Ask Your Bartender: New to Bartending

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Hey Bartender

I’m a waitress who was thrown into bartending by chance. Our bartender quit on a Friday night, so the manager came up to me and said, “Guess what …you’re it.”

This has been about 5 weeks ago. I’m learning rapidly and am doing okay. Fortunately, its a small bar and not heavily populated.

Can you give me any tips to keep my head above water? What is your best advice for a newbie?


Hey Sydne

Congratulations! You’ve made a grand leap to a nobler segment of the service industry, rising above the rank-and-file world of waitstaff.

I’m kidding, of course. You’ll realize this when you’re on the floor behind the bar at 4 A.M. on a Friday, trying to fish a whole lime out of your floor drain because your dishwasher flooded the whole back bar. And yes, you’ll be doing this lying on your stomach in an inch of fetid water.

And yes, this is exactly what I was doing last Friday at 4 A.M.

Now, on to your question. I learned a great deal about mixology from the brilliant Paul Harrington. Not that I’ve had the opportunity to meet him in person. Hotwired used to carry his extensive website, but that link is now down. I would recommend you pick up a copy of his book, Cocktail: A Drinks Bible for the 21st Century. It’s in rare book status at this point, but you can still find copies out there on the net. It’s not cheap, but it’s well worth every penny.

Here’s a link to Amazon’s used selection. Brace yourself.

Now, the first thing you should know is that there are basic families of drinks. Learn how to make one drink in the family, and it’s all a matter of substitution from there on out.

The first family is the highball family. Typically an ounce and a half of liquor to three ounces of mixer. Now you can make a Gin and Tonic, Whiskey and Coke, Rum and Coke, Screwdriver, Seabreeze, Cape Cod, 7 and 7, etc. Brilliant.

Next up is the Martini family. The main members are the Martini, the Gibson and the Manhattan. I use a half ounce of vermouth to two ounces of liquor, always stirred, never shaken. Awesome.

The Sidecar is the grandfather of drinks. You can make modern drinks and classic cocktails if you learn the secret of the Sidecar. And it’s a piece of cake, always remember this rule: 2 parts strong, 1 part sour, and one part sweet. The strong is going to be your main liquor, brandy, tequila, gin, etc. Sour is almost always going to be either lemon or lime juice. And sweet is going to be either simple syrup, triple sec, Cointreau, or another liqueur. Now you can make a Margarita, a Kamikaze, Cosmopolitan, Lemon Drop, Daiquiri, etc.

I also like the Alexander family. One part strong, one part cream, and one part creme de cacao. Use gin, brandy, rum, or vodka as your strong and you’ve got it down. I would put the White Russian in this family, just for fun.

Then there are the one-offs, the drinks that don’t fall into any families. You’ve got to work these out for themselves. Here’s where you get into the Old Fashioned, the Mojito, the Ramos Fizz and the Mint Julep. It’s not a long list, you can do it.

That’s all I’ve got for you, Sydne. I hope this advice helps and that you enjoy the world of bartending. It’s a great job.

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