Being a Bartender: Product Knowledge
by Darcy O'Neil on February 2011
There are lots of bartending styles, but some styles are different than others. The most basic bartenders pop tops off beer bottles, and mixes up a mean rum and coke, but beyond that they are just very hard working “droids.” This is mostly because of the establishment they work in. On the other hand, there are establishments that do quality over quantity. Well crafted cocktails, interesting wine lists, micro brewed beers and a fine selection of quality spirits are all indicators of a quality bar. But it always comes down to the bartenders abilities that determined whether a bar is good. A great bartender can discuss the sports, recent news, local events, and any number of other topics. But, they must also know what they are working with to provide that extra level of service and product knowledge is just as important as the news.
Part of a bartenders ability to sell “quality” hinges on the bartenders knowledge of the ingredients in the drink(s). Also, it means knowing the wine list and the beer selection. Bartending is selling of drinks to the guests at the bar, or a least that is the basic definition. If the guest wants wine, then they get wine, but the bartender should understand the difference between a pinot noir and a pinot gris (grigio). The bartender doesn’t need to taste every wine on the list, but they should know what is selling and remember the tasting notes of previous guests who have tried particular wines. Most times the guests at the bar will have questions about all of the products being offered, be it the back bar, the beer list or wine selection. A great bartender should be able to answer those questions.
The Art of Drink encompasses many topics related to drinks and bartending. This obviously includes a big focus on cocktails and to a lesser extend beer and wine. But one area that I write about a lot is liquor products. This is part of the “product knowledge” a great bartender must have to provide the top level of service. If I make a cocktail using any old ingredients then it probably won’t be that great of a drink. But, if I know what certain spirits taste like, which ones compliment, and which ones contrast, then the ability to make a better drink are increase. This also makes the guest happier.
One thing I always take into account is that when people order a nonstandard cocktail, they are trying to be adventurous or experience new things. Nothing kills that excitement faster than a “we don’t make that here” comment from the bartender, followed by an awkward silence. It’s so much better when the bartender has a short conversation to at least keep the interest kindled. Otherwise the customer will bail on you and just order a rum and coke or a beer.
An area where product knowledge comes in handy is if you know about products, but haven’t necessarily tasted all of them, because it allows you to at least respond intelligently to guest requests. For example if someone comes to the bar and asks for a Caipririnha but your bar doesn’t stock cachaca, then you can say so and offer an alternative, like a Caipirissima which substitutes rum in place of cachaca. This at least indicates you understand the request and are trying to do your best to be helpful. Most people know that a bar can’t stock every know liquor or liqueur in existence.
In the end what is the point of being a great bartender. Well, part of it is pride in ones job, but there is also monetary compensation involved. Bartenders are effectively “for hire” employees. We work for tips and our employers contribute very little to the pot, compared to our customers. Like any job, the more skilled you are, the more money you can make. If you treat your customers with respect and answer their questions intelligently, you can make a loyal customer and these customers are, hopefully, going to help you pay your mortgage and put junior through college. Also, offering products (i.e. cocktails or wines) that have a higher value (upselling) increases your average cheque, and theoretically increasing your take home tips. It’s easy to do if you know your products.