From Behind the Bar: 20 Rules for Bartenders

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: Tazo "Refresh" Mint Tea Maker's Mark Bourbon (Neat)

Great bartenders are born, not made. If you walk through a crowd, you can pretty much point to people who could succeed at this job, based on how they carry themselves and how they relate to other people. The basic skills of the job can be taught, and the nuts and bolts of our job do not require an advanced degree, but a truly great bartender has the natural compulsion to anticipate the smallest details, and the training required to ensure each one is executed correctly.

Bartenders have no adjudicating body that can tell us all the right and wrong way of executing our jobs. Every bar is different, just as every person is different, and it is impossible to devise a system that works for all the various bars in the world, the hordes of people who work them, and the throngs of those who drink there.

There have been some great bartenders who have laid down general guidelines for how to tend bar (Dale Degroff's 5 Commandments for Bartenders comes to mind), but it is difficult to find a detailed, specific list of how bartenders should act. What makes a good bartender? What about a bad one? What does a good bartender do...and what don't they do?

As I train bartenders for my bar, I try to pass along these 20 rules. Do you have any to add?

  1. Do everything you can to make your guests happy within the boundaries you have been given.
  2. It's not your party. It's not your booze. It's not your bar.
  3. You are on stage and people are watching you. Act accordingly. If you are not comfortable with this, find another job.
  4. Sleeping with your customers is a great way to lose money.
  5. Know what you serve and why. If you work at a beer bar, make sure you know about beer. If you're new and uneducated, pick a few that you can get to know well, and start from there.
  6. Learn how to make cocktails. Practice the details.
  7. Cash-handling is king. Neat money shows your customers and owners that you are paying attention to their cash.
  8. Tips aren't everything. It's a long-term game, so don't sweat the random crappy gratuity from time to time.
  9. Insist on proper behavior in your bar, whatever that happens to be. If you let the clientele run your establishment, you will never regain control.
  10. Learn how to comp and why.
  11. Look the part.
  12. Control your environment. Is the A/C too high? Is the music too loud? Your clienteles' comfort is directly proportional to the number of stars they will give you on Yelp when they walk out the door.
  13. Branch out. Make sure you have the skill-sets necessary to deliver what people can reasonably expect in your bar, and work to gain the skills you'll need to succeed at your next job. Because you will have a next job, and it will require more of you.
  14. Know a joke. Get good at banter. People pay for booze, but they tip for your service.
  15. Keep a clean bar. Turn bottles to face forward. Wipe the bar-top. Straighten the stools. If people think you don't care, they won't either.
  16. Mise en place. It's a fancy French phrase for how you arrange your tools and ingredients. Set your mise, and do the same thing every time. You can't be fast if you're constantly searching for what you need.
  17. Don't touch your face, hair, or any other part of your body. Cough in to the crook of your arm. Sneeze down. Always be seen washing your hands. Don't be disgusting.
  18. Open your mouth. Talk to people. Say hello when they walk up and goodbye when they leave. Chat with your clientele, ask how they're doing, even if it's just passing time. Often, that is exactly what people want from you.
  19. Keep your mouth shut. Don't offer advice. Don't dominate conversations. Keep yourself to yourself.
  20. Behind the bar, you are an illusion, a fantasy, a servant, and an actual person all rolled in to one. Choose wisely which side you choose to present at any given moment.

Watch Michael on Video

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Video: How to Make A Dark 'N' Stormy
Video: How to Make A Martini