Drinks Are on Me! How to Buy a Round at the Bar

by A Manly Guest Contributor on November 6, 2012 · 16 comments

in Food & Drink, Out on the Town, Travel & Leisure

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Michael Hagan.

You’re with a group of friends at a bar. Everyone is having a good time; trading stories, catching up, laughing, enjoying each other’s company. They’ve all drifted in one by one, but now the gang is all here and it’s time to buy a round for the group.

Or, you’re alone. You’re sitting at a restaurant bar, having a drink, chatting with the bartender or winking at the lady at the other end. You see a table with a group of guys you do business with. They’re all ordering drinks and appetizers, scanning the menu for their entrees. Time to buy a round?

Honor, Hospitality, and the Etiquette of Buying a Round

The tradition of buying your friends and associates a round of drinks actually grew out of the 19th century’s code of hospitality and the honor culture Brett has been writing about recently. The code of hospitality dictated that the host always bought the first round of drinks for his guest. But in turn, the guest was then obligated to buy a round for his host.

This may seem odd – one of those seemingly pointless parts of manners. After all, if the guest was obligated to buy a round too, was the host really showing hospitality?

The gesture of buying a round was not meant to be a gift but rather a symbolic gesture; by taking the initiative, a man demonstrated that he was the host. But in then trading rounds back and forth, the men got to take turns acting in the roles of host and guest, which showed their equality. Thus the tradition of buying rounds was actually designed to build camaraderie among men – to show they were brothers in the same honor group.

Buying a Round When with a Group of Friends

Of course, these days, who is the “host” and who is the “guest” isn’t always very clearly defined, and sometimes you do want to buy everyone’s drinks with no strings attached. When I used to tend bar, we had clientele that would fight over checks and whose turn it was to pay. They’d all claim it was their turn. A few even got mad when you’d choose the other person to pay over them. Of course, the idea was to have fun with them about it and get the stakes (read: tips) raised higher until someone relented.

Eventually, it got to become a problem, so we started the “first card” rule: the first credit card I see for the tab is the one that gets used, no arguments. If when it came time to pay nothing had been decided yet, whoever was quicker on the draw got to pay. It cut down on the arguing and hurt feelings, but much to my chagrin, the tip game was cut down with it!

To short-circuit this duel over who’s going to pay, especially for a night when you want to pick up the tab for all your friends’ rounds, what I recommend is that if you’re meeting some friends at the bar, come in a few minutes early, give the bartender your card, and say, “Everything’s on me tonight.” When customers would do that, their friends knew that that’s the way it was going to be – no need for arguments.

Save an “everything’s on me” night for occasions that you’re celebrating something special with your buddies. Otherwise, it can come off as one-upmanship, or a way to flaunt your wealth, which runs counter to the camaraderie building that’s supposed to be at the heart of buying drinks.

But there’s never a bad time to take the initiative in buying your friends a round — a real man sets the pace. Don’t do it with the expectation that your friends will join in – although they hopefully will. Part of the hospitality inherent in the classic initiative-taking host role was that he took on the risk that his guests would not follow the standards of etiquette and reciprocate the gesture. If no one else picks up on this round-buying concept, at least you treated your bum friends to one and you know never to do it again!

If the round buying has already started when you get there, ask if anyone needs a drink and drop yourself into the rotation. Take your turn like a man. Buy anyone in your group whatever they want, within reason (no fair to be drinking rail whiskey all night until you’re not paying, then switching to Pappy Van Winkle 23-year!). If someone wants to skip getting a drink this round, let them. It’s not your job to make them drink, but only to offer. If they want their drink in the well, fine. When you’re buying a round, you should expect to pay for everyone to have a drink. No more, no less.

Celebrating, or, Buying a Round for the Whole Bar

There are going to be times in your life when you want to celebrate a big event with a group of friends and acquaintances that you know from your usual haunts. A big promotion? She said yes? You’re having a boy? Buying a round for the whole bar should be a once in a lifetime thing, but everyone should do it.

The best way is to tell the bartender you’re doing it, why you’re doing it, and whether or not you want the people on the receiving end to know who bought it. I would suggest bringing an extra liver if you tell everyone you’re buying, because most will get you one back, especially if you’re celebrating something life-changing. You should probably only do this in your neighborhood bar, not some busy club or restaurant. Somewhere that you know most of the people or have at least seen them there. Buying a drink for 30 people is expensive, but buying for 200 is foolish.

When Buying for Business

You see a group of people that you do business with at a table that you want to buy a drink. The reasons don’t matter — there are many. What’s the best way to do it?

If you’re at the bar, ask the bartender to find out who their server is and have them come talk to you. Tell the server you want to buy the table their next round, or, if that is their last round, to have it put on your check. This is obviously a situation where you want them to know who’s buying. If they invite you to their table, you’re obligated to sit for at least one drink, maybe two if they’re buying next. Hopefully it will help you get what you’re wanting done.

If you’re at another table with co-workers and you start firing off rounds of drinks to that same table, it may start a shooting match. They’re buying, you’re buying, so on and so forth. Try to limit it as much as you can, but if your clients are in the mood, you might just have to take one for the team. Sometimes that’s just how it goes.

Wherever a man goes in life, and whatever situation he finds himself in, he can always act the role of host: building camaraderie, making others comfortable, and ensuring everyone has a good time. Buying a round, when done in the spirit of hospitality and friendship, can help you make any gathering a warm and memorable one.


{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Perry November 6, 2012 at 10:11 am

Bottoms up! Stay away from clear alcohol guys!

2 Ray November 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

I was in a bar in Canada one time and some guy, who minding his own business playing the video slot machine in the corner by himself, hit the jackpot. He jumped up, announced his winning, and bought a round for everyone in the place. It was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Suddenly an entire group of strangers in a quiet ski town bar became friends for one night. Weird, but I’ll never forget it.

3 Neil M. November 6, 2012 at 11:18 am

Good post. Growing up in England, you learn that it’s normal to buy rounds with your mates in a pub. It’s very heavily ritualised and there are quite a few thingsthat you shouldn’t do. For example, you should be buying drinks of the same equivalent cost i.e. if everyone is having a pint of session beer, you don’t ask your mate to buy you an expensive craft beer from Japan. When you’re in a round you can get “locked in” to it, so if you’re with eight friends, that’s eight pints you will have to drink. This can make it pretty heavy going, especially since UK and Irish pints are bigger than US pints for some reason.

4 Grayson November 6, 2012 at 11:39 am

This applies to Dr. Pepper as well.

5 Joseph J. Pippet November 6, 2012 at 4:49 pm

JMJ That’s why their’s so many Drunks on the highway! Drunkeness is against God’s law. Bartenders, etc. should be held accountable when customer is Drunk because the bartender etc. served the customer knowing they had More than enough but, the bartender would get less Tips.

6 jeff November 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm

When in a work setting, don’t rip shots. Drink hard alcohol. I drink johnny black. Allows me to pace myself as I am not ripping shots. It keeps me at the table. Drinking beer will result in multiple bathroom breaks. And what’s more manly and sophisticated then a glass of scotch on the rocks.

7 LPB November 6, 2012 at 10:48 pm

Coolest way I ever heard of:

A major sporting event was in town and our subject noticed that five or six of his childhood/current heroes had gathered at the same table on the patio.

He grabbed their water and sent them a round of very nice cognac that came in snifters. He watched as the drinks were delivered and the waiter brushed of their questions as to who had sent them. They craned their necks looking for someone they knew, but of they didn’t recognize our subject; he wasn’t one of them.

Ten minutes later, our subject strolled out, snifter in hand, and asked if they were enjoying their drinks. They greeted him roundly, thanked him…and then invited him to join them and hear their stories for the rest of the night.

8 John November 7, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Jeff – “And what’s more manly and sophisticated then a glass of scotch on the rocks.”

A neat glass of scotch.

9 Nick November 7, 2012 at 4:42 pm

I try to do this the best I can, but I’m always on a budget with my income. But at least return one round at the very least; if you go out, expect to spend a few bucks.

Joseph: Not everyone follows God’s law, and not every religious man follows that–and most religions don’t say much negative about getting drunk. As a matter of fact, it’s completely acceptable to drink as a Jew or Christian.

And yes, I prefer my scotch neat, too. Water ruins the taste.

10 Josh November 7, 2012 at 10:29 pm

As someone who has chosen not to drink alcohol, I would love to hear how to be involved in the bar scene and involved with this ritual while not seeming rude when I refuse the alcohol.

Really cool article by the way!

11 Dave November 8, 2012 at 7:38 am

@John: nice, very true.

@Nick: a little bit of water is ok if you want to take the edge off, the bigger problem is the cold when you add ice. NOTHING kills the flavour of scotch like bringing the temperature down (except maybe coke, but you get what you deserve if you’re doing that).

12 Carl Monster November 8, 2012 at 10:35 am

Ready…aim…fire! Right on target..bruise hit, taken down.

[Can't wait to try this on my imaginary friends and sports heroes.]

13 Dan November 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm

Interesting that you have a shot of John Glenn and buddies at the top of this article.

14 Adam November 11, 2012 at 3:30 pm

@Josh It’s real easy, you say I’ll take a tonic, coke, whatever your favorite drink is. Real men don”t care what others think of them.

15 Adam November 11, 2012 at 9:05 pm

My story:
I worked at a bar serving drinks for a few months, and we had tons of regulars. One in particular had (presumably) lots of money and would ALWAYS buy his entire table’s drinks and food without question, and, I shit you not, some other table’s bill as well. I mean, complete strangers, who just happened to be sitting in the right place at the right time, and this guy would ask me, “Have they been cool?” (as in ‘not shitty customers) and I’d say, “Well, ya..” and he would immediately say, “Add their bill to mine.” Without even knowing what their bill was, and just because he wanted to make their day. THEN he would tip me 30%. One of the most generous guys I’ve ever met, and not someone you would look at and assume that of him. Well, the day came when I quit working there, and went back for one last drink with some friends before moving out of town. At one point I noticed that lo’ and behold the guy was in the bar, sitting by himself having a drink, and, dare I say, looking a little lonely. I immediately told his server that his next drink was on me, and when he found out, he got up, walked across the bar and shook my hand with a huge thanks and smile. He told me no one had EVER bought him a drink before. I couldn’t believe it. It suddenly occurred to me that people must use this guy every day, as if he didn’t notice. Anyway, I’ll never forget how genuinely happy and thankful he was, or how great it made me feel. It’s amazing what such a simple thing as buying a person a drink can do.

16 Carl November 8, 2013 at 10:22 am

In the UK this is perfectly normal.
Every now and then i’ll go out with a group of associates who are a fair bit older than me, and work full time. It’s common knowledge that as a student i earn much less so they play the etiquette game as host and let me buy fewer drinks/ assist in paying for the round, but i’m always included.
I for one like this tradition, it’s gentlemanly and honourable.
It’s just hard to remember all 8 drinks after 7 pints of bitter…

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