I really want to be a bartender. It seems like it would be a cool job, making fancy drinks and talking to interesting people. What do I have to do to be a bartender? Should I go to bartender school so that I have a bartending license? Will I make more money with a license?
Fancy drinks and interesting people, Isaac? I have to laugh. Most bartenders work at a corner bar with a daily routine that often mimics the movie Groundhog Day, except the scene is played out in a bar. The same stories and jokes told over and over with enthusiasm, as if it was the first time it was told. Music on the jukebox rotates like a playlist stuck on shuffle; the same couples are always making up and breaking up on cue. If you think bartending is spinning bottles “Cocktail” style, you had better be willing to clean up your mess, everywhere--including the mirrors.
That said, there are no two corner bars that are identical. Even two bars occupying the same corner often have nothing in common. Corner bars have a lot of comfort and security built into them, and that makes them ideal as a working environment providing a decent income.
Also understand that your next bartending gig does not necessarily mean pulling the tap as a corner/neighborhood dive bartender. Clubs, music venues, hotels, cruise ships, resort, sports bars, Irish bars, VEGAS... The opportunities are endless to live anywhere you want and tend bar. That is the beauty of bartending; if you match your skills with your interest and personality, you will find a bar that suits your disposition. There is a bar for every personality, and very good money can be made by the bartender who is a professional and understands their cliental.
To answer your question about bartender school, I will have to mix part personal professional opinion and part State requirements for the answer. And no, don’t expect everyone to agree with me.
I think bartender schools are a waste of money. Most employers do not hold a certificate/license as a key hiring point; on the contrary, certificates scream NO EXPERIENCE! They are going to hire energy matched with cleanliness and skills. If you want to be a bartender, start as a bar back, bar server, or food server at an establishment with a full bar. LEARN AS YOU EARN.
Schools teach generic bartending, and there is no such thing as a generic bar. Often employers throw a potential new hire on the bar cold during a busy shift to gage their abilities. If you just came fresh from school, you will not survive this test. You cannot be taught how to multi task a bar in a classroom. That takes real life skills.
I suggest you take the money you would have used for a school and purchase some bartending tools: good industry specific shoes, black and whites because every catering job demands it, flat style beer bottle opener, and a wine bottle opener. In addition, a good mixology app on your phone is highly recommended.
If you already have a job which involves working with a bartender, I recommend offering your help by fetching some ice or a case of beer from the walk in from time to time. This will help you develop a friendly relationship with your bartender, and they will be more inclined to have the patience for the questions you ask. Soon enough an opening behind the bar will come up, and you will most likely be suggested by the established bartenders because you’ve shown you don’t mind helping out and have a willingness to learn. That is how you get your foot behind the bar.
I do believe there are exceptions to the bartender schools you see advertised on daytime TV and Groupon style discount sites; for example, a class on specialty liquors, wines or brews. I consider them continued education and recommend them if you work or have an interest to work in specialty themed drinking establishments such as wineries or craft beer houses. Taking a class like this expands your knowledge of wine or craft beer and will get you noticed in a sea of resumes. It shows a passion for what you do and the eagerness to learn more. That is my opinion on bartending schools.
I did a Google search and found that most states DO NOT require a bartender license, but it is up to you to research the requirements for the state you apply in. I highly recommend that you do not apply for a job that you are not prepared for. Many states DO require a course in responsible serving, but these courses are often provided by your employer. Again, I want to stress knowing what the rules are in your area before you start applying for positions.
Good luck Isaac. I hope you find a rewarding career as a bartender. Find the venue that fits you, develop those multi-tasking skills, and you will fill your tip jar every night.
Ask the Bartender offers sage advice from years behind the bar. Got something on your chest? Ask the Bartender in the comments below!