So You Want My Job: Bartender

by Brett on February 4, 2009 · 37 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job


Today we return to our “So You Want My Job” series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work. So belly up to the bar and let bartender Mike Hagan pour you a drink  as he offers some advice on being an administer of spirits. Thanks for your participation, Mike; we raise our glasses to you. Cheers!

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it).

My name is Mike Hagan. I’m from a small town in central Illinois. I went to school at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (go Salukis!). I’ve been a bartender for about 6 years at a few different types of bars: city bars, small town bars, restaurant bars…my favorite by far has been the restaurant bar. The people are way more relaxed and less likely to get out of hand, which makes my job easier.

2. Why did you want to become a bartender? When did you know that it was what you wanted to do?

I don’t know when I decided that bartending would be my life’s profession. I still don’t know if it will. I studied film production and film history in college. I went out to Los Angeles after school and worked for one of the big studios out there. I found it to be soulless and uninspiring. Being another cog in the works is not my cup of tea. If I’m going to continue in this profession, I’ll probably do like most old bartenders do and eventually buy my own place.

After LA, I moved to Chicago and worked at a record store after finding the film business there to be hard to break in fresh. I had a co-worker who worked at the store as his “fun job.” The job that paid his rent was being a bartender. He only worked at the bar one night a week and made enough money in 2 weeks to pay his rent and bills. He always spoke of $500 tip nights like it was no big deal. I’m sure he was padding it up a bit, but I was floored that he could make that much money in a night. It always stuck in the back of my mind to learn how to tend bar.

3. If man wants to become a bartender, how should he best prepare? What’s the best route into the job?

It’s funny that you say “man” because it is definitely different for men than women to get a bartending job. In my experience, men need to be more prepared than women in this business. A bar manager is more likely to hire a beautiful woman than a man if they are equally qualified. I know I’ve been passed over. But it’s the nature of the business. There are a lot of bars that won’t even hire a guy in a bartending role. I’ve also known bars that, with all things being equal, the man would have to bar-back for a certain period of time before being allowed to bartend, but the woman can just step into being a bartender. It’s a reverse discrimination business. That being said, some of the best bartenders I’ve worked with are women.

The best route to getting into the job is knowledge. Know your drinks, know your beers. If you don’t know the difference between lager and ale or that a Martini is a drink, not a style of glass, then bartending is not currently for you. But the good thing is, there are multiple sources out there to get the information you need. One of my favorite sites on the web is Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s. He writes about classic cocktails, new variations, and the life of the bartender. He also has tons of recipes listed. Also, the food section of your local bookstore probably has multiple books on the subject. Get as many as you can (even if the recipes repeat) and find some drinks you think you might like and make them. If you like it at home, go to your favorite bar and test your bartender.

There are also schools that teach bartending, but I’ve never been to one. I’m self-taught. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with a bartender that went to school for it. Most of those places are just looking for a buck. And I’ve never seen a bartender wanted ad that required a degree from a school like that. Experience yes, a six-week class certificate, no. That being said, if you want to do the school route, make sure they have a job placement program. I think some of the better ones in some major cities do.

4. How competitive is it to get a job as a bartender?

Getting a bartending job in a major city is very competitive, especially at the nicer places, because the money can be so good. It’s not as bad in a smaller area. More than likely, if you have experience and they are looking to hire, you’ll at least get an interview. You should treat it like any job interview. If you come in looking like a schlub, they’re going to think you are one. There’s a quote I like, and I can’t remember who said it or exactly how it goes, but it’s something like “You can’t tell if a man is rich or poor from far away if he’s wearing a suit.” I’m not saying you have to wear a suit, but you should look like you own one, at least. Also, don’t pick up an application or drop off your resume looking like a schlub, either. They will remember and may not even call you for an interview.

Once you get the job, it remains competitive. People in the restaurant and bar business don’t like change and they don’t like the new guy. They will try to break you in and try to get you to hate your job and quit. You’ll be treated as stupid and the rookie until you’ve earned their respect. Remember, the income these people make is based on the amount of shifts they work a week…they are making their money from tips, and the new guy is there to take away their shifts and, therefore, their money. My advice is to take it in stride. I had a job where I had been there a month or so, and everyone pretty much liked me but one guy. We got scheduled together on an extremely busy night, and he tore into me the whole time. At the end of the night, with everyone gone, I was finishing up some cleaning and he was counting the tips. We had made a lot of money that night, which made him happy, of course. He apologized to me for lashing out. I told him I understood and that the whole night was crazy and stressful and it was no big deal. I didn’t hold it against him because, in the heat of battle tempers flare. He’s been a great co-worker ever since, and we now have a mutual respect for each other.

5. What sets a candidate apart from others when he’s applying?

I used to manage a bar, and with that, I was in charge of hiring. I always called references. A lot of places don’t, but I think it’s a fool’s game if you don’t. When I call, I always ask about why they left. I’m not sure, but legally, I don’t think the references can say that the person is bad and not worth hiring, but they can state facts, and those facts can be quite interesting. Sadly, I’ve had to pass on some highly qualified candidates because they had sticky fingers. One thing about this job is, although the money is good, it always has it’s down time. People get desperate. If you are an honest man, and you have an honest record along with experience, that can set you apart.

6. What is the best part of the job?

The money can be very good. And it’s cash every night. You see it. Your paycheck is an afterthought. You have a bill due tomorrow, but your check is a week away. You work that night and more than likely you can pay it on time. I actually live off my tips and stick my checks in my savings account. The camaraderie is nice. Some of my favorite nights are when it’s slightly busy with all my favorite customers. Good customers are worth their weight in gold. I have some customers that will stay all night and when it’s time to leave, after tipping me a healthy sum, will actually help me put up the chairs. That speaks volumes to me. I’ve never been a morning person, so working nights at the bar are nice. And I spend less money when I work, because I’d probably be at the bar anyway, but this way I get to be there and hang out and make money. Granted, I have to work and I can’t just leave when I want, but I still get to be there.

7. What is the worst part of the job?

The worst part of the job can also be customers. Some patrons just don’t understand that we are there to serve you drinks, not to be your slave. I’ve found that the most needy customers are the worst tippers. People have to understand that we are aware that you are there, but others got there before you, so you have to wait your turn. Patience is a virtue, and bartenders can be spiteful if you’re impatient. If you’re rude and impatient, you’ll probably wait that long for the next drink, too. Don’t scream your order at me when I’m not even looking at you and making a drink for another customer. Give me the whole order at once. Don’t send me to make 3 drinks and when I get back with them send me for 2 more. Don’t finally get me over there then have no idea what you want. Don’t pound the bar, snap your fingers, or whistle. Don’t ever call me “Chief” or “Boss.” Use my name if you know it, and if you don’t, you’ll hear it a thousand times if the bar is busy. If I’m extremely busy, for God’s sake don’t order a Mojito. Or a blender drink. It won’t be made to perfection. If it’s cold, don’t order a frozen drink. A bartender’s four favorite words are “The Blender Is Broken.”

The other thing I don’t like about the job is the Martini situation. A Martini is a drink, not a glass type. A Martini is 3 parts Gin, 1 part dry vermouth. A Dry Martini is 5 parts Gin, 1 part dry vermouth. Twist or olive. With onion it’s a Gibson. If you like vodka, it’s a Vodkatini, or Vodka Martini, if you like. Don’t ask for the “Martini List” but for the Cocktail list. A stemmed glass is called a cocktail glass, not a martini glass. Some people have no respect for the history of cocktails. When someone asks me what kind of Martinis we have, I always say “the kind with Gin and Vermouth in them. But we have an extensive cocktail menu.”

I think a true man knows his poison. I saw an article somewhere about having calling cards printed up with your contact information on front and your drink recipe printed on back. I think that’s overdoing it, but it’s on the right track. A man knows what he wants and how he wants it. He should be able to tell the bartender in exact terms what drink he wants and how he wants it, whether it’s the classic Martini or a Jack and Coke. Order your drink specifically enough times and even the worst bartender will remember how to make it.

8. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

That anyone can do it. That all it is is hanging out and making drinks. That it’s not a “real job.” Just because I don’t work banker hours doesn’t mean I don’t have a real job. I have a 401(k) at my current bartending gig. And it is work. I work long hours. I sometimes have two shifts a day. I had one job where it was always a 10 hour shift, but sometimes longer. People also think that bar/restaurant people are all poor. I know people who work in larger cities than me that pull in over $100,000 a year. There is a trade off, though: you never get holidays off, you always work weekends, and you always work when all your friends are partying. It’s a solitary lifestyle sometimes; you sleep when others are awake, you work when others are relaxing, you relax when others are sleeping.

The other thing is that there are a lot of people with “chemical dependencies” that work in the business. I’ve been fortunate not to work with too many of those people, but I think the reason everyone thinks we’re all a bunch of lowlifes is because there are those people in the business, and a few bad apples spoil the whole bunch. I’ve never worked for a bar where the owner was dealing drugs out of the back, but I’ve heard horror stories. I like to think that if I ever did, my ethics and morals would cause me to seek other employment.

9. What is the work/family balance like?

I can definitely say that bartending can put a strain on relationships. I tend to miss things like weddings and birthday parties a lot because I have to work. Luckily, I’ve never worked in a bar that is open on Christmas. I don’t think I could miss that. But I haven’t been to a New Year’s Eve party in a long time. There’s a saying that there are three days a bartender will never have off: March 17, October 31, and December 31.

Women always think that it is gonna be a blast dating a bartender, but they usually find that they don’t have the stomach for it. Flirting with female clientele is part of the job. Anything for tips, right? Having a jealous girlfriend is not a good idea for a bartender. In the past, I’ve had to have girlfriends and boyfriends of my bartenders banned from the bar because they were just causing problems.

I think a lot of planets have to align just right for a bartender to find the perfect relationship. I’ve been fortunate. My girlfriend works at a local hospital where she works 2nd shift, which is essentially the same shift I work. We are both night owls. Sometimes I beat her home from work, but most times she beats me. She has weekends off, and I’ve pretty much got every Sunday off, so that’s “our day.” She likes our schedule, but wishes I could get more Saturdays off. Because she works at the hospital, she understands about not getting holidays off…she has to work every other holiday. My birthday was Thanksgiving this year and she missed it, but we’ll be together on Christmas. Just like everything in life, you make sacrifices to make the things that are important to you work out. I just hope our wedding isn’t on a Saturday!

10. Can you make a lifelong career out of being a bartender, or do most guys do it for a time, and then move on to something else?

You can, and I know a few old “stickmen,” but most guys like to get out of it. A lot of bartenders who aren’t just using it to pay through school end up being in the business, but not always as bartenders. I’ve been a bar manager. Some guys save up and open their own place, or buy the place they work at from their boss when he retires. Some move on to sales and work for the beer/wine/liquor distributors. I would like to own my own place one day; I think every bartender who loves his job dreams of it, being able to run things his own way. Depending on the type of bar you work at, you could get offered jobs. I’ve been offered many jobs, some in completely different fields, but I haven’t taken anyone up on it…yet!

11. How true is the popular cliché of the bartender dispensing a lot of wisdom and advice along with drinks? How do you handle this part of the job?

The old cliche of the broken man, crying in his beer at the end of the bar is true, but people deal with their problems in different ways. Most men don’t want to talk about it. Some guys will ask your opinion on things, but usually they’re just looking for someone to listen to them. I listen and ask the right questions at the right time, and usually they will come up with the solution themselves. I’m still young (28), never married with no kids. I’m not about to try to advise someone who has just gotten divorced after 20 years of marriage. Most people know in their heart how they feel about something like that; it’s just that they’re looking for approval that they’re right about those feelings.

I’m usually just an answer man. People are often trying to think of the name of a movie or song, and working in the business I did before being a bartender, I usually have the answer.

12. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

If you’re at a bar, act like an adult. If you act like a teenager, we’ll throw you out like one. If you are at a restaurant bar and you’re having drinks at the bar before dinner, make sure to pay for your drinks before you leave the bar, or at least tip the bartender before having your drinks transferred to your table. What happens is that you think the bartender is getting part of your tip from the bill when it’s transferred to your waiter. He’s not. That shady waiter is going to pocket all the money and give the bartender only the required percentage from management, which is not what he would have gotten if you paid him at the bar. My best customers always pay before they go to the table.

Remember, the bartender is human. He will make mistakes. He has a boss, and he can’t just give you stuff for free. If your first drink wasn’t strong enough, pay for a double next time, because odds are he’s only allowed to give you what he gave you without you paying for more. Oddly enough, though, if you’re a good tipper, your drinks are probably a little stiffer than the next guy’s.

For those watching their caloric intake, Vodka and Club Soda with a lemon is probably your best bet. It’s stiff, tastes good, and cheap (depending on the vodka you use). And it will get you buzzed faster than those watered down low-calorie beers without bloating you.

The best hangover cure is not drinking a Bloody Mary in the morning. If you’re able, drink a glass of orange juice after your last drink; vitamin C helps metabolize alcohol up to 25% faster. Then drink 2 big glasses of water right before bed. Sleep on your left side as it creates an angle where the contents of your stomach won’t be able to rise up and give you heartburn. Wake up and exercise, sweating for at least 20 minutes, then drink more water. You’ll be fine.

And guys, lay off the Jagermeister. It’s not cool and makes you act like a frat boy.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Justin Luddington February 4, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Ditto on the Jagermeister. Good article.

2 Cameron Schaefer February 4, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Awesome post, my dad worked as a bartender for many years and I’ve always had a fascination with the job. Definitely enjoy hearing an insider’s take – thanks Mike!

3 Alex February 4, 2009 at 10:26 pm

This was a really interesting read. I appreciate how comprehensive your answers were. Like the previous commenter, I’ve always been intrigued by the job and really enjoyed hearing about all the ins and outs of being a bartender. Thanks.

4 Steve C February 4, 2009 at 10:51 pm

Nice read!

5 Devan February 5, 2009 at 12:00 am

I really liked this article – the depth of the responses was great. Mike certainly sounds a lot older and wiser than 28!

Good to see AoM getting back on track with some thoughtful, deep articles like this.

6 Jan February 5, 2009 at 12:23 am

Thanks Mike and TAoM for excellent post. It makes obvious what sets a “romantic part-time college kid” bartender and a pro apart.

7 AK February 5, 2009 at 4:57 am

Great post, thanks for sharing.

8 Uberhack February 5, 2009 at 8:32 am

@ Devan,
There’s something about tending bar that increases your wisdom beyond your years. I believe I learned a great deal of real-life lessons behind the bar while in college. I definitely wouldn’t have the confidence I do today if I didn’t sling drinks for a couple years.

9 James February 5, 2009 at 9:33 am

Nice article! It definitely takes away some of the romance associated with being a bartender. It’s a real job just like any other.

And now I know not to order a mojito when the bar is crowded. :-)

10 Jsthegr8 February 5, 2009 at 10:43 am

Thanks for the hangover tips!

11 Daniel February 5, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Nothing wrong with Jagermeister if you drink it like a proper liqueur, a small shot after dinner or before bed. It is a damn fine spirit with good depth of favour, sadly spoilt by the moronic frat boy crowd.

12 Drew February 6, 2009 at 1:07 am

I love being a bartender for many of the reasons Mike pointed out. When he says most people will move onto another career, I agree, but think I will remain a part-time bartender. I have a part time job in sports journalism, while my full-time job is tending bar. I plan to eventually become a full-time writer, but hopefully will continue bartending at least a night each week for a very long time.

13 Paul February 9, 2009 at 5:11 pm

If you wish to read more on the bartender / tavern keeper’s life consider ‘The Last Fine Time’ by Verlyn Klinkenborg. I enjoyed this article. I spent some time as a bartender, bar back and manager of a music club.

14 pete February 13, 2009 at 4:12 pm

The link to Mr. Morgenthaler’s blog is broken. This is the correct link.

15 Jesse February 18, 2009 at 9:15 pm

Nice. Again with that devil Jager . . it never did anyone any good . . .

16 jd February 19, 2009 at 11:09 am

Great article! Sounds like Mike knows his stuff…

17 Christopher Paul March 6, 2009 at 8:53 am

I agree. My twin brother and I used to tend bar together for a reception hall once while in college and it really was one of the best jobs we’ve had. The money was decent, the environment was always interesting, read fun. We were just two crazy guys serving booze and meeting chicks. Reading this makes me want to get back in it.

Thanks Mike!

18 WayneDiesel May 5, 2009 at 5:42 am

This is a great article with a lot of good tips and insight. I have been trying to get into the bartending business, or at least back-backing, in my city for about a year now to no avail. I think some of these tips will really help, however, especially the part about getting some books making your own drinks at home.

I worked in bars for 3 year in college, but that was just as a bouncer so I am finding it hard to make the transition. Most bartenders I’ve ever seen don’t look like they’re ready to play D1 football (just an observation).

19 Nick June 1, 2009 at 2:48 pm

“lay off the Jagermeister…It makes you look like a frat boy.” So true. In my case I learned that lesson in high school, and somewhere in college I discovered that sweet drinks cause the worst hangovers, even off of only a couple drinks.

Good tips on avoiding hangovers, didn’t know the vitamin C and laying on left side info.

20 Alex Vance June 14, 2009 at 12:19 am

Fuck that. jagermeister is delicious you dick

21 Dave June 25, 2009 at 7:22 am

I love bars, love to drink (don’t do it much any more) and love a good bartender. Reading this article makes me want to go out and drink. PS As Mike said always tip before going to your table in a restaurant; also always try to tip in cash.

22 Dave August 16, 2009 at 6:58 pm

And Alex proves the point about Jager making you act like a frat boy.

23 acidondeck October 13, 2009 at 2:07 pm

Ya nice job mike. i have no family in the tending buisness, but im in peoria, illinoise and im ready and facinated to sling sum mo fo’s. only thing is.. i got a few years to wait =p hahaha

24 Anthony J. Kern October 25, 2009 at 6:36 pm

Excellent points, Mike.
I’ve been bartending for about half a decade now. Started part time to help with school and ended being so passionate about it that it’s all I do anymore.
Bartending can be a very enjoyable profession, but at the end of the day it’s still a job. You offer some good advice to those who might be considering this career. I see so many people that love hanging out and partying at the bar and think, “It would be so great to work here because I could do what I’m doing now and get paid for it.” Not to say that it’s not rewarding, but as soon as you’re on the other side of the counter the source of your enjoyment must be altered. The party ends and work begins. Your job is too make sure everyone else is having a good time. You’re in the service industry, and you quite literally are a servant. Of course that doesn’t mean you should let customers take advantage of that and walk all over you. It’s your bar. They are the guests. Don’t be afraid to own the room.

And don’t be afraid to work. Good point on how people think of bartending as not a “real job.” The more you put into it, the more satisfaction (and money) is returned to you. I get guys all the time who make comments about how great it must be to be the bartender. How many numbers they must get and how many chicks they can go home with. Believe me, if that’s your inclination you’re looking into the wrong business. Think about this: when the bar closes, it doesn’t clean itself. All those hot chicks leave and you’re still there stocking and getting ready to do it all over again tomorrow. There’s a lot more sacrifice in it than most people would think.

All that being said, if you’re the type you truly enjoys making other people’s days just a little bit better the service industry may very well be a fulfilling place of employment for you. For me, the 10-15 hour days, the few bad customers, and the tension that inevitably happens with coworkers is all worth it knowing the people that matter walked out the door with a smile on their face.


p.s. A little tip for those of you already bartending. We all know there are slow days. But that doesn’t mean you should slow down. There’s always something that needs stocked, some surface that hasn’t been wiped in a while, or something that needs to be fixed. Keeping yourself physically busy creates an atmosphere in your room of energy and anticipation. When a group of eight walks into a bar with two customers and a bartender sitting on his ass smoking a cigarette, they turn around and leave. There is no energy. No presence. The scene is already dead. Have those same people walk in to find your busily prepping your bar, and you’ve built up anticipation. They think, “Hey, that guy is getting ready for something. He must be expecting a great crowd.” You’ve sold them on what might happen, not what is happening.

A quick note on Jagermeister: It is an excellent digestif. When consumed properly and in moderation, it can be the perfect closer to an excellent meal. However, in all my years behind a bar, I have yet to encounter anyone who orders it this way. If I ever do, I can guarantee that drink will be compliments of the house!

25 Mike October 29, 2009 at 1:45 pm

This was a really good article. To emphasize on your point about going to bartending school, I went to the Maryland Bartending Academy and learned a lot that helped me become a bartender in a matter of weeks. Truthfully, I didn’t know know too much about bartending when I went into the school, i just had this urge to become a bartender. But once I started taking the classes, it really helped me to learn everything like different drink recipes and customer service. But you’re right in that you don’t have to go to bartending school to become a bartender, it just helps.

26 Craven October 30, 2009 at 7:49 am

I find this article very informative due to the fact that I am indeed one of those idealizing part time college kids myself. This one advantage I like to think I have is currently I have a waiter at a restaurant with a full bar and so I am on good terms with the bar tenders there. I have no illusions of it being all fun and games due to dealing with customers in the food industry on a regular basis. Eventually I plan to make a move on to the bar rather than serving but i’m trying to find as much insider knowledge as possible from the job and this has helped a lot. Thanks again.

27 Danny November 15, 2009 at 3:21 am

Yeah, I agree with a lot of the stuff you’ve written here. As someone who’s worked in this industry for a while, it’s definitely interesting to see all the facets this way of life brings. Interesting people and bizarre hours. I completely agree with the schedule differences between normal people. All my friends are having fun while I’m working, and I’m sleeping when they are at work. It’s not for everyone, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And yes, Jager is for frat boys, and we don’t want them in our bars do we?

28 Tim December 14, 2009 at 1:51 pm

Yes, the blender is always broken!!! If it’s not, break the damn thing! Next article: How and why to get out of bartending. I’m all ears.

29 Greg K., PA February 14, 2010 at 11:47 pm

Thank you!!! I’m so glad to see someone who cares about the history of the Martini and appreciates the difference between “Martini” and “Cocktail.” It irritates me to no end when people call cocktails “Martinis” and cocktail glasses “Martini glasses.”

30 Michelle April 10, 2010 at 10:52 pm

Great article! Thanks for sharing.

31 Jimmy April 12, 2010 at 5:53 am

This is an excellent insight. I am in a similar position with similar opinions… 32 now and have been bartending full time weekends for just about 5 years now. Poise and politeness help on both sides of the exchange.

32 Jordan April 14, 2010 at 10:29 pm

An excellent article Mike! I’m currently 19 years old and looking to get into bartending. The atmosphere and excitement of having a job dealing with that many characters at all different hours of the night excites me to no end. I’m going to end up going to a bartending school in Orlando, mostly because the only other way to become a bartender here is starting as a busboy and staying there for 3+ years. My college tuition won’t pay for itself from a part time job pushing carts at Home Depot!

33 sahil August 3, 2010 at 5:39 pm

hey guys m a bartender from India i had bar experience of 3 years i learn soo many things in bar i enjoy alot in evry bar where i had work nw m geting bore in India and i want to take experience in any other country… soo plz help me out… i cn more then 300 cocktails.. i made cocktails frm evry fruit, liqur, liquor, sprit, crush n many more things i had experience of night club, lounge bar, fine dinning… learn soo many things in bar in 3 different state in India. plz help me n gv me chance to work with u people too…

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36 Robert Ndabananiye January 22, 2014 at 10:54 pm

thanks mike.
Lots of good and usefull things there. I too am aspiring to be a bartender and with the guidance you’ve provided im confident to make it work out.

Thanks, Rob.

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