A well-balanced cocktail in your hand is usually the first sign that you’re at a quality bar. But behind all those perfectly shaken pisco sours and imaginative Serrano-pineapple syrups are the bartenders—and a truly good one knows that the art of working behind the stick involves so much more than flashy technique and an encyclopedic knowledge of recipes. What, exactly, differentiates a stellar barkeep from a middling one?

We asked nine of the country’s best drink-slingers, who run the bars at a variety of venues—from casual neighborhood joints, to bustling restaurants, to glam speakeasies—for their insights on the matter. They delve into the too-often neglected skills their colleagues should possess (none of which include a way with fancy mixing glasses); call out bullshit shortcuts that need to stop; and delineate which cocktail orders can be used separate the newbs from the vets.

Chris Hannah

Head bartender at French 75, New Orleans


On his hospitality ethos: “I am a host, I represent the French 75 bar, and in a small way I also represent New Orleans. So when the doors open, I am there to help guests get along on their stay, both in my bar and in the neighborhood and city, whether they’re locals or not. Anyone can make a drink; sadly not everyone can make an experience to go along with said drink. It’s the business we’re in. Figure it out.”

On establishing a friendly tone with the next customer, even when you’re three deep: “I always hope a menu is handy to hand the guest, or a glass of water—something to reassure them they’re noticed and will indeed be placing an order soon. As frustrated as I get, and I know I’m frustrated, I always remember they’re the ones who took the time to come, who will be spending well-earned money to drink here, and to keep my attitude to myself.”

Naomi Levy

Bar manager at Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, Boston

Photo courtesy Lisa Richov

On overlooked skills behind the bar: “Reading people is very important, as it allows you to mold your style of service to a guest’s specific needs. You have to be able to find a way to relate to so many different types of people from so many backgrounds. Projecting a sense of calm, even when you’re not, is important to making your guests feel comfortable and not stressed out on your behalf.”

On how to judge a bartender based on one cocktail: “An Old-Fashioned. You can see their spin and find out a lot about their cocktail knowledge through the simple choices they make for literally the oldest cocktail in the book.”

Nicholas Bennett

Head bartender at Porchlight, New York


On overlooked skills behind the bar: “Consistency. Can you make a great cocktail? Awesome. Can you make that same great cocktail 60 times a night, four to five shifts a week? It’s not a skill, but barbacks are always overlooked when considering a great bar. They are the lifeblood. Barbacks keep the bartenders stocked on syrups and glasses and they make sure everything is right where it needs to be when we reach for it.”

On the biggest bartender no-nos: “Pouring drinks on the back bar is something that really frustrates me. Not only does it mean turning your back to the guest, but it also hides what you are doing. Everything we do should be open for the guest to see. It creates trust. Leaning is also a no-no for me, but that mostly applies to my staff. I used to be frequently guilty of that and it is a very hard habit to break. But as the adage goes, “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”

Yael Vengroff

Beverage director at the Spare Room, Los Angeles

Photo: Antonio Diaz

On overlooked skills behind the bar: “We’ve all been served by the bartender who makes a killer Martinez, but doesn’t give a fuck about you or your experience at the bar. These bartenders are birds and they can fly away. Cleanliness [is key]. Keeping your workspace and your bar top clean demonstrates power, capability, organization, and care.”

On the biggest bartender no-nos: “Giving the customer ‘not what they ordered.’ Cut. It. Out. This continues to boggle my mind beyond belief. Say we were in a restaurant setting and you ordered spaghetti. Ten minutes later the server comes back to deliver your food, and says, ‘You know what? Spaghetti is so 1997, instead I’ve given you fettuccine Alfredo. It’s like a variation of spaghetti but with thicker noodles and a white cream sauce.’ No. Never. This is never okay.”

Dave Newman

Co-owner of the Pint + Jigger, Honolulu 

Photo courtesy Rae Huo

On establishing a friendly tone with the next customer, even when you’re three deep: “I think that keeping a great tone and a positive vibe is a lot easier to do when you are prepared. When I first started bartending, and for many years afterwards, I had a really hard time with this: I had so much on my plate just trying to remember recipes and where things were stored at the different bars I was working at. I didn’t know the food menu well enough to guide guests painlessly through it. Even if the bar is slammed, when you are prepared to the best of your ability, you can create a tone that shows you are confident and care. On days that someone calls in sick at the last minute and I have to unexpectedly jump behind the bar, I know my service is not at its best until I settle into the shift. When I am mentally prepared, which I tend to do while I am setting up the bar, particularly when I am cutting fruit, I get in the mindset of a bartender. When the doors open, it all just starts to flow.”

Alba Huerta

Co-owner of Julep and the Pastry War, Houston

Photo courtesy Julie Soefer

On overlooked skills behind the bar: “Active listening is the most sincere way of being engaged by your guests. Good time-management skills: knowing when to pick up the pace and understanding the different energy levels in the room.”

Sean Kenyon

Co-owner of Williams & Graham, Denver


On overlooked skills behind the bar: “A great bartender must be a genuinely gregarious and hospitable person, not someone who pretends to have these traits for the sake of our guests. He or she must have an ability to operate with a sense of urgency while not looking hurried or stressed. Taking care of our guests in a timely and efficient manner is key to a bartender’s success, but a great bartender can go 100 miles per hour and look like they are cruising the countryside at 25. Mise en place is important to creating this sense of ease and allows for fluidity of movement. Bartenders must also prioritize tasks, and most importantly, anticipate guests’ needs. He or she will assist with their drink choices, fill water glasses, present food menus, and realize when they are ready for a check. Lastly, confidence. I’m not talking about conceit or cockiness, but the confidence in knowing all there is to know about what they are serving and the steps of service.”

On establishing a friendly tone with the next customer, even when you’re three deep: “Eye contact and acknowledgement is key. We’ve all seen the bartender who is so in the weeds they don’t look up in fear of someone adding to their workload. But, if a guest feels like they have been acknowledged, they will be more patient. So, look up, smile at your guests, maybe hand them a menu to stall a bit. Once they know that they have been seen, any reasonable guest will wait their turn.”

Phoebe Esmon

Lead bartender and bar manager at Bar Emmanuelle and cocktail program manager at the Yachtsman Tiki, Philadelphia


On the hallmarks of a good bar: “Hospitality and generosity. I realize that hospitality has been a hot topic in our industry for the last year, and I am glad that people are talking about it again (although I wish it had never come to the point of needing to hold classes and seminars on it). To me, signs of true hospitality are making people feel welcome and comfortable by greeting them when they come in, whether or not you are going to be able to help them right away. By generosity, I mean a willingness to engage and connect with the people at the bar, and the vulnerability to enter into honest discourse with your guests.”

On the biggest bartender no-nos: “Mind bogglingly gross shortcuts. I was standing at a bar watching someone complete a cocktail that is intended to be dumped out on the ice it is shaken on. Instead of pouring the cocktail into the glass until it couldn’t accommodate any more cubes and then using a Hawthorne strainer to strain out the rest of the liquid, this person stuck their hand into the tin, using fingers to filter out the rest of the cubes. I’d rather see you waterfall my drink than put your hand into it. Also: rudeness combined with ignorance of your product. I was recently working an event at a casino—I can only imagine how difficult that job is. However, I had two wildly different hospitality experiences in two bars in the same building. In the one bar in a busy steakhouse, we had a wonderful experience with two very gracious and outgoing bartenders who took wonderful care of us in spite of the fact that we came in and ordered a full meal at the bar 20 minutes before closing. At another bar, aimed at serving cocktails and focused on high-end spirits, the bartender, who was admittedly busy—although not what I would consider in the weeds—was extremely rude to the woman who was in front of me. He actually insulted her. When it was our turn to order, we asked for a specific bourbon. His response was, “How am I supposed to know if we have that? Do you see it on the bar?”

Paul McGee

Co-owner of Lost Lake, Chicago

Photo courtesy Clayton Hauck

On his hospitality ethos: “Respect. Having respect for yourself, your co-workers, your tools, the spirits, the recipes, the guests, and the guests’ time—both the time they spend at your bar, and the time they spent earning the money they’ll spend at your bar.”

On judging a bartender based on one cocktail: “A classic Daiquiri. It will give you a sense of whether they like to make their drinks a little drier or sweeter. Also, their choice of rum reveals a little of their own tastes.”