Behind the Bar To Your Health

Drinking Behind the Bar: How Much Is Too Much?

Call it an occupational hazard or simply part and parcel of the business, but many of today’s more seasoned bartenders grew up drinking on the job.

“When I first started in the early 2000s, I worked at college bars where drinking was really encouraged and shots with friends and other bartenders were the norm,” says Gina Chersevani, owner of Buffalo & Bergen in Washington, D.C. “I think it was way more acceptable back then, because bartending wasn’t taken seriously as a profession.”

But as the industry and its professionals have matured, so have bars’ policies about drinking while behind the stick. Many eschew on-the-job imbibing altogether, whereas others condone moderate consumption.

Below, Chersevani and other bar managers and owners share their perspectives and rules on drinking behind the bar and how much is too much.

1. Don’t Get Drunk

Like Chersevani, when Kirk Estopinal, a partner and bartender at Cane & Table in New Orleans, started in the industry, drinking on the job was commonplace. “At my very first bartending job, you could drink on shift as long as you didn’t get too drunk,” he says.

Max Green, a managing partner at Blue Quarter in New York City, still ascribes to this philosophy. “My perspective is this: Drinking behind the bar is fine. Being drunk behind the bar is not.”

Signs your employee has overdone it? “If you get to the end of your shift and can’t quickly and efficiently count your money or do simple tasks like cleaning the bar or prep for the next day, you’ve gone too far,” says Green.

While she’s not allowed to drink at work in her role as bar director at The Spare Room in Los Angeles, Yael Vengroff says she has no problem with moderate drinking on the job in other contexts. “If you think you’re going to be more outgoing and more exciting if you’ve had a few shots and can keep it together behind the bar, I’m all for it,” she says.

But like Green, she says that if drinking “impacts service, especially in a high-volume bar,” think twice about combining drinking and work.

2. Keep It Low Proof

Both Vengraff and Green agree that having a shot with a guest is still prevalent and considered a sign of good hospitality. “There’s ritual and tradition in having a small nip or shot with your guest, to show appreciation to them and acknowledge that they have had fun with you, which is the intention of bartending and hospitality—to have fun,” says Green.

To moderate his consumption, he often does sherry, vermouth, or amaro-based 50/50 shots if guests offer to buy a round. “The intention is not to get drunk, but to share a moment of camaraderie and hospitality with a guest,” he says.

3. Lead by Example

While shots with guests are still commonplace at sister bar Cure, Cane & Table is a non-employee-drinking bar. “I never set a specific policy about it,” says Estopinal. “But people take cues from what’s around them. I don’t drink at work, or hard liquor anymore ever, and it’s really important that my bar is a nondrinking bar to counteract all the enabling we do of young people in the industry who might have problems with drinking.”

Chersevani has the same nondrinking policy at Buffalo & Bergen. “Your staff follow what you do,” she says. “I’m a mother of two young children, and just like I want to be a good example for them, I want to be a good example for my employees. After two drinks, you’re going to get sloppy, and honestly for many of my young bartenders, drinking on the job is just not part of their norm anymore.”

4. Remember It’s a Profession

Part of that shift is the industry evolving and taking itself more seriously, which means treating the work like you would a regular nine-to-five office job.

“When you’re working, this is your business,” says Estopinal. “You wouldn’t show up at your accounting job with a Martini or hungover three days a week. You’d get fired.”

Similarly, Chersevani has noticed a new set of standards and norms among bartenders. “Once the cocktail renaissance happened, a lot of us got really serious, going from club and restaurant bartending to managing city and even nationwide cocktail programs,” she says. “We don’t have time to be nursing hangovers anymore.”

For Clayton Rollison, the owner of Lucky Rooster in Hilton Head Island, S.C., the restaurant’s nondrinking policy sets the tone that you’re here to work. “This is a real job, with real expectations and standards,” he says. “We want to take care of our guests and focus on their experiences, and we can’t do that in an altered state of mind. Plus, it just makes for a safer, healthier work environment for everyone.”