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How to Become a Bartender: Complete Bartenders' Guide 2020

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Ah, slingin' drinks. Giving the good folks a drop o’ the pure.

There’s something romantic about sliding some suds down to the day-weary travelers looking for a salve.

But bartenders do more than provide drinks. They’re our unofficial psychologists, healers, and masters of ceremonies. They’re also super-duper talented and can be paid quite well because of that. It’s no wonder people are drawn to the profession. But it can be a tough nut to crack.

That’s why we put together this guide. Follow the steps, and you’ll become a bartender. The steps aren’t in order, though. There is no official step-by-step process to become a bartender. But what we have here are all your potential avenues. 

This bartenders guide will lay out the bartending 101 basics you need to get hired as a bartender. Or to improve your bartending if you’re already a working professional.

Understand the Reality of Becoming a Bartender

Let’s get some housekeeping stuff out of the way first. You're going to dedicate your precious time to learning how to become a bartender. Here’s what you can expect in terms of pay, age restrictions, and hours once you become a master mixologist.

How Much Do Bartenders Make?

The median annual pay reported by bartenders in the U.S. by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is $22,550. Whether or not that figure represents your future earnings as a bartender is open to discussion. The nature of tips and the different types of bars can change things.

So let’s discuss.

We know from experience that in busier bars, making $150-$200 a night in tips is considered a good night. Making $100-$150 is acceptable. We’ll work with those figures. These figures go up if you master how to upsell drinks as a bartender.

Let's take $150 as the average tips in a night (if things generally go well for you that year). We’ll multiply that by the amount of workdays in a year: 260. That’s $39,000 in pre-tax tips alone. Let’s now assume that you’re making the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as your base pay. That’s another $15,080 pretax, which puts your total pretax earnings at $54,080.

Those earnings put you in a 22% federal tax bracket. To get a read on your bartender earnings, we need to factor in state and local taxes, which vary. So, we calculated the average state income tax for a single filer in the $54,080 tax bracket: 5.52%.

If a bartender claims 100% of their tips at a busy bar, they stand to make an average of $39,197 post-tax.

Taking home almost 40 Gs ain’t too shabby. And that’s just the average. There are absolutely bartenders who clear $100,000 a year. They exist, I’ve met them, they’re cool, and you can probably be like them if you try.

How Old Do You Have to Be to Bartend?

Much like state income tax, the minimum legal age required to tend bar varies by state. It’s the magic of living in a federal republic. Believe it or not, most states in the U.S. only require a minimum age of 18 to bartend in on-premises establishments. That means the alcohol being sold there is meant to be consumed there, not taken elsewhere.

Here is each state’s required minimum age to bartend:

The states that require a minimum age of 18 to bartend are Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Those that require a minimum age of 19 to bartend are Arizona, Idaho, and Nebraska.

And the ones that require a minimum age of 21 to bartend are Alabama, Alaska, California, Delaware, DC, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming.

States that allow those under 21 to bartend typically require the young bartender be supervised by someone 21 or older. This information, like all laws, is subject to change so please check with the relevant municipality before making any decisions. See the full list here.

What Hours Do Bartenders Work?

For the busiest, most-profitable shifts, a bartender can expect to work evenings from about 4 p.m. to midnight.

Beginning bartenders will get the lower-traffic lunch and early-weekday evening shifts. Established bartenders get most of the evenings, especially the very lucrative Friday and Saturday nights.

If you’re bartending at a sports bar, however, Sunday lunch shifts will be huge. If you have a huge patio, great weather, and you’re on a popular street, days might be better than nights. Like most things in this guide, we’re taking a high-level look at general trends.

If that all sounds good to you, and you’re ready to embrace then you’re ready to move on.

Get Experience as a Barback

The easiest way to move into a bartending position, if you don’t have experience bartending, is to transition into it from the barback position. Barback responsibilities are perfectly suited to the transition to becoming a bartender. Barbacks learn:

  • All the bartender lingo and how to communicate behind the bar
  • How to move behind the bar, which can be tricky with some bar layouts
  • How to clean the bar from top to bottom
  • How to prepare and how to stock a bar, with both alcoholic and non-alcoholic inventory
  • To deal with basic customer requests
  • The right types of glassware, garnishes, and steps of service

As a barback, you’ll do everything a bartender does but mix drinks. You’ll often work off the bartender duties checklist. Even though you’ll pick up a lot of mixology wisdom just by watching bartenders do it, you’ll still need practice. Learning mixology, cocktail recipes, and cocktail creation are the most important things for a barback to learn to become a competitive bartender candidate.

Transition from Serving

Like the barback strategy, this approach utilizes existing relationships and related experience. Servers have one thing down pat that’s absolutely crucial to bartending: customer service. Drink pairing, menu knowledge, and ingredient knowledge are all old hat to a strong server. 

The missing pieces, then, are non-theoretical mixology (i.e., making the drinks) and learning the layout of the bar. The latter is easily learned. Therefore, servers, focus on mixology and learning how to hit accurate pours. When the time comes, you’ll be as attractive a candidate for the new bartending position as any bartender out there.

Become a Master of the Pour

Knowing what goes in drinks is one thing. Accurately pouring liquor to create those drinks to hit your target pour costs is another. Here are three ways to make sure your pouring is not costing the bar money.

Know Your Standard Pours

Every bar manager wants, first and foremost, bartenders that can quickly and accurately hit all manner of standard liquor pours. By not pouring too much, you save the bar money. By not pouring too little, you keep the guest experience consistent. If you’re comfortable with standard liquor pours and able to hit them every time you try, you’re a valuable bartender. 

There are multiple pour volumes for different drinks and different liquors. Read the standard pour article linked to above and you’ll be on your way.

Learn Pour Counts and Free Pouring

There are, of course, jiggers. Jiggers allow bartenders to measure out pours exactly. But the problem with jiggers is that they’re slow. After you’re done pouring the liquor into the jigger, there’s a whole extra arm motion to dump the jigger in the glass or mixer. Any bartender in the weeds will tell you that jiggers are slow goings.

The alternative to jiggers is learning how to free pour. Free pouring is simply pouring straight from the bottle—usually with a pour spout for consistency. A bartender who can consistently hit standard pours by free pouring is worth their weight in gold. Because they’re accurate and fast.

A popular strategy for free pouring is utilizing pour counts. You can read more about pour counts and other strategies for practicing free pouring in the above linked to article.

Know How to Pour Wine

There’s a whole lot of serving wine at bars, especially restaurant bars. And especially wines by the glass. And with a new type of pour comes a new type of standard pour. Yes, the standard wine pour. Learn how to pour a perfect glass of wine and your bar manager will cherish you.

Like liquor pours, accurate wine pours help keep variance and pour costs down. That’s the reason for all of this standardization in the first place. If you can help your bar’s profit margin by pouring drinks quickly and to spec, then you’ll be a welcome part of the team.

Know Your Mixology

On to the fun stuff! Bartending is making drinks. Get good at it, and you’ll make some decent money. Here are the basic tools you’ll need, some information about primary spirit types, and a few collections of cocktail recipes you should know.

Basic Bar Tools

Cocktail Strainer

A cocktail strainer is a metal bartending accessory that's used to strain ice out of a drink that's been shaken, stirred, or mixed in a shaker or a different glass. It's basically a metal sieve with a handle. There are two main types. The Hawthorne strainer, which is a disc with holes in it with a handle and two stabilizing prongs on each side and a metal spring around the edge. And the Julep strainer, which is shaped like a little bowl (with slits in it) with a handle. The Hawthorne is much more commonly used.

Peeler

A common citrus peeler and zester to create twists and zests.

Bottle Opener

Your standard bottle opener for opening bottled beer.

Cocktail Spoon

A 30- or 40-centimeter long metal spoon, also called a bar spoon, that's used to mix, muddle, stir, and layer cocktails.

Jigger

An hourglass-shaped, two-sided metal measuring tool with a large side and a small side used to pour standard shot volume accurately. The large side is typically 1.5 ounces (the standard pour for a shot) while the smaller side is .75 ounces.

Corkscrew

A standard corkscrew for opening wine. Ideally, a corkscrew with a folding knife in the handle.

Shaker

A two- or three-piece metal device used to mix drinks by shaking them. There are three primary types of shakers. The Boston shaker is a two-piece with the mixing side and the bottom inserted into each other before shaking. Each side can be used separately for mixing, muddling, or stirring. A separate strainer is needed to use the Boston. The second is the Cobbler shaker, which is a three-piece shaker that's tapered at the end and has a built-in strainer on top. And finally the French shaker,a two-piece shaker with a metal bottom and a metal cap. Like the Boston, the French shaker requires the use of a separate strainer.

Know Your Liquor Types

You have to be intimately familiar with the six primary types of base liquor. They are brandy, rum, gin, tequila, vodka, and whiskey. They make up the vast majority of cocktail bases and neat orders. If you know their flavor profiles, pairing options, glassware, and common recipes, you'll be steps ahead of the game.

Cocktail Recipes

Drinks Every Bartender Should Know

Here’s a list of all the drinks every single bartender must know. We included the most common cocktails, the simplest cocktails, and the most classic cocktails. All together, they’re the cocktails that you’ll encounter again and again during a bartending shift. If you know them like the back of your hand, you’ll be doing great.

The Most Popular Cocktails

Here’s some data around the most popular cocktails in the U.S. It includes which cocktails are popular in which cities, what time of day certain cocktails are popular, and more. We definitely considered it while making our list of what cocktails a bartender should know. The post has a ton of useful, interesting information for bartenders and bartenders-to-be.

Seasonal Cocktails

Some cocktails are popular only during certain seasons. Whether that’s because of their ingredients or reputations, it is what it is! Some drinks are just better when the planet leans a certain way. Here are our list of the best summer cocktails, fall cocktails, winter cocktails, and spring cocktails.

If you have a collection of tasty seasonal cocktails recipes at the ready, you’ll be able to make amazing, unique recommendations to your guests. It’s a great upselling opportunity and a great customer experience.

Go to Bartending School

Bartending school can be a massive springboard for the right people. You have to at least look into it. And you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons to decide if bartending school is worth it. Here’s an annotated version to get your thoughts flowing:

Bartending School Pros:

You’ll Learn A Lot

This shouldn't be a surprise, but you'll learn a lot in bartending school. From setting up an entire bar for service, to customer psychology, liquor history, upselling, advanced mixology, inventory (like how many beers are in a keg), and more. If you're starting from square one, the amount and breadth of material in bartending courses will be great for you.

Bartending Experience

Like the above, if you've got no experience and you're having trouble getting your foot in the door, bartending school offers that experience. You'll spend days practicing bartender duties like nailing the perfect standard liquor pours, learning to handle customers, pours, and getting your hands dirty with real front-line mixology techniques.

Networking

This applies mostly to in-person bartending schools: you'll make friends. And once your graduating class starts getting hired, you'll all of a sudden know a bunch of bartenders. There is nothing as convenient for a prospective bartender than having a bunch of gainfully employed (and sympathetic) bartender friends to help you find a job.

Bartending Job Hunting Support

This may be one of the biggest benefits. Bartending school often provides post-graduate job assistance.

Bartending School Cons

Takes Time

It'll take about 40 hours of class time to graduate, and those hours are usually in the evening over the course of a few weeks. You'll be sacrificing 2-3 weeks of evenings.

Costs Money

In-person bartending school runs about $400 to $800, while online courses for bartending school are significantly cheaper: between $50 to $200.

Not Technically Required

We'll get into this below, but going to bartending school isn't required to get a bartending job. Bartending school's real value is exposing you to a huge amount of industry knowledge, giving you a chance to practice, and supporting you with networking and job assistance. If any certificate or licensure is needed to legally bartend in your area, it's often easy to get online for much cheaper than the cost of bartending school.

Get a Bartending License

Many cities, states, or counties require certificates or permits to bartend, but there isn't an official bartending license in the U.S. You’ll have to check your local laws to see what’s required. That said, even if it’s not required, it could make you a more competitive candidate for a bartending position.

Google like crazy, do your research, and find out exactly what's required and offered in your area. You’ll often find that you don’t have to go to a bartending school to get a bartending permit. You’re usually able to get any required local certificate or permit on your own through the issuing agency for much less money than attending bartending school. Some are online and take only hours to complete. Then you’ll have a nice new line to put on your resume.

But if you do go to a school, don't assume they’ll provide everything you need to get a bartending job—like local permits or certificates. They usually do, but double check.

That’s How to Become a Bartender

All of the steps in this bartender’s guide should help you learn how to become a bartender. As we said at the beginning, it’s not a step-by-step process. But, over the years, talking to and working with thousands of bartenders, we got a feel for how it’s done. Any one of the ideas in this article can be the route you successfully use to become a bartender.

And once you get that sweet bartending gig, you’ll recognize quickly what makes a shift smooth and what doesn’t. And one of those things is managing your bar inventory.

Liquor inventory software like BinWise Pro will streamline your bar inventory and save everyone in the building hours, which gives bartenders more time to do what they’re best at: healing our psychological wounds.