Over the course of my bartending career, many people have told me how much they think they would like to be a bartender. “I’m always the mixologist at my parties,” or, “I think it would be a lot of fun,” are two common statements that I hear. I had taken the last few years off of bartending professionally to focus on teaching and writing, but a few weeks ago, I returned to Lincoln restaurant in Portland for a few bar shifts. While getting back behind the bar again felt good, there were some very significant differences from bartending at home that I’d forgotten about and thought might be worth noting.
First off, when you throw a party at home, most people aren’t going to offer more than three to six cocktails. In fact, most home parties might have a few different types of liquor and several mixers. Pick a liquor, add a mix, and voila! A cocktail is born. If someone wants something obscure or not readily available, no one expects the host to run to the store to pick up new ingredients. At a professional bar, a bartender has to prepare for almost any drink called, and that can really vary. Lincoln uses fresh-squeezed juices, so I have to estimate how much orange juice I might need for the night based on the day of the week, the weather, and other factors so that I don’t overproduce juice and waste it, or worse, under-produce and find myself cutting oranges and squeezing juice to order at 11 p.m. on a busy night. Garnishes for all manner of drinks must be prepped, and everything to prepare a drink must be within easy reach.
At home, if I get talking to a friend and it takes a few minutes for me to make a drink, no one cares. However, when someone walks into a bar or restaurant, they want a drink immediately. A professional bartender has to move with a sense of urgency. Mental organization is essential to doing the job correctly, and a well-designed bar helps the bartender move more efficiently. No one wants to wait for a drink when they are out, and bartenders must recognize and react to that expectation.
Lastly, at home I may have a few glasses and a bit of ice, and even some mixers and cut fruit for garnishes that I lay out across my home bar. Professionally, though, bartenders spend much of their shifts reaching and bending, lifting kegs, stocking shelves, and shaking cocktails. Bartenders are also on their feet the entire shift, often more than 10 hours at a time. The physical demands of professional bartending are oftentimes overlooked but can be both significant and tiring. No matter how tired a bartender may be, guests expect nothing but the best service, each and every time. At home, if I’m tired, I may just tell my guests to mix their own cocktails.
Of course, beyond these basic differences also lies product knowledge, drink recipes, liability issues, and more. After taking a few years off from bartending, it is now more obvious than ever to me that professional bartending is a skilled trade and something very different from home entertaining. While this is just a high level overview of some of the differences between home and professional bartending, taking time away from professional bartending has left me with great respect for the men and women who are able to run a professional bar on a daily basis. It is both physically and mentally demanding work, and it is a far cry from the home-based cocktail parties that I had been throwing for the last few years.