Ask drinkplanner emergency bartending tips

Ask DrinkPlanner is a reoccurring feature here where readers submit their questions, and the crack team at DrinkPlanner does our best to answer. Got a question about booze? Ask us!

Hot diggity-dog, it’s Ask DrinkPlanner time!


One of my daughter’s friends is having a wedding shower and they’ve asked me to tend bar. They have special theme drinks and everything (that amount to Chocotinis with a slice of Ding Dongs on the rim of the glass). I also know people are going to be asking for all kinds of mixed drinks I’ve never made. I’ve drank like a man my whole life, so about the only thing I know how to do is pour a beer or down a whiskey. I need a crash course in mixology STAT!

What do I need to know to survive my one-night bartending gig? Any tips would be a big help.

Forever in your debt,

On the Rocks in a Hard Place”

When I, the DrinkPlanner, was a younger man, I found myself in a similar situation. I had a friend who knew I enjoyed drinking (and that I could use some cash), so she asked me to tend bar at her sister’s wedding reception. Sounded like a great gig to me, make some drinks (drinking while I was doing it) and earn some quick money. Then I realized…I only knew how to make what I liked to drink. I thank God I didn’t have to deal with a Signature Ding-Dong Chocotini abomination (there’s a great joke in there somewhere, damnit) like you do, but here are some quick tips to get you prepared for your debut. Ready? Places everyone!!! It’s…

FIRST and foremost, be courteous and HAVE FUN! It’s a party damnit, so smile and laugh and be the jovial good-times barkeep everyone knows you can be. Unless your host is some kind of serious jerk, you’ll be able to drink while performing your duties (don’t get plastered though, save that for the afterparty), so enjoy it and do your part to make the event a blasty-blast for everyone. Nobody wants to remember the wedding as “that one where the surly-yet-devilishly-handsome bartender threw a Cosmo at the best man and called him a ‘Nancy-pants bitch’ and then drop-kicked the flower girl”. Actually, that kind of sounds like a fun wedding. Anyway, on to the important bits…

If (and it’s a big IF) you’re able to, Preperation…

1. Try to Get a Bar Back – Tending bar is hard work, and professionals who work in bars have people to help them with the more menial tasks so they can focus on the bigger ones. Replenishing ice, getting fresh glasses, opening wine bottles, lugging beer kegs or cases, cutting and prepping garnish…all these things take time. Time is something you won’t have when 15 thirsty people are standing in front of you looking for their free drinks. The great thing about weddings and events like them is there’s always some cousin or nephew or whatever around who can help you with these time-consuming but necessary parts of running a decent bar. Do yourself a favor and ask ahead of time if there’s anyone around who can fill this role, because any place where you can cut some of the stress out of the job ahead of time is going to be to your benefit.

2. Find Out What They’ll be Serving, and Plan Accordingly – On one hand, you’re the poor bastard who has to garnish the Chocolate Apocalypse with a damned Little Debbie product clearly named after wieners…on the other hand, you know that you’re going to have to do that, and you can prep ahead of time. Talk to your host and find out what they’re planning on stocking the bar with, and how much. If there’s a special drink they want made or highlighted, find out what it is and how to make it in advance. From the other ingredients available, you should be able to deduce what can be made from them, so look through a decent bar book for this. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT go to the internet looking for recipes. DO NOT use services like Webtender’s “In My Bar” to figure out what can be made from the available ingredients. That service and others like it have their place, but this ain’t it. Any yahoo with a keyboard and dream can enter in drinks to online services, and that gives you THOUSANDS of crappy drinks that people made in their basements and technically don’t even exist, and nobody is going to ask for. You should invest in a good bar book anyway. I received the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s & Party Guide when I turned 21, and it’s served me well so far. Your mileage may vary.

BE PREPARED, or you may be forced to make unsavory choices

3. Make Sure You Have the Right Tools for the Job – Here’s a quick list of things you’ll need to run your bar efficiently and with as little confusion as possible:

Wine openers
Bottle openers
Trash can
Pourers for the bottles

The pourers aren’t necessary, but they’ll make things a LOT easier by helping you measure things out without having to use a jigger or shot glass. For a measure of 1 shot (aprox. 1 1/2 oz.) do a 6-count (counting “1-and-2-and-”) and you’re there. It’s much easier than using something else to measure it out, which will then have to be washed out and blah blah blah more time wasted. You’re most likely going to be in a make-shift bar-esque space, not a real bar, so don’t forget the towels or trash can, because there will be spills, mishaps, and garbage. Getting those things taken care of quickly and cleanly will only make things easier.

Ready now? On to The Big Show…

It’s her special day…make sure she forgets most of it

1. Make Drinks in Bulk When Possible – 3 people want the same thing? Great! Set up the glasses and pour each ingredient all at once into each glass, or load a triple-dose into the shaker and knock ‘em out. Oh and that reminds me…

2. Know Which Drinks Should Be Shaken vs. Stirred – The general rule of thumb is if the drink contains thicker, opaque ingredients (e.g. fruit juice, creams, etc.) then it should be shaken to fully mix the contents. Drinks with mostly clear ingredients should be stirred (unless they’re served “up” as some martinis are). Put a straw or swizzle stick in drinks like that so people can swirl them to their satisfaction. If someone has a request that’s outside the norm, they’ll most likely let you know.

***A Word About Martinis***

Martinis can be made many different ways. Gin, vodka, rocks, up, dry, dirty, olive, twist, stirred, shaken…they all add up to a million ways to give you a headache. When in doubt, ASK how they’d like it prepared. Most people know you can’t just ask for a “martini” and get what you want. They’ll be more than happy to specify.

No martinis? No such luck, Bub

3. Pour Two-Ingredient Mixed Drinks in a 1/4-to-3/4 Alcohol-to-Mixer Ratio – Whew, that was a mouthful. Rum and Coke? Vodka cranberry? Gin and Tonic? They all more or less get poured in this same ratio. You can go as high as 1/3-to-2/3 ratio, but any more than that and people are going to cry that they can actually taste their alcohol. I personally drink these drinks much stronger than this, but for the average non-professional boozer, 1 part alcohol to 3 parts mixer is the way to go. You can always add more if they want it. Oh, but before you start pouring anything…

4. Fill the Glass Full With Ice – It seems to me that most people who don’t bartend for a living or aren’t ahhh..serious about booze don’t know this one, but it’s pretty important. Alcohol will beat the hell out of your ice, and melt it quickly. Fill the glass pretty much to the rim with ice before you start pouring, so they have a drink that will stay cool for a while, and they won’t be stuck with a few sad little ice-slivers at the top of their drink in 5 minutes. Nobody wants that. It’s not scamming anyone out of their booze or anything like that, it’s just the best way to prepare drinks, and makes eyeballing measurements more accurate.

Remember, it’s your job to make sure stupid photos like this happen!

What Do I Do When I Don’t Know a Drink?

It’s going to happen, so how do you handle it? You’ve got a few options.

1. Have a Book of Drinks Handy – It’s not a bad idea to have one on hand. It won’t have every drink in the world, but if a dapper gent approaches the bar asking for a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned and you don’t know where to start, the book would be a great place to start (obviously). After all, you’d hate to disappoint a fellow boozer, right? But you may have an ever-growing line of thirsty folk impatiently lining up, and you obviously won’t have time to look up every drink, so you could…

2. Ask – Most people know their favorite drinks and make them at home for themselves, so they’ll already know how to make one and be happy to tell you. They want it made right after all, so it’s in their interest to help you get the drink prepared just the way they like it. However, not everyone is so knowledgeable, so you may have to resort to a third option when you’re in a pinch…

3. Guess – Do you know how to make an Appletini? No? Me neither! If I was plucked from my seat this very second and placed behind a bar and forced to make an Appletini at gunpoint (which is probably how it would have to go down for that to happen), I’d have to guess. I’ve never made one, never ordered one in a bar, but I think I may have taken a sip of one that a friend had ordered once, so…hmm. If I had to guess, I’d say 5 parts vodka, 4 parts neon-green apple vomit, and 1 part triple sec (or maybe sour mix?), shaken and served in a martini glass even though it is no kind of martini. Would I be right? Probably not, but I’m pretty sure I’m close on it. Fruit-flavored drinks will be more forgiving in over- or under-pouring the proper amounts. You and the drinker both have the benefit of this being free booze, so if you get it wrong, nobody gets too upset. They’ll probably drink it out of courtesy (or leave it unfinished on a table), and the next time around say “Uhmm…could you maybe use a little more of the green apple crap this time, please?” That, or they decide you’re hopeless and order a glass of wine. Either way, problem solved!

So I hope this helps, and best of luck! If anybody has any other tips for our boozer-in-distress, leave them in the comments. Got a question about drinking? Ask DrinkPlanner!

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