Column: What Goes on Behind The Bar

By Matt Sorrell
In Culture

It’s a good time to be a bartender. After languishing in the shadows for years post-Prohibition, the profession has once more become respectable, again regarded as a culinary craft and not just a way to make a couple of extra bucks during school or while looking for a “real” job.

Photo by Taylor Davidson/ Unsplash

Photo by Taylor Davidson/ Unsplash

The increased visibility of bartenders nowadays—thanks in large part to coverage in glossy publications, on cable shows and social media—has created a bit of an aura around us and the craft we practice. Looking on from the other side of the bar, the bartender’s job seems to be all fun and precious little work. I mean, all you have to do is pick up a couple of bottles, dump some stuff in a shaker, turn out a stellar drink and take a bow, right? Next stop, the Food Network.

But there’s much more to bartending than just making the drinks. What goes on behind the bar during service in view of the guests is just a part of the job. So this month I’m offering a little bit of an overview of what the profession of bartending consists of outside of the obvious.

Bartenders don’t just check out when they’re not working. When we’re off the clock, bartenders invest a lot of time studying the craft. From reading up on the latest big things in the industry to researching classic recipes to attending seminars and festivals to practicing new techniques, many of us spend a good amount of time away from the bar trying to get better at what we do. Bartenders who are also bar managers spend hours before their bar shift doing inventory, ordering product and meeting with distributors and liquor reps.

There’s a large amount of prep work involved in setting up a bar before the doors are unlocked. Many bars employ bar backs to help out with prep work and other duties, and these folks are essential. But often bartenders have to take care of their own prep work when a bar back isn’t scheduled or the work load is heavy. This may include juicing, stocking the bar with spirits, cutting garnishes, filling ice bins and stocking all of the sundry non-alcoholic items, from soda to napkins to straws. Those of us who work at places that serve food also have to communicate with the kitchen to see what the specials are for the day, what items are already 86’d and what’s soon to be on the way out, as well as any other changes that have been made to the menu. All of these things happen before the actual “bar shift” commences.

Even during “showtime,” bartenders take care of much more than just stirring and shaking. We may have to replenish the ice bins, juice some citrus on the fly or grab a new bottle from the liquor room during service if it’s busy and the bar back is swamped. Since we’re all part of the same team, bartenders also run food out to guests to help out the wait staff when they’re busy, and bus tables when necessary. And all of those glasses those drinks are poured into? Bartenders help wash, polish and put them back for the next round.

Once the last guest has left and the lights come up, bartenders don’t just clock out and grab a drink. There are bar mats to be rolled up, bottles and rails to be cleaned, floors to be swept and mopped, trash and recycling that need to be run to the dumpsters and cash drawers to be reconciled.

Don’t get me wrong, bartending is a whole lot of fun, and there’s nothing like the satisfaction of putting a quality drink in front of a customer, but there’s an awful lot that goes on behind the scenes. Hopefully getting this small glimpse behind the wood will serve to heighten your experience as a guest and make you appreciate that well-crafted cocktail even more. Cheers!

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