Ask any bar manager what’s the most important skill for a bartender and you’ll get a lot of different answers. Some will respond that speed is critical; others will say a good personality, more will say appearance is important, and then you’ll get one or two who say mixology skills are essential. There are a lot of things that make a great bartender, like being trustworthy, friendly, reliable, hard working, clean and organized, but those are important aspects of any employee. The one skill that I think makes a great bartender is a memory. And if you are an aspiring bartender I’ll explain why and give you some tips on improving your memory.
In my humble opinion, if you have a good memory, you will make a better bartender. Not only will it allow you to do your job more efficiently, but it will also increase your tips. When a person walks into a bar, and the bartender greets them by name, asks if they would like their regular drink, or offers them something from a previous conversation, that makes the customer feel important. The customer will also tip better than if the bartenders don’t remember anything about them. All of these points deal with memory, the ability to memorize drinks, names, previous conversations and spirit preferences.
For many things, like people’s names, beer brands and cocktail recipes, you want that information to be embedded in what is sometimes referred to as “Intelligent Memory”. Intelligent Memory is made up of connections between other memories, whether they are thoughts, images, experiences, skills, or pieces of knowledge. A good example of this is how many bartenders have been taught to remember a drink. For example:
Black Russian (Vodka and Kahlua) is the easy starting point. Now to make a White Russian it’s a Black Russian with Milk. Now to make a Paralyzer it’s a White Russian with Coke. And a Brown Cow is a White Russian without Vodka. These types of relationships can be done for many drinks.
This is also the type of memory that allows you to make a drink without actually thinking about it. If someone orders a Perfect Manhattan, up with a twist you should instinctively know what to do. It takes some practice to do this but to be a great bartender you need to avoid referring to a book or pestering the other bartenders.
The other type of memory to work on is your short-term memory, which is what allows you to use your brain like a notepad. When someone orders a round of drinks, you should be able to commit the whole order to memory. Your ability to remember ten drink requests will make your job easier, impress your customers and increase your speed and efficiency. You can be the fastest drink pourer on the planet, but if you can only remember two drinks at a time, you won’t be very efficient.
Improving Your Memory
The best way to improve your memory is to expose yourself to new ideas and new experiences. This is a general way to keep your brain in shape. Like muscles, your brain needs to be used to keep it healthy. Talk and read about things that aren’t in your routine. Debate with people, read the newspaper, not just the comics, and do mind building puzzles like crosswords or Sudoku. Every little thing that makes your brain active is a good start.
One of the tricks to memorizing other things is to make connections. For example the cocktail connection example showed you how to connect one drink to another, this can be done with names but in a slightly different way. If you meet someone named Robert, and you have a friend named Robert, you can make a connection by thinking about the two people. When the customer comes in the following week, and you can’t remember his name, but for some reason a picture of your friend Robert pops up in your head, you’ll remember his name. There are other ways, such as memorizing a room and then relating people and places to the items in the room.
Repeat things you learn. When a server or customer calls an order, repeat it back to the server / customer. First it makes sure the order is correct and second it helps to embed it temporarily into your gray matter. People also like hearing the words they say back to them, it makes your charisma value increase. It’s kind of like someone commanding you and you agreeing with them; it makes people feel good.
If you just can’t seem to fire up the gray matter try taking a Vitamin B supplement. It’s a known fact that Vitamin B is necessary for neuron development and function. I take a B Vitamin (50 mg), and it does provide some help, especially if I’m tired. Avoid taking it all the time. Otherwise, it will lose its effectiveness. I just take one before each shift and avoid taking one on my days off. The B Vitamins also help with hangovers.
Caffeine is also a way to stimulate your brain. A cup or two of coffee before your shift not only helps your energy levels but also stimulates your brain. Exercise is also important, because it increases blood flow which brings more blood to your brain, and that’s a good thing. If you work in a high volume establishment, you will probably already notice that when things are moving at the speed of light, your memory works better. It’s the increased blood flow that helps. Finally, don’t kill your brain with so much alcohol. A drink or a few is fine, but give your body and brain a rest every once in a while.
The Internet is full of information on how to help improve your memory, so take advantage of that info and put it to good use. If you work behind a bar long enough this stuff comes naturally, but if you are just starting out, or looking to improve your skills behind the bar, I would highly recommend doing some memory exercise.
Additional Resources for Aspiring Bartenders