the same question.

Other nights, I look around at people having genuine fun, drinking delicious things, carousing, cavorting, and setting aside their cares for a few glorious hours, and I'm proud to be the host of such an amazing evening.

That is the beauty of this job, and it is rivaled by few others. We touch thousands of lives, sometimes just making them a little bit better. How many people can say that? That beauty is what keeps bringing me back.

So you think you want to be a bartender? Let's make a drink or two and see how you fare.

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