My very first bartender job was in a brand new retro nightclub in a small town in England. It was the type of place where ordering a vodka and pineapple juice was seen as exotic. That’s not the first bar shift I want to talk about though. I want to talk about the very first time I set foot behind a cocktail bar. The very first time I discovered what fear was…
Yes I am being dramatic, but I’m not alone in that feeling. It can be really intimidating to get behind a cocktail bar when you either don’t have any prior knowledge or you’ve just passed your course. I was a member of the”lack of knowledge” party. I didn’t know anything about cocktails, I didn’t know anything about wine or beer. I was in the deep end.
I received training (it was intensive training as well), but there’s no training that can prepare you for the very first time you make eye contact with a customer and you’re the only bartender within a reasonable distance to serve them and you can’t make up an excuse as to why you can’t serve them because you’ve got to do this eventually. You take a breath. You can do this: “Hi there, how are you today?”
I wasn’t scared of talking to people. I was scared they would order a cocktail that I didn’t know how to make (which was very likely). I was praying that they didn’t ask me what the grape varieties in Champagne were. If they asked me who invented the Espresso Martini I was going to look like the namesake of its creator. If they mentioned Daisies my only response would be “I have hayfever”.
When you see films about bartenders, or bartenders in tv shows, they’re always slick and stylish and efficient. Of course they are! No-one wants to see a bartender in a film on their first bar shift praying they don’t get asked for an Old Fashioned because they’ve literally only just started, or them struggling to find where the bin bags are kept because they forgot to ask. Bartender’s first jobs - more importantly their first days - are not glamourous. There are no shots off of people’s stomachs. There’s no bar top dancing and there’s definitely no sex (at least… on your first day there isn’t).
“Why are you telling me this and not settling my fears?”
Because being nervous is good. It shows that you actually care and you don’t want to mess up on your first night. Breathe. It will never go as bad as you think it will and before you know it you’ll be sat down at the end of your shift telling yourself “That wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be”, trust me. Everyone always thinks it will be worse than it actually is.
- Get as familiar with your cocktail menu as quickly as you can.
- Poke your nose around the back-bar and get an idea of where everything is.
- Ask where all of the spare things are kept: Bin bags, back up stock, cleaning supplies.
- Try not to cry on the bar.
- Don’t drink.
- Don’t be scared to ask questions - You’re not expected to know everything about the bar on your first night.
- Don’t panic.
- Figure out your opinion on Fernet Branca - this will be important in your career.
- Seriously, don’t panic.
- Have fun.
Bartending is fun, but that doesn’t mean that some people won’t get nervous or panic slightly. It’s normal, you’ll be ok. I personally promise you that you’ll be ok and if you’re not ok then you probably haven’t figured out if you like Fernet Branca or not.
Steven Poland is a professional bartender with a flair for content writing. He is our go-to man for an insight on the hospitality industry. You will find him shaking behind the best bars in Manchester.