The essential skills that make a great bartender
It’s a highly specialized discipline that calls for more than just tasty cocktails
Vibrant drinking scenes owe their existence to good bartending. Quality bars and speakeasies—no matter how well-stocked or tastefully curated—are nothing without a skilled bartender’s swiftly crafted drinks delivered over easy banter. It’s not a simple task maintaining that balance of talk and technique, personality and palate. And yet bartending is still somehow relegated to a lesser role, with a lot of people (some of them bartenders themselves) dismissing it as a temporary job. Something anyone can take on until something a little more serious comes up.
But the profession has always been serious. There are private institutions like The European Bartender School solely dedicated to the craft; annual bartending competitions are held to celebrate bartending talents; TGI Friday’s (which held its 23rd “Shake, Rattle, and Pour” Bartender Competition last August 7) has even launched a campaign to make bartending an official Olympic event.
What a lot of people fail to realize is that bartending is highly technical. Some of the difficulty lies in the specifics of building a drink, of course—but it’s in the execution of precision, in being able to do something tedious under the guise of grace and effortlessness that makes the practice especially rigorous and specialized. Writing for The New York Times, the restaurant critic Frank Bruni describes such an ability:
“He muddled mint for a mojito—and went on to make the rest of the cocktail—while glancing alternately at the door to see if anyone new was coming in, at the far end of the bar to see if anyone was telegraphing thirst, and at the guy in front of him, who was babbling. Not once did he look down at the drink. It was like bartending in Braille…He filled beer mugs without watching what he was doing. He could apparently tell, by the weight of them, when to stop. He plucked bottles from their perches without pausing to check labels… ‘Another?’ was all he asked, and a half minute later I had a Hendrick’s gin martini.”
Working with efficiency and without error; performing without seeming like you’re doing so; an encyclopedic knowledge about mixology; a refined palate; being able to deal with diverse clientele. These are the qualities that make for a good bartender. Pulling them all off is what makes for a great one. But before anything else, we’ll try to unpack each of those qualities and in the process, see the essential skills and characteristics every bartender needs:
THE BASICS: SHAKING, STIRRING, AND MUDDLING
Shaking: Not every cocktail requires shaking, but if it does, make sure to shake really well. That is, try not to hold back, as there is a good logic behind this step: It introduces extra oxygen bubbles into a mixture, making for a nice, frothy drink. This works especially well for drinks that contain fruit juices or egg.
Stirring: Cocktails that don’t require shaking usually call for stirring. It’s a much lighter, subtler step, requiring you to just mix enough to make sure that the liquors are well-blended. A rapid 30-second stirring with the use of a long bar spoon is key.
Muddling: Classic cocktails like mojitos get their signature taste thanks to this step. All it requires is a good muddler and a bit of elbow grease. The procedure is simple enough: Place the ingredients (herbs are typically used in this step) that you’ll be muddling into a glass, and then proceed to crush them with your muddler until they’ve released their essential oils.
Bonus: Serving draught beer
Pouring a perfect pint of beer—it’s one of those overlooked yet essential bar skills that bartenders need and customers appreciate. There’s no single best way to pour a perfect pint, but it’s worth considering some tried-and-tested methods. Heineken’s Star Serve Ritual, a five-step beer-pouring process that has been taught to over 100,000 bar staff from over 62 countries around the world, is a good way to serve draft beer. The five steps include rinsing, pouring, skimming, checking, and serving. To know if you’ve done it properly, check the placement of the beer foam. “The foam has to sit nice and firm on the shoulder of the star (logo on the glass),” says Franck Evers, Heineken’s global draught master.
Bartenders usually serve multiple guests all at once, so a strategy as to how to properly deliver each guest’s order must be in place. They should ask themselves: Which tasks should be prioritized? After taking orders, there are water glasses to fill, food menus to present, and guests’ needs to anticipate. A bartender must be able to squeeze in those extra tasks in the middle of actually preparing orders. But of course there is, again, the caveat concerning grace. Sean Kenyon, 2014 American Bartender of the Year awardee puts it best: “Taking care of our guests in a timely and efficient manner is key to a bartender’s success, but a great bartender can go 100 miles per hour and look like they are cruising the countryside at 25.”
Any competent bartender can make a great-tasting drink. But bartenders that value consistency run bars that can churn out the same great-tasting cocktails, say, 60 times a night, four to five shifts a week. Consistency in the world of bartending also means always making sure that you have ample supply of the most essential ingredients. Though obscure bitters and charred ice can make for an impressive drink, it’s knowing the importance of simple syrup, liquors, and clean glasses that make for consistently smooth service.
DEALING WITH DIVERSE CLIENTELE
Bars are, needless to say, inherently social spaces, so a bartender is expected to at least make cordial small talk with their patrons. But that’s the bare minimum. On top of getting their gusts’ orders right, a good bartender should be able to create a friendly and lively atmosphere, making customers feel welcome and comfortable. Phoebe Esmon, bar manager at Bar Emmanuelle swears by the simplest of actions in achieving a welcoming atmosphere: “To me, signs of true hospitality are making people feel welcome and comfortable by greeting them when they come in, whether or not you are going to be able to help them right away.”
The same kind of courtesy should be extended to any guest, and with that rule comes another responsibility: Bartenders should be able to properly deal with different types of people. Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks’ bar manager Naomi Levy cites a skill that can come in handy in this context: “Reading people is very important, as it allows you to mold your style of service to a guest’s specific needs. You have to be able to find a way to relate to so many different types of people from so many backgrounds.”