Behind the Bar: A Novice's Guide to Mastering Bartending

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Bartender pouring cocktail into martini glass at bar counter with blurred background


Bartending is both an art and a science. It’s exacting, exciting, and a balancing act. Every ingredient that goes into a cocktail is measured for precision and added for final enjoyment. 

Yet the world of bartending has its challenges. As the pulse of any establishment, bartenders are tasked with managing a myriad of personalities, moods, and requests, all while keeping their cool under pressure. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for bartenders in 2021 was $26,350 per year, and the median hourly wage was $12.67. BLS further estimates that bartender employment will grow 18% from 2021 to 2031—faster than the average of other jobs.

To stay on top of your game, we’ve prepared a guide that will take you to the secrets behind the bar. 

Setting Up Your Bar

Well-stocked bar shelves with a variety of premium spirits and liquors

As a beginner bartender, your home bar will serve as your primary workplace where you work on your craft. What goes into this bar of yours?

Essential Tools

You’ll need certain bartending tools to make and serve drinks quickly and easily. The table below includes the items you should have, what they look like, and what they’re for:






Examples include lowball, highball, coupe, rocks, martini, copper mug, etc.

Holds the drink and enhances its appeal


A measuring device resembling an hourglass with one large and one small cup

Used for measuring and pouring liquids

Mixing glass

Any tempered 16 oz. glass can be used, but pro bartenders use one that has a wide, sturdy base, straight edges, a spout, and etched design for easy handling

Used with a bar spoon for stirring drinks mostly containing spirits

Aids in dilution and chilling with minimal aeration


Boston shaker, consists of a large 28-ounce shaker and a smaller 16-ounce glass insert

Cobbler, has a metal cap, a tin container, and a lid with built-in strainer holes

French shaker, a two-part metal shaker that's a hybrid between the Boston and Cobbler shakers

Used to properly mix, shake, and chill certain cocktails


Hawthorne, the most commonly used bar sieve, equipped with a spring to filter out ice and fruit

- Julep, resembles a metal large spoon with small holes, mainly used for stirred drinks

- Fine mesh strainer, mostly used for double-straining to ensure a cocktail’s clarity

Keeps ice, fruit, and other solids when cocktail is poured into the glass, available as a Hawthorne or Julep strainer


Has a long handle with a spiraled design

Used to control stirring of drinks

Wine key

Has a corkscrew, a small lever, and a knife blade

Used to open bottles sealed with a cork and remove the foil around the bottle’s neck


Common bartender’s knives have 5-inch blades and should be small and light

Used for preparing garnishes like wedges, slices, and twists.


A durable, handle press-style device made from durable materials; comes with a filter cone with small holes

Used to extract juice from citrus fruits for cocktails.


Made from wood, stainless steel, or plastic and has a long handle with a broad, flat end

Used to smash and crush ingredients to extract essences

Stocking the Basics

Maintaining inventory is part of effective bartending. A well-stocked bar also means having a well-deserved drink for yourself or your guest when the occasion calls for it.

The following are the foundation of most cocktails:

  • Spirits (brandy, gin, rum, tequila, etc.)
  • Sours (lemons/limes)
  • Bitters (flavor extracts)
  • Mixers (sodas, fruit juices)
  • Sugar and syrups
  • Fruits, herbs, and spices
  • Garnish (peels, slices, rims, etc.)

Perfecting Core Techniques

Cheerful bartender mixing a cocktail at a bar

Bartending is like cooking—you mix drinks based on a recipe, balance flavors, and ensure they combine well and taste great. And like any recipe, preparation plays a key role.   


Pouring is a basic bartending skill to master to avoid spills and eliminate waste while keeping the quality of the drink consistent. In a busy bar where speed is crucial, precisely pouring liquid without measuring it (thus called free pouring) becomes more important.

A pour is approximately 1.5 ounces in the US, although this “standard pour” can go as low as 1.25 oz and up to 2.0 oz. An example of a two-ounce pour is when serving drinks neat or on the rocks. 

How to Master Pouring

Follow the steps below to master your pouring technique:

  1. Use a spout or liquid pourer for a quick yet controlled and consistent pour. Attach this device to a liquor bottle filled with water for practice purposes, 
  2. Hold the bottle by its neck, tilt it 90 degrees or almost above the glass or mixing tin, and pour it straight up and down. If you are pouring into a jigger, hold the bottle sideways and fill the jigger.
  3. Use a counting system for free pouring. For example, a four-count system contemplates that one count equals a half ounce. Use “one thousand” or “one Mississippi” per pour count. 
  4. Check the accuracy of your pour by pouring it back into the jigger.     

Shaking vs. Stirring 

Stirring and shaking are two different processes in making cocktails:

  • Stirring lets you blend ingredients, diluting and keeping them chilled at the same time. The stirring preferably happens in a mixing glass, which allows the customer to appreciate the preparation of the concoction.  
  • Shaking lets you combine ingredients and chill the drink as well. The shaking action also aerates the mixture, which affects the drink’s taste and texture. Bartenders often prefer a Boston shaker because of its capacity and efficiency.  

When to Stir

Consider the following on when you should stir:

  • Stir if the cocktail is made up mostly of spirits, resulting in a clear drink.
  • The rule of thumb for stirring is 30 seconds, which is ideally enough time to chill the drink and dilute the ingredients. 
  • Examples of stirred cocktails are the classic Martini, Manhattan, and Negroni.  

How to Stir

Stir gently and in circles with a bar spoon. Stir for 30 seconds, and taste to see if the drink is cold and appropriately diluted. Take care not to stir the cocktail over. 

When to Shake

Consider the following when you should shake:

  • Shake if the cocktail contains juice, egg whites, cream, milk, honey, or ingredients that would make the final drink cloudy.   
  • A vigorous shake can be at least 10 seconds or 15 seconds. The ice plays a key role in the dilution and duration of the shake.   
  • Examples of shaken cocktails are Daiquiri, White Lady, and Bee’s Knees.


Remember: Shaking is likened to waking the cocktail up. It must be vigorous and hard for at least 10 seconds or as the recipe requires.  


When you muddle, you are smashing and crushing ingredients, usually fresh herbs, spices, and fruits, to infuse their flavor and aroma into the cocktail.

The key to muddling is to apply the right pressure delicately. This prevents overworking the ingredients and mixing rinds and piths with the juice.

How to Muddle

Let’s use mint as one of the most commonly muddled ingredients for cocktails like mojitos and mint juleps. 

  1. Place the mint leaves at the bottom of a mixing glass or glass with a sturdy base. 
  2. Press down the muddling tool’s flat end lightly on the mint leaves. 
  3. Turn and twist the tool carefully. You should be able to smell the aroma.

Crafting the Cocktail

Variety of cocktails on bar counter with backlit bottles in background

The basic definition of a cocktail is an alcohol-based drink mixed with other ingredients and usually served cold.

To build a cocktail, one must have a distilled spirit, an ingredient to act as a balancing agent, a modifier, which is any alcoholic or non-alcoholic ingredient, and water. 

Understanding Recipes

At the heart of every cocktail are flavors that create a unified drink. Here’s a flavor pairing cheat sheet by Popular Mechanics that features four of the six base liquors: gin, rum, tequila, and whiskey and their favorable flavor mixer pairings. 

Understanding cocktail ratios is also important for mastering flavor balance and enabling creative experimentation with drinks. The golden ratio of 2:1:1 (two parts spirit, one part sweet, one part sour) is a good start.    

The International Bartenders Association (IBA) has named 89 drinks to its official cocktail list. But the actual number of cocktails that exist is definitely more than that. 

Because memorizing recipes is part of bartending, consider the tips below to speed up the process:

  1. Start with your own list. If you work in a bar, find out the most ordered cocktails.  
  2. Take note of cocktail families and their members.
  3. Create flashcards, mnemonics, poems, songs, stories, or any memorization technique that will be effective for you. 
  4. Keep making the drink until you learn it by heart—this step works when you are on the job.
  5. Ask how other bartenders were able to memorize recipes.


A garnish is the finishing touch, twist, and cherry on top. Bartenders perfect garnishing for the following reasons:

  • A garnish completes the drink. Adding that lime curl signals to your guest that the drink is finished and ready. 
  • A garnish enhances the drink’s visual appeal. The customer drinks in the whole view (the color of the decorative elements and the shape of the drinking glass) first. Liking what they see heightens their anticipation. 
  • A garnish adds flavor. The citrus twist lends its aroma and zestiness, as an olive brings in the savory (or is simply inseparable from a Martini). 

Fruits, vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs commonly accentuate cocktails. If you are unsure about a plant, do your research to ensure it’s safe to use, and then experiment with adding it to your drink. 

Using the Right Glass 

The glass not only holds the drink but also presents and delivers how it tastes. For example, the shape of the glass: the stem of a wine glass (or the handle of a beer glass) prevents your hand from warming up the drink. You won't need a tall glass for straight alcohol or a glass filled with ice for a relaxing night's sip.

To illustrate, look into these glassware staples in a bar and what drinks they are mainly used for:

Cocktail Glass

The quintessential cocktail glass with its V-shape consisting of an inverted cone bowl and stem is familiarly known as the martini glass.

Highball Glass

This tall glass serves highball, a drink containing alcohol, a non-alcoholic mixer (usually a soda), and ice. 

Rocks Glass

This short tumbler is for any drink served with ice or poured over ice.

Shot Glass

This is for any drink a person consumes in one shot (e.g., 1.5 ounces in the US). 

Coupe Glass

Also known as a champagne saucer, bartenders use a coupe glass for cocktails served up. It makes for less spills. 

The Science Behind the Bar

Bartender pouring cocktail into a tall glass with ice cubes

Cocktails are typically served chilled and fresh. Consider the following information that makes up the science behind the bar:

The Role of Ice

Ice is an essential cocktail component, second in importance to the base spirit. It cools the drink. 

As ice melts into water, it dilutes the drink and makes alcohol easier to drink, thus upping the cocktail’s enjoyability. The actual dilution depends on how you added the water to the cocktail, whether the drink was served with or without ice, and the size, shape, amount, and temperature of the ice. 

Look into the following basic types of ice and what drink goes best with each type:

Block Ice

Either you’ll buy a machine or create a mold to make this block. Bartenders carve this block for their cocktails—working on the ice block is part of showmanship. 

Ice Cubes

The standard 1"x1" ice cube is a staple in every bar. There are also smaller and larger cubes, and either can melt slowly in certain conditions. Best for drinks on the rocks and juices.

Cracked Ice

The pebble-like cracked ice sits between a cubed ice and a crushed one. To get cracked ice, use a bar spoon or a rolling pin. Best for Daiquiri and Margarita.  

Shaved Ice

If you have a blender, you can make this finely crushed ice. Best for slushies, Mint Juleps, and alcoholic snow cones.

Tip: Great ice is necessary to create delicious cocktails. Your ice has to be crystal-clear, preferably made with distilled water and by directional freezing.

Fresh Ingredients

Freshly squeezed juice or just-muddled mint leaves make a big difference to your drink. It’s exactly why you only add a fresh ingredient when you are ready to serve the drink. 

Here’s how to maximize the life of fruits, vegetables, and herbs and keep them as fresh as possible :

  • Refrigerate lemons, oranges, and other citrus fruits as placed in a bag. You can also freeze slices or wedges
  • Remove the packaging of tomatoes, bananas, and other produce that can be stored at room temperature.   
  • Once you cut fruits and vegetables, store them in covered containers and refrigerate them. 
  • Wash herbs and then dry them before sorting. Tender herbs like mint and cilantro would go into a jar with water like a bouquet of flowers, with a plastic bag covering the top part. Roll rosemary, thyme, and other hard herbs in a slightly damp towel and keep them in a resealable bag in the fridge. 
  • Store excess fresh juice in an airtight container in the fridge, or freeze it if you want to keep it for longer.

Continuous Growth and Innovation

Bartender pouring cocktail into glass at upscale bar

In the course of mixing and balancing favors, you’ll be inspired to craft your own great cocktail. You can tweak a classic recipe and give it your distinct twist or create an entirely new cocktail.

Your signature drink is an exclusive, flavorful concoction served for a special person or occasion. In crafting this signature drink, remember the following tips: 

  • Find a feature (e.g., ingredient, glass, and decorative element) that makes the drink unique and unforgettable. 
  • Choose liquor, mixer, and garnish that combine well.  
  • Remember the golden ratio.
  • Always taste the drink.
  • Give your cocktail a name.

Additional Resources for Aspiring Bartenders

Look into the following resources for beginning and advancing your skills in bartending:


Bartender pouring red cocktails into martini glasses at a bar counter

You’re now all set to master bartending. Check out the following summary of the tips provided in this post:

  • Set up your bar. Put together the essential equipment and inventory to make your drinks and serve your guests. 
  • Learn the moves. You should practice pouring, muddling, shaking, and stirring (or when to do either). 
  • Craft the perfect cocktail. Learn the fundamentals of building a cocktail, including garnishing and using the right cocktail glass. Use our tips to help you memorize recipes faster.
  • All eyes on ice and what it does to your drink. Also, store your fresh ingredients better. 

Bartending means never-ending learning and experimenting. You can craft your signature drink as you make drinks and discover what works for you and others. 

Cheers to your journey in bartending. Let’s drink to that! 



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