Bartending has a fog of grandeur around it. We lean against the bar polishing glasses, we are in touch with deeper wisdom than many mortals, and we know the ins and outs of every drink known to man. In the middle of the chaotic bar scene you are used to, we are the men and women who navigate through it all with ease and confidence, remembering drink orders of most of the patrons. That is why we always get one or two numbers a night from the people in the bar. I hear more than once or twice a week how nice it must be to be a bartender, and how they would love to do what I do.
Bartending is a tough gig. The hours are long, there is quite a bit of very physical work involved (kegs and cases of beer are incredibly heavy), and the pay is always uncertain. Being on top of your game means doing what people in other professions do: reading the trades and books, searching the internet for the edges of the trends, and trying to stay one step ahead of what your customers might be demanding. You get to deal with very drunk people, sometimes demanding people, and of course cleaning up after a great party every night.
There are good and bad things about every job. The first time I went behind the bar, I knew it was something I was going to love doing. It was comfortable, like a well worn t-shirt. It is not something for everyone. If you are looking to eventually work your way into becoming a bartender, here are a few things you want to consider:
- Pick your spot. It is interesting to note that not all places offer the same sort of bartending. Jokers and the Funny Bone work on the premise of speed. We had a limited amount of time, and we wanted to make the best cocktails at the fastest pace. That leaves many cocktails with muddling out. Or making cocktails with fresh squeezed ingredients. However, there are places around town where they can take their time to squeeze oranges for each drink, and delicately muddle the mint in a mojito. They may even make their own liquor infusions. On the other end, some bartending jobs are little more than pulling draughts, pouring shots, and opening cans. Look for the type of bartending you want to do, and try to get in a place that offers it.
- Prepare for a long apprenticeship. I started bartending at Jokers Comedy Café in 2005. I started working at Jokers in 2002. I do not know of any bartenders that walked in and right away got the job unless they had some experience. And not classroom experience; real world behind-the-bar experience. To become a bartender, you are going to have to take some time lurking in the shadows at the place you want to bartend at. Maybe as a bar back. Maybe as a server. Just get in somehow, and let the manager know you want to be a bartender. It may be a long time, but you might actually get back there. Then there will be a period of working the Tuesday dinner shifts, the Sunday brunch shifts, or other less than desirable bartending periods. Once make it through all of this, it makes it easier to get bartending jobs at other places.
- Everyday you’re hustling. There is a hierarchy in the serving industry, and bartenders are on the top of it. There are usually very few of them compared to other positions in the restaurant, and they are picked from the best servers and workers. They are given the most autonomy out of any position, and it is not by shirking shifts and needing to be prodded to do their job at every turn. Why? They are in charge of one of the most precious commodities a bar has: the liquor. The management has to trust you with such a vital and expensive part of their business. You have to show them that you are that person they can trust.
- Study the menu. See the type of drinks they offer, and the types of drinks people are ordering. I have made hundreds, possibly thousands, of Mai Tais and Blue Kazoos (.75 oz. blue curacao, .75 oz. Bacardi 151 rum, and lemon lime soda, served in a highball glass). I could count the number of Rob Roys or Rusty Nails I have made on my fingers. This gives you a chance to start learning the popular drinks and how to make them.
- Learn your trade. What is the difference between cognac and brandy? What craft beers are starting to become popular? Who is Jerry Thomas? Or Gary Regan? These are things you want to start learning as you are waiting to become a bartender. Go to tastings like the Century has for whiskey, the Trolley Stop has for beer, and various places around the area have for wine. Read books. Check out magazines. Surf the web. Absorb everything you can, and use it. Your customers will thank you for it. Hopefully with money.
- Weekends? Holidays? Most people see weekends and holidays as a time to relax and spend time with family and friends. While they are winding down, you have to be winding up. Weekends are when you make your money. Friday and Saturday night are the prime shifts, when all the real money making occurs. Though, you have probably learned all this through the apprenticeship phase. Or just by looking around when you are out on Friday and Saturday while waiting for a table. It could cause some friction with family and friends when you tell them you really cannot make it for the big Saturday graduation party because you have to, you know, pay rent. It becomes a trade off you have to be willing to accept.
- Love thy customer. The other side of your bar has people on it. They are not the enemy, they are not walking ATMs, they are not trying to make you have a bad night. They just want a drink, even if that drink is something that makes your bartender soul cringe (chocolate martini with Tanquery, anyone?). They want to celebrate their birthday, have fun on their date, or commiserate a bad day with friends. Your rough night behind the bar, broken glass in the ice, or bartender that did not show up is not their concern. Always smile. Chat with them, ask them about their day, and enjoy their company. Being a great bartender is more than just knowing how to make a good cocktail; it is knowing how to help a few hundred people a night a really good time.
I am a huge fan of working behind the bar, making cocktails for people, and seeing all of them enjoying their night. When I do complain about the bad tipper or the overly needy customer, I remember that they are in the minority, and ninety five percent of the people I deal with are incredible, fun, and are looking to enjoy their night. If after reading all of this, you still are looking to bet back there and make the best damn drinks in Dayton, good luck. I hope you make it. If anyone else has some tips, or wants to share their story about getting into bartending, we would love to hear it. Cheers!