How To Be a Really Excellent Bartender
A rant by Brandy "You're a Fine Girl" Alexander
October 2003

As a LUPEC member, caterer, and rock and roll star, I spend a considerable amount of time in bars of all description. It would be difficult for me to come up with a set in stone group of standards by which I judge bartenders, because naturally a great bartender in a shot and beer dive is completely different from a great bartender in a hoity-toity cocktail bar where you have to serve white wine in a different glass from red wine. That being said, there are a couple of common-sense standards that apply to any bartender who wants to get a big tip and a positive recommendation from the ladies of LUPEC. Here are some:

Ladies like to be fussed over a bit if they are sitting at your bar. I can not tell you the number of times I have over tipped a gentleman, particularly at the Rosebud, for rushing over to light my cigarette. It is classy. You should also keep a watchful eye on a ladyís ashtray if she is smoking. While compulsively emptying the tray after every butt is annoying, she should not be forced to put out cigarette number three on top of cigarettes number one and two.

Another way to charm me is to remember what I am drinking even if I am NOT sitting at the bar. My favorite bartender in Pittsburgh, Tim at Gooskis, is phenomenal at this. The place can be packed full of Yinzers and indie rockers all demanding his attention, and he will STILL come at me with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (on microbrew night) before I have even said anything to him. And it is not just me---he has a Corona ready with the lime before my friend Dark and Stormy makes her way to order. That is bartender cool.

There is of course a flip side to attentiveness, especially for a lady sitting alone at the bar, and that is overbearing chattiness. A lady sitting alone at the bar could be waiting for a friend, or enjoying her solitude with a nice martini, or reading something very interesting. You will not score any points, or tips, by acting as if she is a charity case. Use subtle clues to gauge if the lady would like to have more than passing witty repartee with you, and then abide by them.

This is one of those qualities that varies from establishment to establishment. If you are working the bar of a shot and beer joint, I will not expect you to know how to make a Pink Squirrel. I WILL expect you to know what is on special, and to recommend the specials to me. I will also expect you to know how to mix basic shots that people enjoy (although I will never ever order them) and some basic information about the beers you have on tap and what might be interesting in your import/microbrew cooler.

If you work in one of those hoity-toity places with the fancy glasses and a bar that changes colors, I will expect you to have a thorough knowledge of everything that appears on your cocktail menu, and a working knowledge of other classic cocktails. I will also expect you to have a reputable bartenderís manual at your disposal and to USE IT when you must. BT Kevin from The Lava Lounge was great at this---he knew how to make most things, but he was willing to consult the manual for things he did not know, rather than guessing and screwing it up. A side note to this---you should also know basic cocktail ingredients well enough to be able to suggest a substitute when necessary. You should NOT just go ahead and substitute something without asking the lady you are serving---if she has ordered a specific cocktail you donít know, she most likely knows what is supposed to be in it and will not be charmed if you make it WRONG. In most cases, she would rather choose something for which you have all the ingredients than suffer through an inferior version of her favorite. You wonít know unless you ask, and you wonít get a good tip if you assume incorrectly.

This is a tricky one. In general, if you are working a busy bar, you will most likely have been hired because you have a generally pleasant disposition and the confidence of the management that you will treat your patrons with grace and respect. However, there are certainly cases where personality is not as important as knowledge or attentiveness---I am thinking here of the bartender from the Suburban Room, who is crotchety as all get out. He does, however, know how to mix a Pink Squirrel, and so I will on occasion visit his bar and withstand his cantankerous disposition in order to get a classic cocktail in the appropriate glass. Tim at Gooskis is a pretty quiet and reserved fellow, but his amazing memory and ability to make me feel special in a room full of demanding rock and rollers more than makes up for his lack of chattiness. On the other hand, bartenders like Don Bistarky from the Lava Lounge/Tiki Lounge was skilled with the attentiveness and knowledge, in addition to having a winning personality that made me want to sit at the bar and discuss the subtleties of pomegranate molasses with him all night long.

I can think of no instances where personality alone has carried me through an evening of substandard attentiveness or knowledge though. So donít rest on your laurels just because you are a friendly guy (or gal).

This should really go without saying, but if you are sloppy with the drink mixing, if you donít pick up my empty glass before you set down my full one (on a clean bar napkin) or if you allow sloshes and puddles of beer or alcohol or even melty ice to sit on the bar in front of me, I will be stingy with the tip. Shame on you.

I know that in many cases you as a bartender do not have control over what is stocked in your bar. That is forgivable, to an extent. However, it is your responsibility to have the proper garnish well stocked, and plenty of napkins and matches in the napkin and match holders, and also to know before you start mixing my drink if you are out of something. Taking stock of the bar takes only a few minutes, and will save you lots of embarrassment later. If you are out of something basic, like for example BRANDY, you should endeavor to do something about it before it is too late.

These are some basic requirements for a good bartender from the perspective of a good bar patron. Learn them, live them, and you will be guaranteed a good tip from the Ladies United For the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails, and from your other patrons as well.

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