How to Become a (Great) Bartender: A Bartender’s Guide
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 this bartender’s guide together (one of our many guides).
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 guide will lay out the bartending basics you need to start bartending like a pro.
We’ll first cover bartender responsibilities and lingo and the fundamental liquor types and cocktails bartenders should be familiar with. Then we’ll get into and the realities of being a working bartender: how much bartenders make, age requirements, and typical hours.
How to Become a Bartender: Bartending 101
Bartending for beginners is first about getting the lay of bartender land. What bartenders do and say, and the liquor types and cocktails all bartenders should know.
Bartending Duties and Responsibilities
What do bartenders do? First and foremost, a bartender prepares and serves drinks, alcoholic ones mostly. 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
- Take and maintain bar inventory, sometimes with the help of a beverage director or manager, sometimes not
- Recommend drinks to guests who have only a vague idea of what they like
- 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.
Basic Bar Lingo
We’ve got a whole dictionary dedicated to restaurant and bartending terms. 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
- Neat: a single unmixed liquor served at room temperature with no water or ice, typically served in a rocks glass, shot glass, or snifter
- On the rocks: liquor poured over ice cubes, typically served in a rocks glass or highball glass
- 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.
- 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.
- Well drinks: the lower-priced category of drinks in a bar
- 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. Let’s start with the raw materials, the liquor types.
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:
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
- Aging: oak barrels, 3-20 years
- Styles: Cognac, grappa, American brandy, Spanish brandy, Armagnac, fruit brandy
- Famous distillers: Martell, Courvoisier, Remy Martin
- Alcohol content: typically 40%, can go up to 60%
- Glassware: snifter
- In cocktails: sidecar, brandy old fashioned, Brandy Alexander, Corpse Reviver
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
- Aging: oak barrels, up to 10 years (the longer its aged, the darker it is)
- Styles: British rum, Spanish rum, English rum
- Famous distillers: Bacardi, Captain Morgan, Havana Club
- Alcohol content: Typically 40%, can go up to 75%
- Glassware: rocks glass, grappa glass, snifter
- In cocktails: rum and coke, daiquiri, Mai Tai, piña colada
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
- Aging: Sometimes oak barrels, up to six months
- Styles: London dry, Genever, New American
- Famous distillers: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Bombay Sapphire
- Alcohol content: At least 40%
- Glassware: martini glass, rocks glass, inward-curving stemmed glass
- In cocktails: gin and tonic, Negroni, gimlet, martini, Tom Collins
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
- Aging: typically charred white oak, typically 3-20 years, though some Scotches are aged up to 50 years
- Styles: malt, grain, Scotch, rye, bourbon, Irish
- Famous distillers: Jameson, Maker’s Mark, Johnnie Walker, Macallan
- Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 68%
- Glassware: rocks glass, Glencairn glass, assorted whiskey tumblers
- In cocktails: whiskey sour, Rob Roy, Manhattan, Sazerac, Jack and Coke
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
- Aging: typically none
- Styles: potato, wheat, rye
- Famous distillers: Smirnoff, Grey Goose, Belvedere, Ketel One
- Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 95% (be careful)
- Glassware: martini glass, shot glass
- In cocktails: vodka martini, Bloody Mary, screw driver, cosmopolitan, kamikaze
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
- Aging: oak barrels, 2 months to 3+ years
- Styles: blanco, joven, reposado, añejo, extra añejo
- Famous distillers: Patrón, Jose Cuervo, Don Julio, El Jimador
- Alcohol content: typically 40%, up to 55%
- Glassware: shot glass, rocks glass, snifter, Riedel Ouverture tequila glass
- 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. The next step is creating delicious cocktails with them.
Drinks Every Bartender Should Know
Drinks International released a list of the world’s best-selling classic cocktails in 2019. Here’s how to make the top five from that list, all cocktail staples any bartender worth their salt must know to learn to bartend.
How to Make an Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned is the best-selling cocktail in the entire world for five years running. Learn it, love it, make it in your dreams.
Old Fashioned ingredients:
- 1.5 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 sugar cube
- Club soda
- Orange twist
Place the sugar cube in an old fashioned or rocks glass then add the bitters and a splash of club soda. Muddle it (mash the ingredients into the bottom and sides of the glass with a muddler) add the ice cube and whiskey. Then stir and garnish with an orange twist.
How to Make a Negroni
It’s accepted that the Negroni was born when the Italian Count Camillo Negroni made a request of bartender in Florence. Strengthen his go-to cocktail, the Americano, by substituting the soda water with gin.
- 1 ounce London dry gin
- 1 ounce Campari
- 1 ounce red (sweet) vermouth
- Orange slice
Some people shake Negronis, some people stir them, but we’re going with the recipe straight from Campari. Pour all the ingredients directly into a rocks glass filled with ice, garnish with a slice of orange.
How to Make a Whiskey Sour
The whiskey sour’s recipe was first published in 1862’s Bar-Tenders Guide by bartender and American hero Jerry Thomas. It was the first cocktail book ever published in the U.S.
Whiskey sour ingredients:
- 2 ounces bourbon whiskey
- ⅔ ounces lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon superfine sugar or ¾ ounce simple syrup
- Orange wheel
Shake bourbon, lemon juice, and sugar with cracked ice, strain into a rocks glass, and garnish with an orange wheel and cherry.
How to Make a Daiquiri
Fourth on the list, the daiquiri is the best-selling rum cocktail in the world. It’s named after the town of Daiquiri in southern Cuba, and, in its purest form, is very similar to the whiskey sour.
- 2 ounces rum
- ½ teaspoon superfine sugar
- ½ ounce lime juice
- Lime twist
Add ingredients into a shaker with cracked ice, shake, strain into a chilled coupe glass or champagne saucer, and garnish with a lime twist.
How to Make a Manhattan
Lastly, the Manhattan. When it’s not walkin’ here, the Manhattan is delighting drinkers with a combination of peppery rye whiskey and sweet vermouth.
- 2 ounces rye whiskey
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
Stir all ingredients well with cracked ice, strain into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnish with a cherry.
Three whiskey drinks, a rum drink, and a gin drink make up the five best-selling drinks in the whole world. Note the similarity between the whiskey sour and the daiquiri as you begin dabbling in mixology: liquor + citrus juice + sugar is a world beater.
In short, you now know how to operate behind the bar. So let’s take a look at the realities of doing it as a profession.
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. Is it worth it? Here’s what you can expect in terms of pay, age restrictions, and hours.
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.
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!
Save the World, Learn to Bartend
You’ve now learned some bartending basics and how to become a bartender. 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 having the right inventory behind the bar in the right places.
BinWise Pro will streamline your beverage inventory management and save everyone in the building hours, which gives bartenders more time to heal our psychological wounds and lift our spirits.
Bartenders are are merciful creatures sent here to help. We must make their lives as easy as possible.
Please serve and drink responsibly, everyone!