Bartending Etiquette: Avoiding Blunders and Gaffes

Let’s be honest, bad service stinks. Taking your vitamins and getting a raise isn’t enough to stop a snarling bartender or inattentive server from ruining what might have been a fun outing. What’s worse, we get to pay for the pleasure of being ignored or mistreated. There oughta be a law.

We all have our thresholds. Rankle our sensibilities, trod on our concepts of lounge etiquette and we’ll rebel. There are unwritten conventions governing Spilled drinkprofessional bar conduct. You know most of them intuitively. Then why is it so many bartenders consistently step on these conventions?

One principle source of ruffled feathers is failing to acknowledge that customers exist. When people sit down at a bar, they will extend a bartender a certain grace period before she sidles over to take their order. Miss the grace period, and she’ll have to nearly kill them with hospitality to overcome the snub. If the bartender is temporarily too busy to wait on guests, that grace period can be easily extended with a smile and an “I’ll be right with you.”

Tacky too is a bartender who is conspicuous when counting his tips. Gratuities are a private matter between two people — the customer and bartender — played out in a public setting. Likewise, tip jars overflowing with large bills should be kept out of view. It is unlikely that it will make people want to dig deep to contribute and some may actually find it offensive.

If you’re one who likes to keep score, forgetting what a person is drinking leaves a negative impression (-2 points), while recalling a regular customer’s name and using it correctly in a sentence is a major bartending coup (+6 points). Being friendly and polite is still politically correct (+5), but gratuitous, overly friendly behavior is as convincing as a soap opera love scene (-3).

A bartender’s professionalism is most apparent when the bar is busy. Whether it’s that certain “calm-under-fire” quality or their precise bursts of movement, really good bartenders are a pleasure to watch. On the flip side, a bartender who loses his cool, making the customers bear the brunt of his anger, is like a cold hard slap of reality. People get slapped around plenty in their day-to-day life without being subjected to it during “happy” hour.

Customers frequently ask bartenders for their drink suggestions and a quick shrug of the shoulder is an inappropriate response. Bartenders are well advised to have a repertoire of good-tasting, creative drink recipes in mind that will fit the bill. They also should make sure they hear drink orders in their entirety, noting any and all pouring instructions, such as “…with a twist,” “…with a splash” or “…with a water back.” Customers seldom hide their irritation when their drinks aren’t made up to their specifications.

Few things disturb gin and tonic drinkers more than bartenders who drop in lime wedges without first squeezing the juice out of them. Fishing a lime wedge out of a drink is low on most people’s list of fun things to do in public. Along the same lines, a lemon twist is so named because it is meant to be twisted, an action that will express the lemon’s essential oils and fragrance into the drink. The outer peel is then rubbed along the rim of the glass so that the flavor of the lemon can be appreciated.

In a perfect world, glasses wouldn’t sweat and cocktail napkins would last longer than 2 to 3 minutes. In this dimension, we’re left with the reality that these ubiquitous paper squares disintegrate when wet. Soggy, tattered napkins belie the quality of the service rendered. Cocktail napkins should be changed with regularity. Either that or switch to coasters.

When all else fails, bartenders should frequently air-out their sense of humor. After all, it may be the only time the customers laugh all day.

The Immutable Dos and Don’ts

Fortunately for Planet Earth, the vast majority of bartenders are conscientious, gregarious and well-intentioned people. They’re quick with a smile and work hard so that their guests enjoy themselves. For most, rendering genuine hospitality is an intuitive thing.

We’ve pulled a fair number of shifts behind the bar and we were wondering if there aren’t immutable laws governing the conduct of the professional bartender. As you might suspect, a few choice “dos” and “don’ts” came quickly to mind.


• Settling for mediocrity is unprofessional. Bartenders shouldn’t serve drinks that have been improperly prepared or inferior in any respect. Amateurism is not a tipped quality.

• It is highly unprofessional to gossip, argue, gamble or loan out money to the clientele. By any means possible, bartenders also should avoid becoming embroiled in inflammatory conversations. Taking sides in a heated debate exacts a heavy toll on gratuities.

• Bartenders should avoid listening in on customers’ conversations and only comment on something that was said if addressed directly.

• When customers place an order and include a drink for a person who is not yet present, the bartender should wait to prepare the cocktail until the person arrives. The missing person could be a minor or already intoxicated.


• Bartenders should treat everyone fairly and equitably. It is a mistake to provide select customers with obviously preferential service. Naturally, some people are more enjoyable than others, but who’s to say that with a bit of hospitable treatment most everyone who sits down at your bar can’t be converted into an “A-list” guest.

•  Bartenders should strive to keep the bar as clean as possible. One adage states that a bartender’s degree of professionalism can be measured by the cleanliness of his or her bar. Health codes aside, people will presume that if the front of the house is filthy, the back of the house must be the same.

• “Up-selling” is considered a basic reflex. Bartenders should automatically inquire of a customer who orders generic call if there is a particular name-brand product he would prefer the drink be made with. Upgrade the sale and upgrade the gratuity.

• Bartenders should maintain eye contact whenever speaking directly to customers. Not only is this a tried-and-true means of establishing a positive impression, but it also is a reliable means of assessing customers’ alcohol-induced impairment.

• Bartenders should only handle glassware by the bottom half, carefully avoiding the areas of the glass that will be in contact with the customer’s mouth or the drink itself. Touching the top-half, the rim or the inside the glass is unsanitary and unprofessional.

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