How to look like you know what you are doing…

A few months ago my friend got his first real bar tending job and asked me for some advice. He wanted to know any tricks and techniques and also what drinks he should memorize specs for. I was so excited to nerd out with him about it all and I thought I would share some of the thoughts here.


The caliber of my bar is somewhere in the upper middle of the spectrum. I work in a higher end hotel bar, and we truly get all kinds of guests. We have a cocktail menu but we don’t specialize in craft cocktails the way the smaller bars do. We have standards, no flavored vodkas, spirit on spirit drinks get stirred, we use all fresh juices and you’ll never get a muddled orange in your old fashioned. However we can’t be (overly) judgmental- We make you anything you like, I’ll chill your shot of Patron, I’ll shake your martini if you tell me to.  My advice is of the most practical and useful manner for a friend heading to work in a similar type establishment. That being said…

Dear Friend!
I’m so excited that you are getting behind the stick! (Have I mentioned that I dislike that term and still use it, why do I do that?)
Here are my thoughts and answers to your questions:

In regards to making drinks, first, learn the drink families and the traditional proportions- it’s a hell of a lot easier to remember that a drink is in whatever family and that means it will have x,y, and z rather than memorizing endless recipes with no through line or backbone.
I could write you a lot on this. Luckily the guy I learned from already has- check him out.

Here, in no particular order are the 50 drinks, that I’ve found to be most commonly ordered anywhere the people have any sense, that are not just described by their contents (i.e. Gin and Tonic). Learn to make these and you’ll be able to handle 99% of the off the menu requests you get:

Martini (Vodka, Gin, and sometimes dirty)


Gimlet (Vodka or Gin)

Moscow Mule

Cape Codder

Grey Hound

Bay Breeze

Bloody Mary

White Russian

Espresso Martini
Kamikaze (oddly it comes in handy)

French Martini (wish it weren’t so)



The Last Word (just because everyone does an effing take on it)

Tom Collins



French 75

Corpse Reviver #2

Singapore sling


Tommy’s Margarita



Hemmingway Daiquiri

Dark and Stormy

Cuba Libre

Queens Park Swizzle

Old Fashioned (Bourbon, Rum or whatever else you like)

Gold Rush

Whiskey Sour

Mint Julep

Perfect Manhattan
Rob Roy


Irish Coffee

Hot Toddy

Kir Royale


Pims Cup

Pisco Sour (and it’s Russian cousin the Capriroshka)


Aperol Spritz



A few other thoughts- most of which you prob know, but here are things I’ve seen or been telling the new people at work (or wishing I could tell them). This could also be called:


1. Spirit on spirit drinks are stirred, anything with more than a 1/2 oz of juice gets shaken.

2. When you pour from a mixing glass use a julep strainer, from a tin use a hawthorne strainer.

3. When building a drink start with the least valuable ingredient first and build up- your spirit should be the last thing in the tin, in case you mess up and need to start over. 

4. Clean as you go, always prep well, whatever you can do fresh and in the moment do fresh and in the moment. egg whites. zest, juicing fruit, whatever.

5. Express the oil of your fruit peel across the surface of the drink and then hit the edges of the glass with it before you drop it in.

6. Don’t ever chew gum.

7. Build all your drinks in a round- then ice glasses and tins and then get shaking. Ice your tins and glasses AFTER you build your drinks. 
Drinks on ice get made first, then up drinks.
8. Your ice is your most important ingredient, know what you are working with as it will effect everything you make.

9. Drinks are to ice like food is to heat, think of using ice to “cook” your drink. You don’t want to cook too long and burn, or cook too little and have it taste raw. 

10. St. Germain can be your best friend. It goes good with everything and makes anything drinkable. This is particularly useful when dealing with women and when you don’t have anything to offer them with lychee.

11. Take care of your body, especially your shoulders, wrists and elbows. Usually the best way to handle a tool will also be the best and easiest for your body. I see too many bartenders slam tins when a simple tap would do. I watch them shake and see their shoulders over straining. 

12. Eat as often as you can and drink water. Spend money on your shoes. Like more money than you spend on your fancy shoes. Don’t worry if they are ugly, no one sees them.

13. Get comfortable handling jiggers, like they are just extensions of your fingers. Don’t let them stress you out. You are just pouring liquid into small cups before pouring them into bigger cups. It really isn’t a big deal.
14. Mojitos and caprihinas spread through a bar like herpes or wild fire, or whatever- make them too pretty looking and that is all you will make all night.
15.  Make people what they want. It’s way easier. 

16. Lastly, it’s all about how you hold yourself. Breathe. Smile. Always appear confident, always act like you know what you are doing but don’t dare be cocky. Ask questions, look up things you don’t know and then trust you know what’s what. Because you do.

OK. I hope this is a good starting place.Tending bar is a great, fun way to make money and if you let it, it’s a job that can work for you and not the other way around which is nice.