11 Secrets of Bartenders
Spend enough time at your local watering hole and it becomes apparent that the person slinging drinks behind the bar is so much more than just a human recipe book. They’re flavor experts possessing saint-like levels of patience, who can strike up a conversation with just about anyone. With that in mind, Mental Floss spoke to three bartenders about the one thing you should never order, how to stock your own bar, and the best way to approach the attractive stranger you just locked eyes with.
1. THEY'RE SMART ABOUT WHAT THEY SPEND MONEY ON.
Berkeley, California-based bartender Nat Harry suggests considering a drink's recipe before you shell out for top-shelf liquor. “Any time you have a spirit that’s going to be the star of the show, like in a Manhattan or a Martini, you’ll probably want something a bit nicer,” she explains. “But if you’re drinking a cocktail with aggressive or spicy mixers, like a Moscow Mule for example, that is not the time to order Ketel One or Belvedere."
According to a bartender at NYC’s Gordon Bar, whiskeys and tequilas are generally worth spending a bit more on. "The quality with both spirits does ramp up quickly," he says. "And the difference between top shelf and well is very noticeable."
2. THEY DO THEIR BEST TO KEEP AN OPEN MIND.
The customer is (almost) always right—but when they aren’t, you won’t hear it from whoever’s serving them drinks. “I don’t really judge people based on their orders, aside from an ‘Ooh, you just turned 21,’” Courtney Cowie, a Long Island-based bartender, says. “I’m a strong believer in liking and drinking whatever you want.” Harry adds that she does her best to put her own preferences aside when she steps behind the bar: “With experience, you realize the important thing about being a bartender is giving your guest a good experience. If someone orders something I might not find palatable, I’ll try to make the best version of that drink possible.”
3. BUT THEY WILL ROLL THEIR EYES OVER CERTAIN ORDERS.
Of course, there’s one (boozy) exception to the aforementioned rule: anyone who sidles up to the bar and orders a Long Island Iced Tea. “Even if you used all premium spirits, mixing all those flavors together will never be anything more than a hot mess,” Harry says. “Is there a decent amount of booze in there? Sure. But most cocktails, either by virtue of proof or volume of spirits can achieve that for you, and spare you the hangover you’re gonna have from all that sugar.” The Gordon Bar bartender agrees: “You know immediately their number one goal is to just get wasted.”
4. THEY DON’T MIND CREATING SOMETHING SPECIAL FOR YOU.
All three bartenders agreed that creating personalized drinks for customers is one of the best parts of the job—“It makes me feel respected!” says Cowie—with just one caveat. “I love it, but if I’m totally slammed behind the bar, that’s not a good time for a personalized drink,” Harry says.
If you're set on trying something different, get ready to field a few questions: “I always ask right away what they normally drink and what flavors they like, and then if they want to be adventurous,” the server at Gordon Bar says. “I like to get people out of their comfort zones.”
5. IT’S OK TO ASK YOUR BARTENDER TO TRY AGAIN … USUALLY.
Just not feeling the drink in front of you? It’s OK to ask for another. Says Harry, “I think customers are always entitled to a mulligan. I hate to watch someone pull a series of tortured faces if they aren’t enjoying something.” But that rule generally applies only if the bartender’s the one who led you astray. “The exception is when someone tries to order something ‘experimental’ and I try to talk them out of it, and then said experiment results in a yucky beverage,” Harry explains. “If you want to come up with crazy drink combinations, that’s what your home bar is for.”
6. ANYONE CAN INVENT HIS OR HER OWN SIGNATURE BEVERAGE.
If you’re a beginner, Harry suggests following this simple formula: “It’s a safe bet to start with a base spirit, 80 proof or higher, a liquer, citrus, and then a sweetener if needed, or even bitters. After you get comfortable following the rules, you can start breaking them.” The most important rule of all, according to the source at Gordon Bar? “Always taste as you go!”
7. "MIXOLOGIST" IS MORE THAN JUST A PRETENTIOUS SYNONYM FOR "BARTENDER."
As the Gordon Bar employee notes, “A mixologist is more like a chef in that they spend a lot of time researching ingredients and comparing flavor profiles.” Unlike with sommeliers, there’s no single organization governing the profession. While there is currently a movement in favor of formalizing the training and certification process, most mixologists just learn on the job. As Harry puts it, “Every good mixologist should start by trying to be a good bartender first."
8. LOOKING TO PLEASE A CROWD? HERE’S WHAT YOU SHOULD KEEP AT HOME.
If you're setting up a home bar for the first time, there's no need to run out and buy one of everything. “Always have vodka, and then one whiskey, either a bourbon or a rye,” says the anonymous NYC-based bartender. “Those are essentials. And then a couple of bitters—like Angostura or Regan’s Orange—and high-quality club soda and fresh juice.” Harry suggests making your own simple syrup, too—”It’s cheap and easy, and lasts a long time in your fridge”—but as far as equipment goes, you can skip the elaborate gadgets and gizmos. The only “specialty bar tool” you really need, according to Cowie, is a shaker.
9. THEY COME READY TO CHAT.
Even the most introverted bartenders know the small talk they dish out is almost as important as the beverage they’re stirring (or shaking). “We know a little bit about everything: sports, music, and pop culture usually have you covered,” Cowie says. “But if all of the above fails, we just ask questions.”
10. YOU CAN LET THEM PLAY CUPID.
Bartenders rarely mind helping their patrons make connections. “For folks who don’t want to stroll up and start chatting with a perfect stranger, ask the bartender if they can buy the person they like a drink,” Harry suggests. “I phrase it like that because I like to check in with the object of their affection before I start making it. Maybe they don’t want company, or maybe they’ve already had too many. But most of the time, it’s a yes, and they move down the bar to thank their benefactor.”
11. YES, THEY’RE PROS AT PREVENTING HANGOVERS.
Experienced bartenders try not to get to a point where a hangover will be an issue, because they know there's no magic cure-all. “The best remedy is preventative care—one glass of water per every two drinks,” Cowie tells Mental Floss. “But if the deed is done, try energy drinks, lots and lots of water, and a huge breakfast.” Harry agrees that getting something in your stomach is key: “Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich and a Coke. Bonus points for hash browns.”
This story originally ran in 2015.