Bartending pros offer advice on perfecting your craft.
Being a bartender today means that you have to be proficient at making drinks, you have to know all the styles of cocktails, and be up on contemporary drink trends and flavors.
Speed counts behind the bar, and you must be personable: Guests aren’t just there for a good drink, they also want to have a good time. How do you get to and stay on the top of your bartending game? We asked several pros for some advice; here are 13 tips.
Educate yourself on the basics and keep up with the trends.
Read books and watch technique videos online, says Dimitrios Zahariadis, cofounder of TheCocktailChemist.com and president of the U.S. Bartenders Guild Connecticut Chapter (USBG CT).
As for recommended reading, New York bartender Jon Kraus swears by The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique, by Jeffrey Morgenthaler; Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, by Dave Arnold; and the Bartender’s Choice app by Sam Ross of Milk & Honey fame.
“Definitely buy The Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide,” says James Menite, bartender at The Plaza Hotel in New York. “When I first started out, I yellow-Sharpied so much into that book. Now one of my recipes is in the book. My career has come a full 360 degrees.”
Find time to work in the kitchen as well as behind the bar.
“It teaches you to be fast, clean and organized,” says bar consultant Johan M. Stein, principal of Cat & Mouse Consulting. Barbacking is also great for young bartenders, he notes. “I became a great bartender because I was first a good barback and proved myself there.”
Practice mise en place or “putting in place.”
Organize and arrange items that you expect to use during a shift for easy access to save time, says Joe Alberti, bartender at McCoy’s Oceanfront at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Pompano Beach Resort & Spa.
Make your own syrups.
Homemade syrups not only add a cool element that can’t be bought in stores, “they also save you money, as they last for about a week and are only the cost of a cup of sugar and things like a thumb of ginger or a pineapple,” says Cody Goldstein, head bartender at Red Farm in New York.
It’s a good idea to infuse your simple syrups with herbs, fruits, etc. rather than infusing spirits, says Alberti. This will cut down on liquor waste.
Use a jigger.
Measuring with a jigger provides quality control and enables you to get exact proportions every time you make a cocktail, says Chris Almeida, bartender at The Eddy in Providence, RI, and president of USBG Rhode Island. “You can make the cocktail exactly the same way, every time. It eliminates a lot of the factors of variables,” he says. “Friends don’t let friends not use jiggers.”
Learn to free pour.
While many advise using a jigger for most pours, bartenders should also be able to free pour. Practice every day to learn to pour a ½ oz. to 4 oz. at a time with both hands, says Zachary Blair, lead mixologist at the Whiteface Lodge in Lake Placid, NY. You should also learn to bump pour—continuously pour from glass to glass, he says.
Aim to get the pour right each and every time, says Owen Joseph, bar supervisor of the Sea Crest Beach Hotel in Cape Cod, MA. “You’re assured that it will be a great drink, and your guests will always have a consistent one. Count whilst pouring and adjust your count to suit the ounces or parts thereof.”
Use a plate for rimming glassware.
Don’t dip sugar/salt glass rims in typical plastic containers, Alberti says. Use a plate instead, so that the salt or sugar doesn’t get inside the glass and create an unbalanced cocktail.
Source local ingredients.
Visit your local farmer’s markets, gardens and even florists, says Greg Fournier, beverage director of the Harbor View Hotel on Martha’s Vineyard. “Everyone enjoys sweet floral scents in the summer and complex unique herb flavors for the fall.”
And if you don’t know what something is at farmer’s markets, just ask, says Bob Peters, head mixologist for The Punch Room at The Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte, NC. “Most of the time farmers are more than happy to let you sample their fresh produce.”
Always clean your tins after each drink.
“I have worked with numerous bartenders who dump their tins in the sink after each drink,” says Goldstein. “This not only leaves them with no tins at some point but also slows the process during busy hours if they have to make more then one drink at a time.”
Use a Misto spray bottle to mimic a rinsing technique.
It’s quicker to spray your spirit from the Misto bottle into a glass than it is to pour a tiny amount in, coat the inside of the glass, then dump the excess, says Peters. This also eliminates waste “and will extend the life of a bottle three to four times longer than if you use a traditional rinsing technique.”
What’s more, the spray rinse can be a beautiful and interesting part of your drink presentation, Peters notes. “Spraying vermouth or absinthe into a glass in front of your guests really piques their interest and can start a dialog that will make for a unique experience that can be quite memorable.”
Develop your signature shake.
Have fun when you shake a drink: “It’s one of the most important parts of bartending, because it makes the spirit smooth by dilution and customers love it,” says Blair of the Whiteface Lodge.
Every bartender has his or her own shake, so don’t be afraid to get creative. But be sure to count the shakes and make them the same every time, Blair notes. “The more or less a drink is shaken determines the consistency of the cocktail, which ultimately brings people back to the bar.”
Make a complex drink in batches.
Some state laws prevent bartenders from batching their pours, so split the alcohol from the mix, Blair says. Instead of adding each ingredient at a time, make a large batch and put it in a bottle.
“The mix should fit easily in a quart container and makes it super easy when the mixer is out,” Blair says. Just grab a funnel, refill your bottle and continue pouring. The ration of this type of prebatched cocktail is roughly one part spirit to two parts mixer, he adds.
Smile and be friendly.
Keep a few interesting stories and jokes in your back pocket for making conversation with guests, says Labinot Gashi, bartender at Gaby Bar in the Sofitel New York.
Remember that “you’re not serving people drinks, you’re serving drinks to people,” says Sabrine Dhaliwal, bar manager, West Restaurant + Bar, Vancouver, BC. Women tend to have a certain touch and finesse that men don’t, she says, so if you’re a female bartender, “be proud of it, be yourself and work hard. And there’s not much that can beat a smile from a woman.”
Remember your regulars.
Always remember what your regular customers like to drink, Gashi says. It will keep them coming back.
And when you do find yourself serving returning customers, ask them if they’d like their usual as opposed to the name of the cocktail, Gashi adds. “This makes guests feel good: They’ve found someone who listens to them.”
Featured image: Bob Peters, head mixologist for The Punch Room at The Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte, NC.
Melissa Dowling is editor and Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers magazine.