Lorelei Yang
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Wonky consultant with a passion for words

If you've ever sat at a bar and thought, "I'd like to be on the other side" but don't have experience tending bar, this guide will help you figure out how to get your first-ever bartending job without any previous experience

12 helpful tips to prep you for your bartending hustle

1. Don't feel compelled to go to bartending school.

While bartending school won't hurt your bartending aspirations, it also doesn't do much to help them. Bartending is an experience-driven industry, so you'll need both the ability to handle the bar crowd and the technical ability to pour a standard pour in order to succeed in this career. As an alternative to bartending school, try attending a bartending seminar.

2. Memorize classic cocktails.

As a first step towards becoming a bartender, you should memorize the recipes for classic cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned, Martini, Margarita, Long Island Iced Tea, Bloody Mary, Whiskey Sour and Manhattan. Having a good knowledge base of these standard cocktails will make you look well-informed and capable of learning the ropes once you're given the change to learn how to pour.

3. Learn basic bartending lingo.

Knowing some of the basic terms that people use when ordering drinks (i.e., "on the rocks," "up," "neat" or "with a twist") and ways of making drinks (i.e., "muddled/muddling," "shaken/shaking" and "stirred/stirring") before you're trained will help you get up to speed all the faster once you're being on-boarded.

4. Spend some time observing bartenders at work.

As with any profession, learning by watching will help you understand what goes into bartending. Thus, it'll benefit you to spend some sober time in a bar watching bartenders' movements and actions while they make drinks. If you're really lucky, you may even be able to strike up a conversation with the bartender and ask them for some tips on getting started as a bartender. 

5. Become a barback.

Barbacks — who are essentially bussers at bars — work behind the scenes to ensure that bartenders have everything they need to meet guests' needs. This involves stocking bottles, replacing kegs and cleaning glasses and surfaces. As a barback, you'll have a hands-on opportunity to learn the lay of the land in a bar, and will also be top of mind in the manager's mind when a position opens up. You can likely expect to work anywhere from a few months to over a year before being considered for a bartending role.

6. Learn on the job while barbacking.

Once you've landed a barback role, you'll want to put your best foot forward by being punctual, dressing well, offering your assistance wherever it's needed, befriending the bartending staff and asking to be more involved. This will make you well-liked at the bar (helping you eventually land a bartender position) and give you opportunities to learn the tricks of the trade from the bartenders you work under. Generally speaking, if you have a good relationship with the bartenders, they'll take you under their wing and teach you the basics during off hours so you can better understand the different liquors, beers, garnishes, glasses and techniques that they're using — which you'll eventually be using yourself.

7. Practice, practice, practice.

Once you've learned the basics from rote memorization and learning from your coworkers, you'll want to invest in some bartending tools to start practicing on your own. As with anything else, practice makes perfect. You can throw your own parties, offer to bartend friends' parties or practice at home with tasters. Getting your friends' opinions can help you adjust your technique (and, if they're willing to pay you a bit to tend their parties, can also be a source of income).

8. Practice the soft skills that you'll need to be a bartender.

Simply knowing the drinks you're serving isn't enough to make one a successful bartender. Being sociable (so you can chat with patrons during slow hours), mentally sharp (so you can remember regulars' drinks and remember what people have ordered during rushes) and precise (so you're pouring accurate volumes of liquor in drinks and measuring ratios correctly to produce good-tasting drinks) are only a few of the skills you'll need to be a successful bartender.

9. Get in shape.

Between standing on your feet for the entirety of your shift, moving up and down the bar to collect and deliver patrons' orders and lifting decently heavy loads, bartending is a physically demanding job. To ensure you're up to the task, you'll want to stretch, exercise and take care of your body.

10. Invest in non-slip footwear.

As anyone who's ever been in a bar can attest to, bars can be slippery, sticky and generally hazardous without proper footwear. This is doubly true behind the bar — so you'll want to invest in proper non-slip footwear or  a rubber mat of some sort, to ensure that you can keep your feet under you. 

11. Talk to management about moving up to bartending.

A manager can't read your mind to know you're interested in moving from barback to bartender — so it's on you to talk to management about your interest in moving up the ladder to bartender. Best case scenario, management agrees that you're ready for the task and promotes you to bartender; worst case scenario, they say no and you can work together on a plan to prepare you for the next step.

12. Make friends in the industry.

Making friends in the industry will doubtless help you get ahead as a bartender or aspiring bartender. Knowing bartenders at your favorite local haunts, at the bar you barback at and around town at other bars and restaurants can help you in myriad ways by keeping you abreast of industry trends, in the know about job openings and well-networked.

FAQs

  • What qualifications do bartenders need? While no formal education is needed to be a bartender, a strong grasp of bar basics, ability to memorize an establishment's cocktails (if they serve them) and physical resilience are all needed to be a bartender. Additionally, you may need an alcohol server license in some states (see below for more information on this).
  • What are the licensing requirements to be a bartender? Licensing requirements vary by state. Some states require bartenders to have certifications, while others don't. You should check your local laws pertaining to bartending and alcohol service.
  • What certification courses are available? According to Toast, ServSafe and TIPS are two of the more popular courses bartenders and servers take to become certified in serve alcohol.
  • What's the minimum age to be a bartender? Again, this varies by state. States' minimum ages for bartenders vary from 16 to 21 — if you're under 21, you should check your state's minimum age requirements before embarking on your journey towards becoming a bartender. Learn2Serve has a list of bartender age requirements by state. Additionally, it's worth noting that even if you're legally of age to serve alcohol in your state, your employer may have its own minimum age requirement for its bartenders — so you should check with your restaurant's or bar's management on this, as well, if you're relatively young.
  • How long does it take to become a bartender? As discussed above, you can expect anywhere from a few months to a year as a barback before being offered the opportunity to move up to the bar.
  • Can bartenders make good money? In short, yes. Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a mean hourly wage of $12.88 and mean annual wage of $26,780 for bartenders as of May 2018, Gold Star Bartending notes that "[g]enerally speaking, a bartender earns much more than the government ever finds out about" due to tips, which comprise around 55% of the average bartender's income (and much of this income goes unreported because it's nearly-universal practice to declare only what's tipped on cards for tax purposes, leading to a less-taxed check and lower reported wages for official government record keeping purposes).

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.