From Behind the Bar: What is a Bartender's Job?

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 stops by on Wednesdays to share insights on cocktails and the life of a barman.


What I'm Drinking: Great King Street Artist's Blend Scotch Whisky (neat)

There has been an interesting comment that that keeps popping up in the threads of these columns. It goes something like this:

I'm sick of the trend where bartenders think that they are god's gift to humanity. Your job is to make drinks, not to educate, babysit, or judge people. So do us all a favor; stow the attitude, and do your job."

What, exactly, is my job? As a bartender, am I a nightlife impresario who is responsible for the totality of my guests' experience, or am I a robot trained to take a few spirits, pour them in to a glass, and take people's money? In the first case, I must rely on my judgement and perspicacity to make sure that the people who sit at my bar get the experience they deserve. In the second, my most valuable asset is my ability to make drinks quickly, efficiently, and correctly.

In reality, it's a bit of both. What my job actually is depends entirely on where I happen to be working.

For example: a big bar will often come equipped with hoards of employees and complicated management structures. Is there a fight about to break out? Let's get the security manager down here. Someone needs to be cut off? That's for the floor manager. Often, a bartender is neither expected nor allowed to do anything but call someone who has a higher level of authority when a situation arises that is more complicated than making a drink and serving it.

But that's not how it works in smaller bars. Most bartenders don't have the luxury of passing off their problems to other people. In almost every bar I've ever worked, the bartenders were responsible for everything from choosing the music, counting the money, cleaning the bathrooms, dealing with unruly guests, sweeping up broken glass, and everything in between. If a neighbor called to complain about the noise, we had to fix the problem. If a person fell down and hit her head, we had to call the ambulance and prevent a lawsuit. All while making drinks, serving food, and making sure that everyone was having a good time.

One of the best bars I've ever worked, a place called Grace, was exactly this type of gig. At Grace, there was no higher level of authority to call if we had a problem. We were managers, hosts, bouncers, and bartenders at the same time. While we would certainly have cut off someone who had too much to drink, it was more important that we monitor what everyone was drinking to prevent such problems from happening in the first place. We learned very quickly that, if a crowd of drinkers is not controlled, it can quickly get out of control.

Think of it this way. When you are standing at a bar on a busy Friday night, you see a bartender or two, a register full of cash, and a whole lot of booze. When I'm working, I see the opposite: one hundred fifty people, all well in their cups, any of whom could decide at any moment that they can do anything they feel like, and there is no one to tell them differently. How is it possible that so few people can keep control of so many? We do it by establishing our authority and dealing with any deviations from acceptable behavior as firmly and directly as possible. We have to; there are usually a lot more of you than there are of us.

Does this make me seem cocky? Probably, especially to the person testing my limits. Self-important? Maybe, but we bartenders are not only there to serve you, we are also responsible for your safety, and that of everyone in the bar. There is a big difference between acting important and having an important job to do.

So the question posed above—what is a bartenders job—has a third answer. In most joints, our job is not to just make drinks, it is managing a throng of drinkers. At the end of the day, most people just want to sit down and enjoy a drink in a cool bar that makes them feel good. We bartenders are there to make sure that is possible by controlling the chaos. If we do our jobs well, a balance is struck between adults having a few drinks, and drunks running roughshod over an establishment.

Hey, NYC fans of From Behind the Bar! Michael Neff will be teaching this class on tasting and understanding spirits from micro-distilleries at the Astor Center on February 10th.