From Behind the Bar: On Drinking for Free

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.


[Photograph: Jessica Leibowitz]

What I'm Drinking: Bols Barrel-Aged Genever (neat) Racer 5 IPA (half-pint)

I was in line at the bank the other day, and thought about what it would be like if a bank were a bar. I've been in this line countless times, and the tellers know my face. Still, I have to hand over my driver's license and give them my account number. Regardless of how many times I come to this bank, they have rules to follow, and the fact that I come here on a regular basis gets me exactly zero when it comes to normalizing the transactions I have on a regular basis.

Bars are different. At a bar, you are accorded special privileges by being a regular customer. If a bartender knows your face (let alone your name), your drink tends to skip ahead in the line. David, an old and good friend who is in my bar three or four times a week, drinks Palm Belgian Amber. If I see him walk in to the building, I will pull him that pint, regardless of whatever else I have going on at the moment. I know what he wants, and we get to skip the step that necessitates him telling me what that is. The general benefit of "regular" status is, I'll pour it; you'll drink it, and we'll all go home.

Things get complicated when you factor in one of the major tools that bartenders use to connect to their clientele: the buy-back.

Buy-back, comp, promo; call it what you will. In every bar, there is a certain budget that allows for giving a customer a drink that they do not have to pay for. For those of us who work behind bars, the buy-back is a double-edged sword.

Let's say that you and your three friends are sitting at the bar, and we have all had a great conversation. More than that, you and your friends are locals, and I want to ensure that you will think to come back again to see us in the future. That's where the buy-back comes in. I'm a bartender, and I have stake in making sure good people come to see me on a regular basis. If you're cool, and you pay your bill, and if we have developed some kind of relationship, chances are I'll buy you a round.

Why wouldn't I? In the bar business, people who don't treat us like servants are valued highly. While the place I work might be totally awesome, the little extra I give by buying a round is enough to show my clientele that a) I like talking to them, and b) I hope they come back.

All of this has been standard procedure in almost every bar I've ever trod. While no owner I've worked for has been as liberal as I wish they could be, every one of them has recognized the fact that, every once in a while, you've got to buy someone a drink. It's a tax-deduction for the bar, and an invaluable asset for the bartender.

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to meet people from all walks of life. When I run across people who I particularly like, I'm glad I have the freedom to buy them a round. I don't necessarily get to do it every time, and at some bars, the bartender can't buy any drinks at all. But a random comp can go a long way in making an occasional client in to a regular client—it's worth the price of the drink.

But there's a subset of people who believe, for one reason or another, that they are owed something for free. They might know the owner, or might work down the street. Irish pubs in the '80s would buy back every fourth round—nowadays, it takes more than proximity to show a bar that you have value. While we don't work with firm and hard rules, the one that most people follow is, "If you have to ask, you haven't earned it."

As with most things in bartending, it's relationships that matter, and you'll find this is true the first time a bartender buys you a drink. If he does so, remember to thank him for his attention, and to tip accordingly. A buy-back reduces sales, and people who tip on the total need to remember that another human being went the extra mile for them. Keep the cycle going, and come back again soon.