The bartending game has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, as the industry has embraced craft cocktails, craft beer, and interesting wine. With that shift, bartenders have enjoyed increased prestige and celebrity -- and recognition from their parents that mixing drinks can, indeed, be a career. Dream of donning a bowtie and stirring Manhattans? Or sharing beer geekery with like-minded patrons? Don’t let lack of experience stop you from pursuing your passion. Here’s your complete guide to landing a bartending job as a complete and total newcomer.
First know: what are bars really hiring for?
Whether they’re mixing 17-ingredient cocktails, pouring Champagne, or opening light beers and cranking out highballs, bartenders do their jobs while carrying on long conversations with the patrons sitting in front of them. Because of that, these restaurant industry veterans are de facto city guides, therapists, entertainers, and everybody’s best friends. It’s probably not surprising, then, that when you talk to many bar owners and restaurateurs, they’ll tell you that friendliness and a willingness to serve are the most important attributes in a potential hire, and more essential than anything else you could offer, drinks knowledge included.
Bartenders really earn their keep on weekend nights, so being able to work those shifts is part and parcel with the industry. And because restaurants and bars run lean on employees, missing shifts puts the business at jeopardy. So reliability is a prized asset. Demonstrate your reliability by responding to communication from potential employers and by showing up on time to your interview -- and by following up after you’ve spoken to reiterate your interest in the job.
3. Team-player and multi-tasker, even under pressure
Unless you land in a counter-only cocktail lair, as a bartender, you’ll have two factions competing for your attention: the patrons sitting in front of you at your bar, and the servers working tables on the floor. An ability to tackle a rail full of tickets with a smile on your face is essential, as is building good communication with the service team so you can help each other out (nurture those relationships, and they can grab you more limes, or buy you a few extra minutes when you’re in the weeds).
4. Listening and attention to detail
The functional piece of bartending really comes down to following recipes and getting orders right. Demonstrate that you’re attentive to details by editing typos on your resume, doing your research on the establishment, and listening to your interviewer. It’ll show that you can learn recipe specs and anticipate a customer’s needs.
5. A sense of urgency
Whether you’re working at a high-volume club or in a refined lounge, you’re still going to be dealing with drinkers who don’t want to wait for a beverage. All bartending requires a sense of urgency -- if you can convey an eagerness to work at a brisk pace, you’ll be golden.
Learn the basics
Looking to establish yourself at a local brewery? Pick up Tasting Beer, The Brewmaster’s Table, and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing. Dream of mixing pristine cocktails? Start with The PDT Cocktail Book, The Death & Co. Cocktail Book, The Savoy Cocktail Book, The Craft of the Cocktail, and Imbibe. Want to work toward becoming a sommelier? The World Atlas of Wine, Secrets of Sommeliers, and Windows on the World Complete Wine Course are great places to start. Passionate bartending lifers are often just as geeky as masters students when it comes to amassing knowledge on their trade -- get acquainted with their lingo and basics by studying up yourself.
2. Take a class
Many lifelong bartenders will tell you that bartending school is a waste of time and money -- you can pick up all those skills simply by landing a bar job. But there are some courses out there that are widely respected -- they give you a comprehensive base of knowledge that you can put to use in upmarket establishments, and they add a certification to your resume that is a competitive advantage. In the cocktail industry, have a look at BarSmarts, the first level of which is an online course that covers a broad array of spirits knowledge. Students of wine can look at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a multi-level certification program that covers wine knowledge and tasting, or the Court of Master Sommeliers, a sommelier certification program built for industry professionals that offers an in-person intro course in many cities across the country. Beer geeks might look at the Cicerone, a certification program that also begins with an intro.
3. Build your home bar and practice
One of the most fun things about being a bartender: drinking for education. If it’s cocktail knowledge you seek, start with BarSmarts’ 25 essential cocktails, the basis for any serious bar program, and a good overview of how to build drinks. For beer and wine, put together a tasting group and explore different styles, and consider using an app like Untappd or Delectable to save tasting notes.
Landing the job
If you’ve never worked in the front-of-the-house of a restaurant, working a couple of shifts as a stage is a good idea no matter what your conviction level is. This allows you to observe the pace and function of the restaurant and help out before you jump on board. Stages are almost never paid -- except perhaps in a post-shift meal or drink -- but they’re a crucial component of the industry, no matter what your experience level. In the beginning, they allow you to learn the ropes without the pressure of holding down the fort at the bar. As you progress in your bartending career, they allow you to learn new skills, service approaches, and markets, and bring those experiences back to your home bar.
2. Become a bar back
It’s tough, but not impossible, to walk into a full-time bar job with no bar experience, especially if you covet a position at a bar or restaurant with even a basic craft cocktail program. Much easier is to land a job as a bar back, which gives you an opportunity to assist a more experienced bartender while you learn the craft. Get ready to haul ice, polish glassware, and stock bottles for awhile -- in return, you’ll be taught the knowledge you need to take over bartending duties.
3. Take a job as a host
Really want to get your foot in the door at a particular establishment? Applying to be a host is a good way to do it. Hosting attributes mirror bartending attributes -- friendliness, attention to detail, sense of urgency -- but you don’t usually need specialized knowledge to land the job. Moreover, many restaurants give their hosts opportunity to move into other front-of-house positions as the progress, including, yes, behind the bar.
4. Approach bars where you’re a regular
Given that most bar managers are hiring more for personality attributes than mixology skills, you’ve got a solid chance at getting a foot in the door at bars where they already know you’re a friendly, energetic person. Ask if you can stage, and then parlay that into a conversation about employment.
5. Search for bar jobs that don’t require experience
They’re out there. Localwise is a great place to find them.
6. Look for jobs where you can master the basics, including bar catering or chain restaurants
Bar catering can be a good way to get the repetitions in to master the bartending basics, since those jobs tend to deal in more basic cocktails. Chain restaurants are often a good way to gain experience with volume. Both can be more accepting of less experience than more upmarket lairs.
7. Don’t be timid about approaching the best bars in town
Many bar managers at top establishments love to train up passionate newcomers with a lot of potential -- it’s a chance to teach someone skills before they develop bad habits elsewhere. So don’t be shy about approaching top notch bars. You may soon find yourself with an enviable gig.