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How to Upsell as a Bartender: Upselling Techniques in Bars

December 14, 2019
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Scott
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Some nights it’s not in the cards. Traffic’s slow. Restaurant sales are down. What’s a bartender to do? Upsell.

When bartenders are getting slammed, they’re probably not thinking about upselling. Sure they teach it in bartending school, but it’s a bit of a lost art. And it's a clutch skill. A grasp of upselling techniques, whether for cocktails, wine, or beer, will help any bartender turn a slow shift around. It can greatly include the profit you make in a night so your mastery of the standard pour is crucial. You can also use drink menu engineering to make the more profitable items stand out.

If you want to know how to upsell as a bartender, you’re in the right place. Here are some tried-and-true tips that will turn any slow night into a bankable one.

How to Upsell as a Bartender

Let’s go over some universal alcohol upselling techniques, then get into more specific bar upselling techniques based on drink type.

What is Upselling in Bartending?

Upselling in terms of bartending basics is a sales technique used to get guests to spend more on alcohol by buying upgraded or premium versions of drinks.

How to Upsell Cocktails and Alcohol in General

Upselling for bartenders is part psychology, part language, and part sincerity. It can help you make the most out of that bartending license. If you have good alcohol pricing, you can make a lot here. Given that, here are 5 things to keep in mind as you upsell cocktails and alcohol:

Nodding

Nodding while recommending or confirming a drink order is a frequently used upselling technique in bars--and sales in general. But subtlety is key. People expect bartenders to do a certain amount of nodding because they’re taking drink orders. If you’re offering a call liquor instead of a well liquor, nod your head as if to confirm the order. Then it won’t feel so salesy.

Bookending

Bookending is the bar upselling technique that mentions the item you’re selling first and last in a list of choices. Imagine a customer who likes full-bodied reds comes. A bookended upsell would sound like “We have a 2009 Bordeaux, a Chilean Syrah, a California Cabernet, or, yeah, that 2009 Bordeaux.” Something like that. It may sound silly, but it works. Practice this skill during happy hours so you can hone it.

Eye Contact

If someone thinks you’re sincerely recommending a drink, they’ll be more likely to buy it. And someone is more inclined to believe you’re sincere if they trust you. That’s what making eye contact is all about. Sure, it’s a well-trod topic, but that’s for a good reason. It’s hard to quickly communicate trustworthiness and sincerity to someone. Eye contact is one of the most effective tools we have for it.

Language

People spend their entire lives sifting through sales pitches. They know when they’re being sold. Use descriptive language, but don’t go overboard. Guests can have delicious and incredible experiences at any price point. Your language should reflect the way you really feel about the drink. Learn about what you’re selling and come up with some words that you would genuinely use and that reflect your reality. Then when you make your recommendation, it’ll be real.

Intonation & Speed

Use downward inflection when making a recommendation or upselling cocktails or drinks. That means your voice changes from a higher to a lower note, specifically within a vowel. Doing this implies a finality to your statement: that you’re 100% confident this is the cocktail or wine they’ll like.

And, even though bars are busy places, slow down when you’re attempting to upsell alcohol or talking about the cocktail menu. Or talking about any of the different types of menu, for that matter. This accomplishes two things. First, the area around the guest will feel like their port in the storm. Second, if you speak too fast, you’re inviting the guest to disregard what you’re saying. Because you’re almost disregarding it yourself.

How to Upsell Cocktails Techniques

When it comes to how to upsell cocktails as a bartender, there are some specific upselling techniques. First and most obvious is upgrading the type of liquor used in the drink. Second is recommending an entirely different drink based on the same liquor. Liquor can go bad after being opened, so it's important to upsell when possible and use the entirety of a top-shelf bottle.

Upgraded Liquor

If someone orders a well liquor, upsell to a call liquor. If someone orders a call liquor, upsell to a premium. If someone orders a bottle, let's say a fifth of liquor, upsell to a rehoboam bottle. Hah, just kidding. Easier said than done, right? This can really offset your pour cost and increase profits.

First, know everything you can about your top shelf and premium liquors. This will allow you to volunteer facts or tell stories about them an makes it worth having a fully stocked bar.

If a guest orders a margarita, you could respond with:

“Great choice. The marg really shines with our double-barrel reposado tequila. It’s aged for 11 months in oak barrels, then another month in toasted oak. The whole distillation process is overseen by one of only a few female Maestra Tequileras in the world. That’s like a tequila master distiller designation. It’s so good.”

Or if someone orders a gin martini:

“Ah, gin fan? Me too. You gotta try The Botanist. It’s a new Scottish gin we just got in. It’s infused with, like, 22 locally picked wild Scottish botanicals the isle of Islay. Same island the distillery is on. It’s really great in a classic martini.”

The more you contextualize something, the more meaning it will have to guests, and the more likely they are to buy it.

Second, know when not to upsell. If someone sits down and shouts “7 and 7 on the rocks” you’ll probably not have luck upselling them from Seagram’s Seven.

Similar cocktails based on liquor type

The more drinks a bartender knows, the easier it’ll be to come up with good, profitable recommendations. Let’s say someone walks in and orders a Negroni. You now know they like Campari and sweet vermouth. So say something like:

“I love Negronis! Have you ever had a Boulevardier? It’s like a Negroni with whiskey. I get mine with Templeton Rye. If not today, you should definitely try it one day.”

Again, know when not to do this. Like the person who ordered the 7 and 7 above. Probably just get them their drink and leave them alone. If you do make a recommendation, sticking to the drinks every bartender should know can make it easier and maximize your profit margin.

How to Upsell Wine Techniques

To figure out how to upsell wine as a bartender, you need to learn everything you can about the wines you’re selling. Wine, more than anything else being sold at a bar, requires expertise to upsell. That includes where they’re from, how they taste, and what they pair well with. This will pay dividends as wine profitability is higher than other types of alcohol.

Education

Learn all about the vineyards, grapes, and tasting notes for every wine. Like selling cocktails, contextualization is how you’ll sell. Any chance you have to slip in interesting facts and make the choice of wine meaningful, you must.

If someone is looking at medium-bodied whites, say something like:

“Oh, that 2017 Terlano Quarz Sauvignon Blanc is remarkable. The vineyard is in a valley with deposits of quartz all over. It gives it a depth unlike any Sauvignon Blanc I’ve had in a long time.”

One you start learning about wine, people will have to beg you to stop spouting off random facts like the names of various wine bottle sizes. Put those facts to good use and upsell. Master this skill and you can sell a case of wine in a night.

Pairing

Food pairing is a big part of wine knowledge. It adds another level of contextualization onto a wine order that makes it that much more attractive.

Make a list of medium-priced and high-end wines that pair with each menu item. Commit those to memory. Confidently and quickly offer a wine pairing off the top of your head. That’ll show your guests you’re positive this is the right pairing for them. And if you've got decent wine by the glass pricing, it'll make it easier for someone to be adventurous. Once they've had a taste, you can further uspell a whole bottle and enjoy the results of your wine bottle pricing.

How to Upsell Beer Bartender Techniques

Like wine, learning how to upsell beer as a bartender is easy if you offer some specific information about breweries. But unlike wine, beer lends itself to tasting portions better and that can be used to upsell—no matter how you price beer.

Provide Specific Information about a Brewery

The great part about providing specific information about breweries is that there are usually local breweries. If not in your city, then in your region. It’s a perfect opportunity to upsell beer.

Again, learn everything you can about the beers you’re selling. And when the day comes that someone orders a macrobrew pilsner or “I don’t know, something light” you can say:

“You gotta try the Rev Pils, it’s all German hops and malts and super-duper clean. If you like crisp pilsners, you’ll enjoy it. Revolution’s main brewery is actually just down the street. Really interesting story. They started as a brewpub in 2010 and started brewing their own stuff in 2012. The rest is history.”

That little bit of information is enough context to give the drink some meaning. And that’s just what people are looking for.

Offer Beer Tastes

Draft beer is uniquely suited to tastings. When you’re upselling a beer, offer a 1-ounce taste. Just enough to wet their beaks! Then give the taster some words and expectations to work with when you hand it over, though. Tell them it’s light or crisp, that it has chocolate or coffee notes. Give them some reference point to build their opinion around. Then sell them food that pairs well with their choice to make up for your food cost.

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And That’s How to Upsell As a Bartender

There is a theme here! It’s that knowledge about the product you’re selling is critical. This applies to popular cocktail recipes, wine, beer, and all kinds of alcohol as much as it does to any other sales industry. Knowing the standard wine pour and how to pour beer will round out your skillset and make you a master bartender.

Learn everything you can about what you’re selling. Then make good use of your body language and word choice, and you’ll be turning slow shifts into goldmines. Making sure your staff understand this is part of being a good bar manager.

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