Kamikaze. Three wise men. Sex on the beach. 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 10 minutes on Investment Banker.
First of all, let's make the divide clear: Making drinks for customers sitting at faraway tables, handing them to a waiter or waitress to then serve is NOT bartending. You’re not exactly “tending bar,” so this distinction should make sense to you. A bartender rarely (if ever) steps out from behind the bar during the course of her 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 would be none too pleased if you suddenly stepped away for a breather.
For most restaurants, the bar is what makes them or breaks them financially. So when a bartender is popular, she gets treated like gold by the owners. And do the math: A typical bar will charge, say, $7 for a Cape Cod (a one-count of vodka, then fill ‘er up with cranberry juice). The cost of the ingredients: $1. So they make 6 bucks on a quick 4-minute adventure to the customer and have almost no risk of spoilage. (They may charge $40 for the top-notch sea bass in the restaurant part of the establishment - but if they don’t sell it, it goes bad. You can’t really re-cork that stuff.)
Some bars may even have special drinks that distinguish them. You’ve got your establishments that specialize in a particular type of libation, such as a winery or martini bar, and then there is the rare spot that is 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. Put that in your tiki totem and smoke it.
If you have an impression of bartenders as kindly old souls who pour you a brewski and then lean over the bar to ask you “what’s eatin’ you?” or as Cirque de Soleil wannabes who perform masterful works of artistry with a beer mug or vodka bottle, get it right out of your head. The life of a bartender these days is too fast-paced to delve deep into emotional backstory with the clientele. Possibly if you work in a bottom-of-the-barrel dive bar on the side of a freeway, but not in any marginally profitable establishment. If it makes you feel better, you can recommend a good psychiatrist. And you’ll really only see those drink-related parlor tricks in a Vegas bar or somewhere else that’s targeting tourists – most self-respecting bars won’t go that route. Patrons want to drink the alcohol, not see it spin in circles.
As with any other profession, there are little tricks of the trade you’ll pick up as you go along. For example, you could get crucified by the bar manager for scooping ice out of a tray with a drinking glass rather than an ice scoop – that glass breaks and there goes an entire try of ice or, worse yet, a glass shard winds up in someone’s vodka tonic and then you’re in a bit more trouble. You will also learn when you should give someone a free drink because they’ve ordered so many from you already. Technically, the answer is zero (which is what you’d tell your manager if questioned), but pretty much any bartender will give a patron a freebie if they’re giving them lots of business and tipping generously.
Another important skill 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 moral obligation not to let anyone drink themselves to death. Besides, dead bodies slung over the bar tend to kill business.
Occasionally, you’ll have to deal with a fight – practically everyone there is intoxicated, after all. Often there is a bouncer or security who is 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. Make sure you grab a bottle of the cheap stuff when breaking it over someone’s head.
There is a hierarchy of bartending – usually it’s not just one guy behind a bar handling the whole thing. You’ve got your bar manager, who… manages. Then 1-3 bartenders, depending on the size of the operation, and then a couple of barbacks. These guys clean the glassware, fill up the ice, load up the liquor and beer… they do all the odds and ends stuff so the bartenders don’t have to worry about it. Without them, a bar would crash and burn. So if a bartender knows what’s good for him, he’ll treat the barbacks with the utmost respect. Unless he wants to run out of Bud just before the 9:00 rush.
The good news: People drink for fun, for misery, or for boredom - in good economies and in bad. As a business, there is almost never NOT a good time to own a bar. Or at least work in one.