I'm A Bartender. These Are The Job's Biggest Secrets - Exclusive

There's a lot you can learn from being a bartender. From mastering the art of small talk to learning how to cut someone off without causing them to spiral into a drunken rage, there is plenty that you need to prepare for that goes far beyond knowing how to make the perfect martini. As someone who spends a significant portion of their life behind the stick, I know from personal experience that there are a lot of things that people don't necessarily talk about when it comes to the job — and I'm ready to spill all the bartending tea.

As with most jobs, there's good and bad involved in slinging drinks, and most people don't realize the subtle details that can make bartending feel like a dream job, or make it feel like a form of personal punishment. Whether you're a frequent patron of drinking establishments, you're considering becoming a bartender yourself, or you're just a little nosy, I'm here to let you in on all the biggest bartending secrets.

Sometimes the job feels like being stuck on a bad date

Bartenders (for the most part) like talking to people, but we're human and sometimes we encounter guests that we just don't vibe with. Unlike being on a bad date where you can make up an excuse about your pet goldfish being sick or your boss insisting you come into the office at 8 p.m. on a Friday night, we generally can't get out of these situations. We're stuck, and we don't like it.

Don't get me wrong, if someone is being inappropriate, offensive, or extremely problematic, we can (and will) cut them off and kick them out. However, someone droning on about their work issues or asking you a million boring questions about your childhood isn't grounds for those measures, which means we just have to play along. That's not to say that we don't have our own set of escape mechanisms (tackling a cleaning project is a common one), but for the most part, we just smile, nod, and hope you're at least a good tipper.

We spend a lot of time prepping

If you think bartending is all about shaking drinks, tossing bottles in the air, and wowing guests with your quick wit and charm, I have some less than glamourous news for you: juicing, cutting fruit, and making syrups are equal parts of the job. Sure, we do get to spend some of our time feeling like the star of the show, but there's a lot of prep work that goes into even just a few hours of service.

All the behind-the-scenes work we do can often be the most exhausting, especially since prepping is a never-ending chore. Every time someone wants a margarita, that's one more ounce of juice I'm going to have to prep at the end of the night. If you ask me for five lemon wedges on your whiskey sour, all I'm thinking about is how you're depleting my store of garnishes faster than I anticipated. Prepping is repetitive and boring, but trust me when I say that it only takes a few instances of being underprepared to show you what an important aspect of bartending it really is.

Glassware can make or break you

Sometimes the most stressful part of a busy shift isn't about making drinks at all — it's about glassware. For example, if more people than normal are ordering wine on a busy night, it puts the bartenders in a real predicament. This is because if all the wine glasses are in use, and someone orders a cabernet, we're stuck. We can't (in good conscience) serve wine in a pint glass, so we're forced to wait for clean glasses before we can proceed. The shape of your wine glass really does matter, so this problem gets even worse if you're dealing with multiple varieties. No one wants to wait 10 minutes for a simple glass of wine, and people get annoyed because they don't understand what's causing the hold-up.

Most of the time, we'll ask our bussers to do a lap to pick up the glasses we need (or we'll do it ourselves if we don't have someone to help us), so don't be offended if someone is coming around to clear your glasses frequently during a busy night. We probably aren't trying to rush you (probably being the keyword here), we might just need your empty wine glass so we can serve someone else.

Liquor orders aren't always what you're hoping for

Another thing that can seriously ruin your night as a bartender is an incorrect liquor order. Sometimes, distributors run out of standard-size 750-milliliter bottles of booze and will send either a jumbo bottle or several mini bottles of a certain brand instead. This might not sound like that big of a deal, but bars purchase standard-size bottles for a reason — they fit in the well, which is essentially a rack below the bar that makes liquor bottles easily accessible.

Having to measure from a massive liquor bottle (which speed pourers won't fit) is a serious pain, and having to replace the speed pourers in small bottles every hour is equally annoying. Being the bartender on duty when the liquor arrives is already a drag (the liquor closet isn't going to stock itself, after all), so opening up boxes to find the wrong order adds insult to injury.

Bartenders get embarrassed, too

Plenty of people get nervous and flustered when interacting with bartenders, but that feeling goes both ways; sometimes guests make us nervous, too. We're bracing for the moment when we're inevitably going to put our foot in our mouth, say the wrong thing, drop something, make a silly mistake, or forget someone's name at one point or another. Even though bartending does wonders in terms of teaching you how to handle almost any social situation, messing up still stings.

Guests have the advantage of being able to walk away from the bar if they accidentally say "You too!" when the bartender tells them to enjoy their drink, but we bartenders (once again) are stuck. It can be hard to shake the embarrassment of an awkward guest moment, and there have been plenty of times I've thought about something I've said that was cringe-worthy long after my shift was over.

We can tell if you work in the service industry

Bartenders have a "sixth sense" when it comes to determining if a guest is a fellow industry worker, even if they don't tell us right away. It all comes down to what someone orders — and how. Of course, there's the good ole "bartenders' handshake," which is just a shot of Fernet (bartenders love Fernet), but there are several other drinks that help clue us into someone's profession. Whenever someone orders a Mezcal Negroni, a Last Word, or even a beer and a shot (sometimes the last thing a bartender wants to drink after making cocktails all night is a cocktail), my "bartender radar" immediately goes off.

People who work in service are usually polite, patient, and respectful. They know how it is, after all! Tipping gets outrageous amongst industry workers, and the percentages we leave for fellow bartenders might seem ridiculous to a nine-to-fiver. That being said, I'll let you in on another secret — we leave big tips because we usually get free drinks.

Our drinks of choice aren't for everyone

Bartending does more than just alter your sleep schedule, it also changes your palette. Those of us who've been in the industry for a while tend to have a strong predilection for strong, unusual flavors. We love all things bitter, bracing, smokey, herbaceous, and honestly, just weird.

If you ask a bartender what their favorite shot is, they probably won't say tequila or whiskey (we're not saying they'd turn one of those down). Instead, we gravitate towards things like Cynar, Fernet, M & Ms (mezcal and Montenegro), or even straight Chartreuse.

Trust me, if you're a new bartender and think the idea of drinking straight, room-temperature amaro is gross, just give it some time. Something about bartending culture will have you saying bring on the bitterness in no time. Most of us also love discovering new beverages, so we collectively tend to have a pretty adventurous spirit when it comes to trying new things.

Our eating schedules aren't normal

Dinner in the middle of the night? Normal. Breakfast at 2 p.m.? That's early for some of us. You can kiss the idea of eating an early morning breakfast, mid-day lunch, and evening dinner goodbye if you're considering becoming a bartender. In fact, the idea of having time to eat three square meals a day at all is a pipe dream for many of us. The quality and consistency of your eating habits will largely depend on the type of bar at which you work — and whether or not they feed you.

For example, if you work somewhere that closes late (and that feeds you), even if you enjoy a "family meal" before your shift, you'll more than likely need to eat again after work before you go to bed. If that happens at 5 a.m., the lines between breakfast and dinner start to get blurry.

Bartending is physically demanding, and the long hours mean it's essential to fuel your body properly. If you don't have time to eat before you leave for work, you're going to be utterly miserable. Unlike an office job where you can pop out for lunch or grab a snack, once we're behind the bar, we usually can't eat again until we clock out. This means that we usually have to force ourselves to eat a big meal at abnormal times to prevent the dreaded mid-shift hanger.

Our sleep schedules are even worse

As a bartender, I am absolutely never going to make that 8 a.m. workout class. Please don't invite me to get coffee with you in the wee hours, or ask me to go on an early morning walk. It's not that I don't want to do things, it's not because I'm lazy, and it's certainly not because I get more sleep than anyone else just because I sleep late. Bartenders do not keep normal hours, and it's really not our fault.

You don't need to work at a bar that's open super late to mess up your circadian rhythm, either. Even if you get home at midnight, you still have so much adrenaline from the shift that it's usually impossible to fall asleep until at least 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. People will tell you to just go home and go to bed, but even daytime workers need to wind down before hitting the hay. In a culture that loves to tell us that "the early bird gets the worm," a lot of us get shamed for our schedules. Plus, working when everyone else is playing can feel isolating, so please keep that in mind the next time you're thinking about making a comment to your bartender-roommate who sleeps until 2 p.m.

The bartending community is tight knit

Bartenders are often friends with (or date, or marry) other bartenders — for good reasons. Not only can hanging out with people who work normal hours be difficult, but other bartenders understand what it's like to work in this industry. When you think about it from a logistical perspective, it just makes sense. Who else is going to want to hang out on a Monday afternoon? Who else are you going to hang out with over the holidays when everyone else gets to go home to their families?  What other friend group's definition of a "weekend night" means a Sunday? What corporate worker wants to eat dinner with you in the middle of the night? You get the picture.

Plus, I promise we spend a lot of time talking about things that non-service workers would have a hard time weighing in on. We love laughing about outlandish requests, venting about difficult customers, and discussing the merits of dry-shaking vs. double-shaking an egg white cocktail. Most non-bartenders don't find discussing why you should use aquafaba in your cocktails to be very riveting, so this one works out for everyone. 

We might not want to talk to anyone on our days off

We talk to people non-stop at work. Even though most of us enjoy the social nature of the job, sometimes going into hermit mode is necessary to balance out exerting all that friendly energy. At least one of our days off is often purposely spent alone. Personally, if I've worked a bunch of busy shifts in a row, the idea of spending some quality time in the quiet comfort of my apartment seems like heaven. If you've ever felt exhausted after work because you had more meetings than normal, then you should be able to relate to this need to recharge.

So, don't be offended if you invite your friend who's a bartender to go to a rowdy party with you on their day off and they politely decline — it's not you, and it's not them, either. We just need to recharge our depleted social battery. Plus, bartending is hard on the body, and sometimes we need to spend the day horizontal to combat our tired feet and aching backs.

(Literal) bartending dreams are real

Even people who haven't been behind the bar in years still have dreams (usually nightmares) about working a shift. It's a phenomenon I've discussed with many of my fellow industry workers, and it happens to a whole lot of us. There have been countless times I've woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat because I dreamed I worked a shift where everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. I've even had random bar guests show up in my dreams that had nothing to do with the bar at all (the subconscious mind is a mysterious thing).

In my opinion, this goes to show two things: The first is that bartending is an extremely stressful job, and it can impact your brain in more ways than you actively realize. It also demonstrates that most bartenders really care about their jobs. I wouldn't be waking up in a panic because I dreamed that I forgot someone's margarita unless I cared.

It's a career for a lot of us

Please don't ask us when we're going to get a "real job." Some people love bartending, and you can learn, grow, and find fulfillment in the industry if that's what you're looking for. I will never understand why people think it's ok to question service workers about their life choices when people who work in other industries aren't subject to the same scrutiny.

Of course, bartending is in fact, just a side hustle or temporary gig for a lot of people, and that's wonderful too. The point is you never know what someone's situation might be, and making the assumption that they must want to do something else with their career is downright offensive.

I've worked in service for my entire adult life. I also went to college. I also have a master's degree. I'm not a bartender because I don't have any other options in life. I'm a bartender because I love it. I can genuinely say that I look forward to going to work every day. I have the scheduling freedom to take time off when I need it, and I'm able to write during the day. I don't say all this to brag about how great my life is, I say it to serve as a reminder that bartending can be a great career. So, the next time you're at a bar, please just mind your business.