“Sometimes you meet people who change your life for the better. Those people are bartenders.”

If you love to talk to new people and thrive in fast-paced, sometimes rowdy environments, bartending is the perfect job for you. With a little upfront investment of your time and energy, you can become a bartender in just a few months. It’s a fun, highly social job that has the potential for great pay. 

You need four things to be a bartender.

  1. Excellent social skills
  2. A good memory
  3. Experience
  4. A permit (varies by state)

(Notice “bartending school” is suspiciously absent from the list. You can go to bartending school and you will learn some basics, but it’s an unnecessary step that won’t win you any brownie points with management.) 

Excellent social skills

Excellent social skills are number one on the list for a reason. Bartending is a very social job. You need to be able to engage in easy conversation with strangers and handle people who are drunk and rowdy. It takes serious finesse to cut off a drunk person without causing an issue or rebuffing unwanted advances while still keeping a good atmosphere for your customers. 

A good memory

A good memory is essential because you need to memorize the ingredients for many classic cocktails, plus any specialty drinks served at your bar or restaurant. You have to know the ingredients and also the ratios for those ingredients. 

It’s a ton of memorization. There’s no getting around it. Go back to whatever techniques helped you memorize things in school, whether it was flashcards or writing the information over and over. Whatever worked for you then will work for you now. And once you have this foundational knowledge, your sparkling personality will carry you the rest of the way to bartending success.

Experience

Yes, you need experience to become a bartender. I know it seems like a catch-22, but it’s not. You don’t need experience bartending to become a bartender, but you do need experience in that environment. This usually comes in the form of working as a barback. 

A barback’s job is to support the bartender. That means keeping the alcohol stocked, refilling ice, prepping garnishes, clearing dishes, and other tasks that help keep the bar functioning. A barback is the backbone of a smoothly functioning bar. It’s a critical job that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, just as in the kitchen the dishwasher is the unsung hero who keeps everything from falling apart.

Working as a barback will give you the hands-on experience you need to eventually become a bartender. You’ll see how bartenders handle every conceivable situation, from skillfully deflecting unwelcome advances to cutting off a too-drunk customer to juggling ongoing conversations with strangers better than any PR pro. You’ll also organically become familiar with popular cocktails and learn about the different products the bar serves. 

Make it clear to management and the bartenders that you would like to work your way up to become a bartender. After you feel you’re getting the hang of things, see if you can work a slow shift with another bartender or volunteer to cover a shift if a bartender calls out. Keeping an eye out for these opportunities will make a huge difference in the amount of time it takes you to move from barback to bartender. 

A permit

When you’re ready to begin serving alcohol, you’ll need to get a permit. Typically you get this by taking an in-person or online course that covers everything you need to know about legally and safely serving alcohol. This is sometimes referred to as a “liquor license.” The requirements vary by state, so your employer can give you guidance on which program you need to take to get certified in your state.

Where to work to make the most money bartending

Payscale.com reports an annual pay range of $10,666 to $48,392 for bartenders. The pay varies so widely because how much you make will depend on several factors including what type of establishment you’re working in, the average number of guests you serve each shift, and the type of rapport you’re able to establish with guests.

We spoke to two bartenders about their average earnings. One works at a casual Tex-Mex restaurant that has a bar, and she reported making about $60 a night working 4-hour shifts. The other bartender works at a club and averages $700 on a weeknight and $1,200 on a weekend night. He reported working shifts that ranged anywhere from four hours to 12 hours.

You’ve likely heard people in real estate say the most important thing is “location, location, location.” The same is true for bartending. It depends where you are (a small town versus a large city) and what type of establishment you work at (a bar/club versus a casual restaurant versus a fine dining restaurant). 

Bartenders give their best tips for getting started

“Your restaurant will provide the training for the level of product they want you to provide. Don’t get bogged down trying to teach yourself how to make the perfect Rob Roy or whatever, because it’s so easy with all the crappy cocktail recipes online to learn stuff incorrectly, whether it’s recipes or technique or product knowledge. If you want to treat bartending like you would making food in a kitchen, seek out a place where you know you’ll get the best education, and put in the time.” 

“With serving it’s a little harder to get personal with the guests, but as a bartender, really engage with your customer. Ask lots of questions about things you notice, wedding ring, tattoo, interesting mustache, etc. Is there a game on? Ask them which team they’re rooting for and join them even if you hate the team. People really want a friend out of their bartender.”

“If someone asks you for a drink you’ve never heard of, don’t be afraid to ask them what’s in it or just look it up on your phone. If possible, I never say no. Say, ‘Sure thing!’ or, ‘Mmm, I’ve never made that before but I’ll figure it out.’ There’s no need to panic about it. It’s absolutely going to happen — there are just so many drinks out there — but you can figure it out. Customers don’t mind if you don’t know everything as long as you’re positive and you’re trying.”

FAQs

1. Where do you get a bartender license?
While there is no official bartending license, most US states require you to get a permit, sometimes referred to as a liquor license or MAST permit (mandatory alcohol server permit). Your employer can give you guidance on which program you need to take to get your permit. 

2. How old do you need to be a bartender?
In most US states, the legal age to serve alcohol is 21 if you’re working at a bar and 18 if you’re working at a restaurant. There are some state-by-state differences in age requirements. For example, in Maine you can get an alcohol permit at 17. You can use this “Age to Serve Alcoholic Drinks” chart to locate information for your state.

3. Can you be a bartender with no prior experience?
While it might be possible to get a bartending job with no experience, it’s extremely unlikely. Even if you did, you would have a steep and stressful learning curve to conquer. We strongly recommend following the tips provided in this article to gain the knowledge and experience to become a bartender.

4. How much does a bartender make on average?
Payscale.com reports an annual pay range of $10,666 to $48,392 for bartenders. The pay varies so widely because how much you make will depend on several factors including what type of establishment you’re working in, the average number of guests you serve each shift, and the type of rapport you’re able to establish with guests.

5. Do you need to go to bartending school to be a bartender?  
No, you don’t have to go to bartending school. You can learn everything you need to know by starting as a barback or a server. Be observant, ask questions, and let management know you’re interested in becoming a bartender.