The Real Poop
Kamikaze. Three wise men. Red-headed stepchild. Mind eraser. Irish car bomb. If the names of these babies don't at least intrigue you, stop reading right now and spend ten minutes on reading our Investment Banker career guide instead.
First of all, let's make the distinction clear: making drinks for customers sitting at faraway tables, then handing them to a waiter or waitress to serve, isn't bartending. You're not exactly "tending a bar" at that point. In its fullest form, bartending is one part skill, one part showmanship, and two parts confidence.
Not only do you need to make complex drinks, you need to make them quickly, precisely, and under the watchful eyes of dozens or hundreds of patrons. Not only do you need to smile and stay upbeat, you have to do it all while having a conversation about the weather, or last week's episode of The Walking Dead, or any number of other things people in bars talk to bartenders about.
A bartender rarely, if ever, steps out from behind the bar during the course of their shift. Depending on where they work, there will likely be a non-stop flow of drink orders from...let's call them "thirsty" patrons, who'd be none too pleased if you suddenly stepped away for a breather. Thirsty patrons tend to be pretty demanding, you'll find.
For most restaurants, the bar is what makes or breaks them financially. So when a bartender is popular, he or she often gets treated like gold by the owners. To illustrate, let's do some math: a typical bar will charge, say, seven dollars for a Cape Cod (that's a one-count of vodka topped off with cranberry juice). The cost of the ingredients: about a dollar.
So the bar just made six bucks on that quick, two-minute transaction. And how much is the bartender taking in for pouring it? It could be as low as $3.28 an hour (and there are a lot of those two-minute transactions in one of those hours) (source).
That's right, half a cocktail just paid for you to work for an hour. The pay rate might be low, but fortunately, tips drive the actual take-home for a bartender. Taking tips into consideration, the average pay rate shoots up to about $19.60 an hour (source). So that's good, but it's still not time to go put a down payment on a Ferrari.
Some bars have special drinks that distinguish them. First, you've got your establishments that specialize in a particular type of libation, such as a winery or martini bar. There are also spots that are famous for a very specific kind of drink. Trader Vic's, a restaurant in California, for example, is renowned for having invented the Mai Tai. Yeah, believe it or not, Hawaii can't lay claim to that one.
As with any other profession, there are some tricks of the trade you'll pick up as you go along. For example, you could get a scream-fit from the bar manager for scooping ice out of a tray with a drinking glass rather than an ice scoop—if that glass breaks in the ice bin, you can't make another drink until you're sure each and every shard has been cleaned out.
You'll also learn when you should give someone a free drink to butter them up, or when to tell a joke to liven up the patrons.
Another important skill for a bartender is knowing when somebody's "had enough." It's one of the rare sales careers where you might actually need to deny a willing customer a sale, but it's your legal (and moral) obligation not to let anyone drink themselves to death. Besides, dead bodies slung over the bar tend to be bad for business.
Occasionally, you'll have to deal with a fight—practically everyone in a bar is intoxicated to some degree, after all, and it's easy for tempers to flare after a few drinks. Often, there's a bouncer or security guard who's charged with handling such occurrences, but if you tend bar in a place with no door guy, you could be the only line of defense.
The good news is, aside from those occasional fights, most people drink for fun—or for misery, or for boredom—and they do so in good economies and bad. As a business, there's almost never not a good time to own a bar. Or at least to work in one.