Making drinks is easy at the basic level. Being a great bartender, both in service and drink-quality, is not. Below are some tips for beginner bartenders in the cocktail and restaurant industry based on my experience and the most common mistakes.
1) Focus on service, not just drinks.
You are a bartender, not an artist - you provide service above all else. If customers have a good experience from a very engaging, attentive, and accommodating service staff but the drinks aren't amazing, they are still likely to come back. Meanwhile, I'm sure we can all name a bar with fantastic drinks but bad service or a pretentious atmosphere that we never intend to visit again. Keep your drink-times quick and always have one eye on your customers.
2) Taste everything.
A great chef would never serve anything without knowing that it tastes good, and neither should you. How would you know if an ingredient was forgotten or has spoiled? How would you know if you under- or over-poured something? Furthermore, tasting it all - including drinks you didn't make - gives you knowledge and perspective on your bar program. Tasting cocktails made by other bartenders also helps you figure out your personal progression. Does the experienced bar manager's Manhattan taste more balanced than yours? Ask him or her why. This applies to wines and beers as well - if you are the opening bartender, taste the tapped beers and open wines to see if anything is oxidized or flat.
Your palate will tire after a night of tasting, especially after eating or drinking anything with a strong flavour (like espresso or Fernet, for example). A great way to keep your mouth fresh is to sip soda water throughout the night. The acidity will cleanse your palate, but don't drink flavoured soda as the sugar will dull it. Most importantly, if something tastes off and you're not sure why or how to fix it, get a second opinion. Ask another bartender or a knowledgeable floor manager to taste your drink to see if it's servable. You will occasionally have moments of only being able to discern taste as right or wrong, so don’t be afraid to ask for another opinion.
3) Be knowledgeable.
Know everything you serve, not just the items that interest you. If you are all about cocktails, good for you, but you are still a bartender and will be called upon to serve beer, wine, and of course food. You need to know all menus backwards and forwards and be able to field any questions that come your way. This means following #2 above - taste everything. If you are ever unsure, politely involve a more knowledgeable staff member and listen to what they have to say. Understand the mission of your establishment and the theme of the menus (ex. classic vs. modern culinary cocktails, regional wine lists, spirit focuses, etc). Get to know the food menu too - your sommelier or bar manager (hopefully) designed the beverage menus to compliment the food, and you should know how and why.
4) Don't be pretentious.
Customers do not want to feel judged, but welcome and appreciated (because they are!). Remind yourself that you are here because of them. They are not lucky to be in your bar - you are lucky to have these people appreciate your work and pay your wage. Learn to share your enthusiasm about all products you offer and never make a customer feel bad about ordering wine or beer instead of a cocktail. If someone orders something you do not offer, explain the situation politely and offer an alternative. Never resort to the "we don't do that here" response.
5) Don't be lazy.
This covers a wide range of issues behind the bar (and every job there is). Old or store-bought juice will make a noticeable negative impact on your drinks, as will using stale vermouth. Wilted or dried-out citrus cheeks and wedges make your drinks look cheap. Not being thorough when restocking your bar will affect the following shift by slowing drink times and service. Skipping small steps in drink-making like double straining or garnishes will affect presentation. This list goes on, but the point is: if you don't put in the effort, your work will suffer and customers will notice. The more bad habits you create when starting out, the more difficult the remedy is later on.
5b) Don't be messy.
This is an extension of #5 but deserves its own note. When it gets busy, it's easy to start taking shortcuts: tossing menus or bottles on the backbar instead of replacing them, throwing dirty shakers in the sink to wash later, leaving rarely-used herbs on your station, not wiping surfaces, and so on. The more this piles up, the slower your service gets as the night wears on - not to mention that it makes your bar look dirty and disorganized. The key is to develop clean habits early, regardless of how busy you are. If you have a barback, stress the importance of helping clean up as you're working.
6) Control your dilution.
Mixing too long can make your drink flabby, and it's very hard to get the balance back from over-dilution. Under-dilution is a much easier problem to fix but beware serving a drink before the flavours have settled together. Ice is extremely important to making a great drink. You may not have access to good ice, which can make your job very challenging, so make sure management/ownership is aware of this. The ideal is large, high-density cubes (like the ones made by a Kold-Draft machine). This allows you to chill the drink very well while controlling dilution. Using thin and wet ice leads to a loss of control and usually watery drinks. It also ruins any drink served on the rocks as it may be too watered down before it even makes it to the customer. If your bar has terrible ice, you probably shouldn't be trying to make quality cocktails.
7) Don't adjust too much.
Once your palate develops you'll start second guessing your drinks a little bit while you look for the perfect flavour balance. Adding a dash of an ingredient for balance is fine, but making too many adjustments can lead to over-dilution and long drink times. Measure accurately and get to know the proof of your ingredients so you can make minor adjustments when you start the drink. Trust yourself when it is close to perfect, because perfection won't happen every time.
8) Don't shake everything.
Presentation is very important for both food and drink, and any discerning customer will not appreciate a cloudy Manhattan. Only drinks containing juice, egg, or cream should be shaken. A drink containing only liquors should always be stirred (yes, that includes Martinis unless specifically requested).
9) Measure your ingredients.
While many an experienced bartender can probably free-pour any volume very accurately, this style belongs in nightclubs and not in cocktail bars and restaurants. Measuring not only removes some human error but it also sends a message to customers (and management) that you are being calculated in your work.
The final tip for everyone in the service industry, beginner or not, is:
This really deserves a post all to itself as good service and good working relationships start and end with good communication. Keep everyone in the loop with what you are doing and make sure you know what is happening outside your station. Do not be afraid to ask for help, and offer to help others if you have the time. It is also important to call back orders, as restaurants and bars can get loud and miscommunication can cost time and money. If you are not talking to your co-workers behind the bar, you are not doing your job properly.
Managing all the tasks of working behind the bar while keeping good service as your number one priority is the greatest challenge of being a bartender. It takes years to balance. There is a reason why the best bartenders are very experienced; this is not a job you will be great at right away. Hard work and good habits will pay off.
If you notice any other beginner mistakes that I missed, I encourage you to comment!
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