Bartender Confesssions

Whether you’re in the mood for the art deco vibe of a lounge or the grit and glory of a classic dive bar, it might help to know the unwritten codes and customs of bartenders before you sit down to order a drink.

You may already realize it’s rude to ask the bartender to charge your cellphone behind the bar or that your server isn’t exactly interested in hearing your life story, but have you ever asked them which drinks they most judge people for requesting, or how many drinks can be ordered before they pull the plug?

Instead of asking that one friend who thinks they know everything about bar etiquette, we went straight to the source. To understand the real do’s and don’ts when it comes to what you should order and how you should behave at a bar, we surveyed over 260 current and former American bartenders to get their take on the biggest mistakes patrons make whendealing with their servers. Want to know which quirks bartenders consider the most annoying, how much you’re really supposed to tip (according to them), and the truth behind getting cut off? Read on to find out what we discovered.

The Unwritten Rules of the Bar

Before you’ve put in your drink order with the bartender, have you ever stopped to think what your refreshment of choice says about you? According to the men and women filling your glass, a lot can be gleaned just by your choice of cocktail.

Some drinks are far more likely to carry a certain connotation than others. According to our panel of current and past bartenders, nearly half said they thought less of patrons who asked them to put together an appletini. Crafted for the first time in the late ’90s, the apple martini (or appletini for short) could be a relic of the past that needs to stay put.

If you find yourself at the bar in a restaurant, consider staying away from these drinks if you don’t want to fall out of favor with the person behind the counter. The Jägerbomb, sex on the beach, and even light beers carried a negative connotation, according to the bartenders who spent time pouring them out. Where foodie culture in the U.S. is concerned, the cocktail “revolution” may be on its way out, but that doesn’t mean you should order the first thing that comes to mind from a mixologist at a cocktail bar. Frozen drinks (an order judged by 39 percent of bartenders) and the Irish car bomb (30 percent) were quickly scorned, particularly by cocktail bartenders we polled.

Bad Manners at the Bar

Like any profession, there are formal and informal rules when it comes to serving alcohol in the U.S. You don’t always have to be 21 years old to work as a bartender, and in some states, it’s only legal to serve alcohol at certain times of the day. Still, there are more unwritten rules you’d like to hope your bartenders abide by. Refusing to make a drink that’s too complicated is frowned upon in addition to spending too much time on the phone instead of on the clock.

The same way you might hope your bartender is on his or her best behavior when you take a seat for the night, bartenders surveyed had etiquette standards of their own to share. On our scale of pleasant to completely annoying, asking for a free drink ranked as the most aggravating thing patrons could do (especially among female bartenders). Things can get loud and busy depending on where you’re drinking, but whistling to get the bartender’s attention should be avoided as well.

Flirting fell as a middle-of-the-road type of offense and was less aggravating to men than women. If you can’t find a coaster or napkin, don’t fret. Most bartenders weren’t nearly as bothered by drink rings as they were by “surprise me” or “make it strong” requests from a patron.

Designated Drives Home

Bartending may sound like getting paid to have a good time, but things can get pretty serious when guests who’ve had one too many still ask for more. The laws regarding over-serving by bartenders vary from state to state, making it difficult in some cases to deny a person for their own safety. In Florida, bartenders are not held liable if someone has too much to drink (unless they’re knowingly addicted), while bartenders in Ohio are required to cut a person off if they’ve imbibed too much.

In 2015, more than 10,000 people died in America from alcohol-related driving accidents, nearly 30 percent of all traffic-related deaths in the country. According to the bartenders polled, just over half said they went so far as to stop someone from driving home by calling a cab or ride-sharing service. Nearly half said they arranged for someone else to take a patron home, and less than 1 in 4 went so far as to take a person’s keys.

According to more than 70 percent of bartenders, spilling a drink or breaking a glass, falling over, or getting into a verbal altercation were the clearest signs a person had too much to drink.

Expected Compensations

There are no universal rules for tipping in America, and most people have their own opinions on how much (and when) it’s appropriate to tip someone for their service or work. You may know it’s expected to tip the valet or pizza delivery guy, and your bartender probably assumes they’re no different. But what’s the appropriate gratuity in their professional opinion?

According to nearly 38 percent of bartenders surveyed, $1 for each drink ordered was the most appropriate tip amount, especially at a dive bar. Still, your additional payout may vary based on where you’re drinking. According to roughly 1 in 3 bartenders in pubs, lounges, and restaurant bars, the more acceptable amount was between 18 and 20 percent of the total bill.

Knowing Your Own Limits

So how many drinks are too many in the eyes of a bartender? That might depend on what you’re drinking and whether you’re a man or woman. A standard drink, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, changes based on the alcohol in question. Alcohol by volume (ABV) content for a glass of beer is much lower than a glass of wine or mixed drink. By similar standards, low-risk drinking is defined as no more than three drinks per day for women and no more than four for men.

According to bartenders polled, the amount patrons drank before getting cut off was typically higher than the recommended drinking levels supplied by the NIAAA. More than 1 in 5 bartenders said they wouldn’t cut someone off at all regardless of how much they had to drink, and 26 percent said a man would have to have six drinks before they pulled the plug. Women were more likely to be cut off sooner, with 26 percent of bartenders stopping a female patron at her fourth drink of the night. Depending on the amount of time someone spends consuming that many drinks, they may fall into the category of binge drinking before their bartenders refuse to serve them further.

Overcoming Alcohol Misuse

If you’re planning on going out for a few drinks at the bar or lounge, there are a couple of unwritten (but accepted) rules you might want to keep in mind. Ordering certain drinks may be less appropriate depending on the ambiance of the room, and asking for a free drink is almost never going to end in your favor. Tipping $1 per drink is usually acceptable to bartenders unless you’re in a more expensive environment where your mixologist may expect a bit more. Our survey also revealed that, in most cases, you shouldn’t expect your bartender to cut you off until it’s too late.

Ordering an appletini at a dive bar might be a joke to some, but there’s nothing funny about alcohol misuse in America. Every year, over 75,000 people die from alcohol misuse, and roughly 2.8 million college students drive drunk. At Alcohol.org, we’re dedicated to making sure you understand the dangers of alcohol misuse and helping you or your loved ones get needed support. From the symptoms of withdrawal to rehabilitation and recovery, Alcohol.org can help you find the care you need every step of the way. Visit us at Alcohol.org to learn more.

Methodology

We surveyed over 260 Americans who currently or have previously worked as bartenders. Fifty-three percent of respondents identified as men, 47% of respondents identified as women, and less than 1% identified as a gender not listed by our survey. In determining tip preference, bartenders were asked to select the most appropriate rule for tipping on a standard drink order, not including food.

Fair Use Statement

Feel like you’ve picked up some inside knowledge? We’d love to see the results of our study shared on your website for any noncommercial use. We only ask that you include a link back to this page, so our contributors earn credit for their work.

Back to Alcohol.org