Before I was a mixologist, general manager, and restaurant owner, I was a barback. I fell into my first bartending job backward—I was pre-med at college, then living in San Francisco when some guy at the gym asked if I'd ever worked in a restaurant. I said I hadn't, and he told me to come by the bar one night. It was full of rockstar bartenders doing their thing, and he put me on the schedule that week. I was part barback, part sponge, learning from the bar's bartenders everything from steady pours to how to handle (and how not to handle) cash.

Barbacking taught me that a great shift starts with a solid foundation. I put everything I had into slicing citrus, meticulously picking through mint for the freshest leaves, and pouring glugs of simple syrup into clean bottles. It meant that when the day finally came that one of the lead bartenders called in sick, I told the GM to put me in, coach. I was ready. It was a horseshoe bar, and I was placed at the most crowded well, and I jumped in and kicked ass. I proved myself and quickly got assigned the best shifts, doubling my pay overnight.

In my over 25 years in the hospitality industry, I have seen how bartending has evolved from mixing drinks to crafting cocktails. The first time I noticed this shift, the bar was crowded and I was in the weeds, muddling 10 mojitos at once, I looked over at my fellow bartender swirling a teaspoon, spending the same time making one drink. Bartending has shifted from being a job to a craft.

I have picked up my share of bartending knowledge (and life knowledge) over the years. It's not just selling alcohol and getting really good at using bottle openers. Here are some tips on how to become a bartender that I learned along the way.

1. No bartending school? No problem.

While attending bartending school helps many aspiring bartenders learn the basics, it's by no means a necessity on your bartender resume. Few roles require a bartender cover letter. It's not your typical job placement.

Learning the job from a trustworthy rockstar professional bartender will help you become fluent in bartending terms and gain the essential skills to become a good bartender. Working as a barback (essentially a bartender's assistant) at a restaurant or bar is a great first step. The best bartenders started out as kickass barbacks.

While not all bartending roles require previous experience, some states require a bartender's license to legally serve alcohol. This usually includes alcohol awareness training and results in a qualification or bartending license. Requirements for serving alcoholic beverages vary state by state, so research your state's regulations on becoming a professional bartender.

Keep in mind that it can be expensive to attend bartending school—it's almost synonymous with "student loan." Expensive online courses or in-person training can mean you start your career in debt, which is not ideal. In my mind, there are no better bartending schools than spending time shadowing a successful bartender. Bypass bartending school. Start on the ground floor. And you can still gain access to all the bartending tools you need, gain basic bartending skills, and get paid to do it.

There are a few drinks that are never going to change. They're the basic mixed drinks you typically think of—old-fashioned, negroni, margarita. Unless there's a twist to them specific to the bar or restaurant, you know what to expect. If you're looking for a bartending job, learn how to mix these drinks quickly. It will help you confidently answer common bartender interview questions from the bar hiring manager and make your first shift a lot easier.

While barbacking, I committed all the bar's popular drinks to memory. It meant that the first night I was in the well, I could make quality drinks with speed and accuracy. Bartending is about quality and speed. Creating cocktails is a fine balance. One-tenth of an ounce can ruin your creation and send your typical juicy margin out the window.

Alongside knowing how to mix classic cocktails, to become a bartender, you need to learn your pours. While it can be hard to learn pours if you're not behind the bar or at bartending school, you can still use a liquor bottle at home to learn standard pours that will be the same at all bartending programs. Be warned: pour spouts come in different sizes, and that creates a different tempo pour. Make sure you know the speed of your pour and practice, practice, practice.

Every bartender wants to be the best bartender, but it helps to go slow as you gain experience. Yes, you might be in the way of everyone in the bar area, but it's better to go slow than give away free pour after free pour.

Greg Svitenko and a friend at a bar
In my 25 years in the industry, I saw bartenders evolve into respected mixologists.

3. Mix drinks and multitask

If you work as a server prior to starting your bartending career, you know multitasking is a valuable skill. A bartending job requires both sides of your brain. You're making a drink while listening to what the next guest wants while also processing the three other drink orders you need to make next. Depending on the role, you might also need to tidy the bar area and confirm patrons are of legal drinking age before serving them alcoholic beverages. It's a competition, a game, and a show: the thirsty vs. the thirst quenchers. It's not just hospitality—it's entertainment.

4. Customer service skills are important

Customer service skills are a big part of a bartender's job. But it's something you're either built for or you're not. No amount of bartending school can teach the right attitude. They might be called soft skills, but customer service can be hard.

You experience the best and worst in people during a single shift. Conversation can shift from guest to guest, minute to minute. My #1 rule is never talk politics or religion behind the bar. There are too many variables. You can never win, and your tip depends on winning.

Becoming a bartender is learning how to put up with the less pleasant guests. You can learn cocktail knowledge and bartender lingo, but soft skills come from within. The one thing I love about bartending is that every day is a clean slate. You're judged on how you perform that day. There are no monthly reports or quarterly read-outs. You could have the worst day ever, where everything goes wrong, and the next day you get a fresh start. Clock in, kick ass, repeat.

Greg Svitenko and collegue behind the bar.
Bartending is a serious job, but it's also a lot of fun.

5. Memorization makes successful bartenders

I've met so many people over my many years as a bartender. I must confess: I might not remember your name. But I sure as heck remember your face and favorite drink, complete with any specific nuances you prefer. The second I see your face come through the door, I'm making your drink. This helps build guest loyalty, and for bartenders, it helps your bank account.

Memorizing guests' drink orders, as well as cocktail recipes, helps bartenders serve a high volume of guests as efficiently as possible. When you're behind the bar, you might not have a notepad or handheld POS system to note orders. Plus, everyone is right in front of you. It's not one table of three, then another table of four people. On a busy night, it's 20 people, right in front of you, wanting their drink orders yesterday.

6. Becoming a bartender means no bad days

Ok, well, not exactly. You're still going to have bad days. Bartenders are only human, after all. But when you become a bartender, you can't bring your bad day to work with you. As bartenders, we're catering to the people having bad days (and good days, too). In my bartending experience, I quickly realized I can't show up to work annoyed or in a bad mood because a bartender's salary relies on tips. And I'm not just going to screw up my own tips, but the tips of the person working next to me, too.

People are coming in to escape from the bad or celebrate the good. When you're on the job, it's showtime. Act as though everything is right in the world. When it's not, it helps to let your bar manager know, so they can support you. When all else fails, I recommend heading back to the kitchen and letting it all out. Scream, curse, do what you need to do, and then head back out to the bar area (with a smile) and start again. The show must go on!

7. Make friends with your bar point-of-sale

Once you've worked the restaurant or bar's cocktail recipes into your muscle memory, turn your attention to the bar POS system. Bartenders, like servers, are point-of-sale super users. Whether you're using the POS to input orders, start a tab, help with bar inventory, or access the most up-to-date information on reservations, a thorough understanding of the system will help you be a great bartender.

A bar POS system can even help you be more efficient and serve drinks to bar guests faster. Adding common modifiers, like a salted rim, to the ordering screen can help turn 5 taps into 1. Becoming a bartender is all about speed and you need to use all the tools you have at your disposal. You don't want to be standing at the POS for 5 minutes trying to ring in an item. Fewer clicks per transaction is key.

SpotOn bar POS system at a bar.
No bartender wants to get tied up at the point-of-sale. The fewer clicks, the better.

8. No guest gets left behind

You're mixing drinks, serving alcohol, and keeping one eye on the bar managers. It's a lot to juggle. But in my experience, the hallmark of all great bartenders is the ability to engage with every guest and make them feel seen. When I see that every guest has been spoken to or acknowledged with eye contact, I know the bartender is doing a great job.

Of course, there's a rule that you shouldn't make eye contact until you're ready to take someone's order. But I find that making eye contact, signaling that you know the guest is waiting and you have them top of mind, is the best course of action. Nobody likes to be ignored.

Even if I'm 5 orders deep, I greet new guests and let them know where they are in the order line. You can buy a lot of time this way, ensuring everyone feels welcome. I've found it leads to more patient guests in my time being a bartender.

9. Keep learning until you can run the bar by yourself

Step one is asking how to become a bartender. Once you become a bartender, your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is how to become a great bartender. For me, great bartenders have this in common: they can run the entire bar by themselves.

It's Friday night. You're slammed. You don't even have time to think. If you take even 5 seconds to put down your cocktail shaker, everything you’re keeping in your brain is forgotten. It's tunnel vision. Then three hours have gone by, and the rush is over, and you think to yourself, "Wow, I freaking killed that."

As long as you have a good barback, you can succeed. When I was still working to become a bartender, I was a great barback. I took pride in setting up the bar for the night to lay a solid foundation. I worked well with the main bartenders and gained their trust and respect. We were a team.

I knew when a bottle was down to the last ounce and came prepared with the backup. The bartenders would call for it, and I'd be there with bells on before they finished their request. So, when a bartender called in sick, I was ready. I knew all the drinks. The GM gave me a shot at the main stage, and I outrang all four seasoned veteran bartenders. Despite my slow start, I seized the moment and was off to the races.

10. Know your favorite drink

If you want to know how to become a bartender and don't drink, that's ok. If you want to know how to become a bartender and love to drink, that's ok. You don't need to be the world's biggest drinker to serve alcohol, but it helps to have some ideas of your favorite drinks for guest recommendations (including mocktails).

I was a bartender/mixologist and loved showcasing my newest creations. I spent my days off going to the farmer's market and concocting "outside of the box" libations with in-season fruit and vegetables. You name it, I have put it through a cocktail strainer.

Quick, easy titos sodas might make money, but I've always had fun making more involved and creative drinks. I come up with a vision like a Japanese businessman holding a meeting and smoking a cigar. Then I craft a drink around the vision. This drink, the "Invitation Only," had tobacco leaf foam, smoked Japanese whisky, port for sweetness, and is served in a coupe glass. I wasn't just serving a drink—I was telling a story.

person pouring water on clear drinking glass
Pours can be finicky, with the slightest amount throwing off drinks and margins. Photo by Michael Odelberth / Unsplash

And a few tips for once you've become a bartender...

11. Start saving

Receiving cash at the end of the night is the best thing and the worst thing. You might have heard the stereotypes. "Bartenders blow their money!" "Bartenders party the most!" "Bartenders drink the most!" Well, that can be true. Especially in your first role, you realize a bartender makes a lot in tips, and you can just spend it and earn it back the next day.

While the average salary of a bartender depends on the type of bar and pay structure, there are plenty of bartender opportunities that pay a higher-than-average salary once you have the bartender basics nailed down. You can make a lot of money serving alcoholic beverages, but not if you're constantly spending it.

I have found it's the post-shift after-parties that will get you. I might end my shift with $500, head to another local bar, and get home at the end of the night with $100. While you're making money, start investing. It's something many bartenders let slip through the cracks. I wish someone had taught me this lesson earlier on.

12. Take advantage of every moment

One of the best things to come from bartending is the friendships. You create a really close bond with your fellow bartenders. It's like you're in the trenches together. And not just the bartenders, but many patrons, too.

Being a great bartender is a lot like being a celebrity. People know who you are, you make connections with people in the industry and gain access to exclusive tables. You have street cred. It's so much fun, which is something to enjoy (somewhat in moderation).

Plus, there's the freedom. You can always pick up a shift and make a bunch of cash. You can give up a shift and go play golf. Not all bars are going to be buzzing seven nights a week, but if you're working at a popular bar, you have the freedom to set your schedule and make money when you need it.

Greg Svitenko with colleague behind the bar.
There's a lot to love about bartending: the freedom, the people, and the cash, to name a few.

It's more than mixing drinks

Not all bartending jobs are a dream come true. Being a bartender, like any restaurant role, has its ups and downs. But between the compensation, the challenges, and the people you meet along the way, bartending has been rewarding beyond what I could have anticipated. I met my wife bartending. We have been together for almost 30 years and have 3 amazing daughters. Who knew all the relationships you build when you serve alcohol?

Whether you're just getting started on your bartending career or you're looking to level up, the best way to improve as a bartender is to keep showing up. Some things will go wrong, sure, but there's no point in crying over spilled olive juice.

Meet the author

Greg Svitenko has over 25 years of experience in the restaurant industry, having worked his way up from barback to mixologist to Assistant GM and GM at multiple restaurant concepts. He was the creator of several cocktail programs and was selected as one of the "Top 25 Bartenders in the US" by Ketel One, among other awards. He also owned his own restaurant for two years.

As a Senior Manager of Sales Operations at SpotOn, he works with new clients and trains SpotOn employees on the ins and outs of leveraging technology to streamline restaurant operations and improve profit.

Get a demo - Restaurant
Share this post