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How to Become a Bartender: Complete Bartenders' Guide to Learn to Bartend

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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. So 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 a handy bartender duties checklist, as well as this comprehensive bartenders guide together.

Maybe you're learning to bartend, you’re an experienced bartender who wants to improve, or you’re trying to dazzle people at your home bar. Regardless, this bartenders guide will lay out the bartending 101 basics you need to start bartending like a pro.

We’ll first cover bartender responsibilities and lingo and the fundamental liquor types bartenders should be familiar with. Then we’ll get into and the realities of being a working bartender: how much bartenders make, age requirements to sell alcohol, and typical hours.

How to Become a Bartender: Bartending 101

Bartending for beginners is first about getting the lay of bartender land. The first things to consider are what bartenders do and what bartenders say.

Bartending 101 Duties and Responsibilities

What are the most important bartender duties and responsibilities? First and foremost, a bartender prepares and serves alcohol. In addition to taking customers’ drink orders, making the drinks, and serving them, bartenders will also:

           
  • Take and place food orders if the bar is part of a restaurant or serves food
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  • Take and maintain bar inventory, sometimes with the help of a beverage director or manager, sometimes not
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  • Recommend drinks to guests who have only a vague idea of what they like
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  • Recommending drinks is a fantastic and important skill for bartenders to master. We’ll cover it in more depth later in this guide.

Now you know what bartenders do, generally, so let’s take a look at what they say and what they make.

Basic Bar Lingo, Terms, and Terminology

We've got a whole dictionary dedicated to bartender lingo. If you’re learning how to bartend, here are the important ones to know right out of the gate.

           
  • Straight up / up: shaken or stirred with ice, then trained and served without ice in a stemmed glass
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  • Neat: a single unmixed liquor served at room temperature with no water or ice, typically served in a rocks glass, shot glass, or snifter
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  • On the rocks: liquor poured over ice cubes, typically served in a rocks glass or highball glass
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  • With a twist: The addition of a twisted zest of citrus fruit (lime, lemon, and orange are most common) to the cocktail. Sometimes floating in the drink, but often hanging on the edge of the glass.
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  • Back / chaser: A milder drink taken after a shot or a neat glass of liquor. For example, a shot of whiskey with a beer back means a separate glass of beer consumed after the whiskey.
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  • Well drinks: the lower-priced category of drinks in a bar
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  • Top-shelf drinks / call drinks: the higher-priced category of drinks at a bar

Ok! You know how bartenders walk, and you know how bartenders talk. You're well on our way to becoming a bartender. Now let’s get into the magical part: how they mix drinks.

Bartending Basics

Getting your first bartending position in bars and restaurants requires some basic knowledge. Here we'll go over the basic bar tools needed to tend bar, the basic types of alcohol, and classic drinks every bartender 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.

Basic Liquor Types for Beginners

Full bar service will cover beer, wine, and liquor, and expert knowledge of all three will only make you a better bartender. But bartenders don’t mix wines and beers together like mad scientists. An intimate familiarity with liquor is at the heart of learning how to become a bartender.

Here are the six basic types of liquor you need to know inside out if you want to learn to bartend:

Brandy

The word brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, which translates to “burnt wine.” And that’s basically what brandy is: distilled wine. Brandy can also be made from the mash of any other fruit, and both apple and plum are popular choices. That type of brandy typically has the fruit called out on the label: “apple brandy,” “plum brandy,” etc.

           
  • Flavor profile: fruit, primarily grape, but also apple, plum, pear, nuts, oak
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  • Aging: oak barrels, 3-20 years
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  • Styles: Cognac, grappa, American brandy, Spanish brandy, Armagnac, fruit brandy
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  • Famous distillers: Martell, Courvoisier, Remy Martin
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  • Alcohol content: typically 40%, can go up to 60%
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  • Glassware: snifter
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  • In cocktails: sidecar, brandy old fashioned, Brandy Alexander, Corpse Reviver

Rum

Legend has it that rum got its name from a Latin word for sugar, saccharum. That also provides a hint about how it’s made. Rum is made by fermenting and distilling sugarcane molasses or sugarcane juice. It became popular in the 18th century as colonialism landed on tropical shores with an abundance of sugarcane. Hence its association with pirates.

           
  • Flavor profile: sweet, toasty, sometimes spicy
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  • Aging: oak barrels, up to 10 years (the longer its aged, the darker it is)
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  • Styles: British rum, Spanish rum, English rum
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  • Famous distillers: Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Havana Club
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  • Alcohol content: Typically 40%, can go up to 75%
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  • Glassware: rocks glass, grappa glass, snifter
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  • In cocktails: rum and coke, daiquiri, Mai Tai, piña colada

Gin

Gin is made by first creating a neutral spirit then redistilling it with the addition of a combination of botanicals. That means seeds, berries, spices, roots, and herbs. Juniper berries were the earliest and most popular botanical used to create gin. The English word gin comes from the French word for juniper, genévrier.

           
  • Flavor profile: depends entirely on the botanicals, common flavors include juniper, anise, coriander, fennel, and citrus peel
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  • Aging: Sometimes oak barrels, up to six months
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  • Styles: London dry, Genever, New American
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  • Famous distillers: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire
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  • Alcohol content: At least 40%
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  • Glassware: martini glass, rocks glass, inward-curving stemmed glass
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  • In cocktails: gin and tonic, Negroni, gimlet, martini, Tom Collins

Whiskey

Whiskey is made from fermented (and sometimes malted) grain mash, typically using barley, corn, rye, or wheat.

The first evidence of whiskey comes down to us from 15th-century Scotland, 1494 to be exact. And our word for whiskey comes from the Scottish Gaelic phrase uisge beatha, or “water of life.”

To this day, Scotland remains one of the epicenters of whiskey heritage in the world, along with Ireland and the United States.

           
  • Flavor profile: Roast, malt, grains, oak
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  • Aging: typically charred white oak, typically 3-20 years, though some Scotches are aged up to 50 years
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  • Styles: malt, grain, Scotch, rye, bourbon, Irish
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  • Famous distillers: Jameson, Maker’s Mark, Johnnie Walker, Macallan
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  • Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 68%
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  • Glassware: rocks glass, Glencairn glass, assorted whiskey tumblers
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  • In cocktails: whiskey sour, Rob Roy, Manhattan, Sazerac, Jack and Coke

Vodka

Like gin, vodka is created from a neutral spirit. But that’s where the similarities end. Vodka, unlike other spirits, is designed to be flavorless. The best vodkas are held up as pure, odorless, and with only a slight hint of clean grain.

Because we must continue with etymology, the word vodka is a version of the Russian word for water, voda. The added “k” turns it into a diminutive: “little water” or “cute water.”

Since 1970, vodka has become the most-consumed liquor type by volume in the U.S. Better get to know it.

           
  • Flavor profile: very subtle clean, bright grains
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  • Aging: typically none
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  • Styles: potato, wheat, rye
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  • Famous distillers: Smirnoff, Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ketel One
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  • Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 95% (be careful)
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  • Glassware: martini glass, shot glass
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  • In cocktails: vodka martini, Bloody Mary, screw driver, cosmopolitan, kamikaze

Tequila

Tequila is a type of mezcal, which is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of the succulent agave. Specifically, tequila is made from the blue agave plant primarily in the region surrounding the Mexican city of Tequila.

Drinking tequila is typically associated with tequila cruda, or taking a shot of tequila with salt and lime. In recent years, there’s been a bit of a tequila renaissance in the U.S. that takes tequila appreciation far beyond shots. Mezcal and tequila bars are popping up left and right. Drinkers and bar managers alike are paying attention to the subtle differences in processes and terroirs that contribute to tequilas’ diverse flavor profiles.

One word of warning, beware the “mixto,” made with only 51% agave and the rest neutral sugarcane spirit. Focus on 100% agave tequilas, and you’re good to go.

           
  • Flavor profile: bright green fruit, earthy tones, oak, spice
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  • Aging: oak barrels, 2 months to 3+ years
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  • Styles: blanco, joven, reposado, añejo, extra añejo
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  • Famous distillers: Patrón, Jose Cuervo, Don Julio, El Jimador
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  • Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 55%
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  • Glassware: shot glass, rocks glass, snifter, Riedel Ouverture tequila glass
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  • In cocktails: margarita, Tequila Sunrise, paloma

You now have a better-than-average knowledge of the 6 primary spirits that make up the vast majority of cocktails, including the cocktails every bartender should know.

Becoming a Bartender: The Reality

Let’s get some housekeeping stuff out of the way. 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. And some information about the pros and cons of bartending school and whether or not you need a bartending license or certificate to get a bartending job.

How Much Do Bartenders Make?

It’s difficult to answer this definitively. 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 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 pretax 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 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 this all sounds right up your alley, then you’re ready to apply to bartending jobs. We’ll cover that right here in this guide soon. So stay tuned!

Should I Go to Bartending School?

We've written a fair amount about the pros and cons of bartending school. Here's the gist, though: going to bartending school is great for some people and not so great for others. Here's a breakdown of why.

The Benefits of Bartending School

Bartending School Curriculum

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, 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 nailing the perfect standard liquor pours and standard wine pours, mixing, 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.

The Drawbacks to Bartending School

It 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.

It Costs Money

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

It's Not 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.

Is a Bartending License or Certificate Required to Get a Bartending Job?

In general, no. You do not need a license to get a bartending job. Many localities require certificate or permits, but there isn't an official bartending license in the U.S. The most important thing to consider when asking "do you need a license to bartend?" is your local laws. Don't assume the bartending school or course you're taking includes everything you need to get a bartending job. They usually do, but you've got to double check.

Often, though, you're able to get any required local certificate or permit on your own through the issuing agency for much less money than attending bartending school. Google like crazy, do your research, and find out exactly what's required. And if you don't need any of the supplemental knowledge bartending school offers, just get the permit on your own and update your resume.

Save the World, Learn to Bartend

With this bartenders guide, you’ve learned some bartending basics and how to become a bartender. And soon you'll learn how to become a mixologist, sommelier, or bar manager. 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's 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 heal our psychological wounds and lift our spirits.