A Beginners Guide To Becoming An Apprentice Bartender

bartender apprentice
Joe | Last Updated: November 27, 2023
I'm Joe, a veteran bartender with over a decade in the industry and a burning passion for mixing drinks.

So, you’re thinking about becoming an apprentice bartender? Great choice! But where do you start?

If you’re new to this industry, becoming a bartender apprentice is your golden ticket.

This guide is your no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point roadmap to becoming an apprentice bartender and what to expect.

I’ll walk you through the essentials, from understanding the basics of the trade to career progression.

Let’s get started…

What Is A Bar Apprentice?

An apprentice bartender is essentially in a learning phase, absorbing all aspects of bartending.

The role typically involves assisting senior bartenders and handling various supportive tasks that help the bar run smoothly.

Key responsibilities may include stocking the bar with liquor, mixers, and other supplies, preparing garnishes, and maintaining cleanliness behind the bar.

They often start by learning to make simpler drinks, gradually moving on to more complex cocktail preparation under the supervision of a professional bartender.

bartender apprentice
Photo by cottonbro studio

Apprentice bartenders are expected to watch and learn customer service skills and understand the workflow of a busy bar, as well as get acquainted with the legal aspects of serving alcohol.

It’s not quite the big leagues just yet, but it’s a great way to learn the basics and get accustomed to life working behind the bar.

What Do Bar Apprentices Do?

Stepping into the shoes of a bartender apprentice, you find yourself in a world where every shift is a new adventure and a learning opportunity.

It’s a role that’s as much about mastering the practical skills of bartending as it is about learning to communicate well and provide great customer service.

In the beginning, much of your time is spent getting to grips with the essentials. This means ensuring the bar is fully stocked and everything is in its right place.

It’s about learning the lay of the land – where the different spirits are kept, how the bar is organized, and ensuring that everything from napkins to garnishes is ready for service.

This might seem like the behind-the-scenes work, but it’s the foundation upon which great bartending is built.

Then there’s the exciting part – starting to mix and prepare drinks. At first, you’re likely to begin with the basics, but even this is exciting.

Shadowing and learning from seasoned bartenders is a huge part of your education.

You’ll quickly learn how to make patrons feel welcome, how to handle a busy bar without losing your cool, and how to deal with those occasional tricky situations.

Then there’s the responsibility side of things. Learning about responsible alcohol service is vital to your success.

This includes everything from checking IDs to recognizing when someone has had enough and needs to call it a night.

Is A Bartending Apprenticeship Worth It?

I’ve worked with many bar apprentices over the years and have seen them go from complete beginner to experienced bartender very quickly.

There is no substitute for experience, and while bartending schools are great for theory, you’ll learn the most through real-world experience and on-the-job training.

That’s why I strongly believe bartending apprenticeships are worth it. The hands-on experience is invaluable for those looking to make a career out of bartending.

There’s a BIG difference between learning about bartending from books or classes and actually being behind the bar, interacting with customers, and making drinks under pressure.

This real-world experience not only hones your technical skills but also builds your confidence behind the bar.

An apprenticeship offers the opportunity to learn from seasoned professionals. These mentors can provide insights and knowledge that you simply can’t get elsewhere.

They can teach you the little tricks of the trade, give you feedback on your technique, and share wisdom about the industry.

This mentorship aspect can be a significant stepping stone in your career.

Then there’s the aspect of networking. Working in a bar puts you in contact with a wide range of people, from suppliers to regular customers, and of course, other hospitality professionals.

These connections can be invaluable as you progress in your career, whether it’s finding job opportunities or learning about new trends and techniques in the industry.

Financially, while an apprenticeship might not be the highest-paying job you’ll ever have, it’s an investment in your future earning potential.

The skills and experience you gain can lead to higher-paying positions in the future.

Plus, there’s often the added benefit of tips, which can be surprisingly good in the right environment.

Is A Bartending Apprentice The Same As A Barback?

No, a bartending apprentice is not the same as a barback, though their roles may overlap in some areas.

A barback mainly focuses on the behind-the-scenes work that keeps a bar running smoothly.

Their duties typically include restocking the bar with liquor, beer, wine, and other necessary supplies, preparing and refilling garnishes, changing kegs, cleaning glasses and bar equipment, and generally ensuring that the bartenders have everything they need during a busy shift.

Whereas, a bartending apprentice is someone who is specifically training to become a bartender.

barman making drinks
Photo by Tamilles Esposito

While they may perform some tasks similar to a barback, their role is more focused on learning the art and craft of making drinks.

This includes understanding different types of alcohol, cocktail recipes, and the nuances of flavor combinations.

An apprentice bartender is often involved in more direct customer service, taking orders, and eventually, under supervision, preparing and serving drinks.

The goal of an apprenticeship is to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become a fully-fledged bartender.

In some bars, the roles might blur a bit, especially in smaller establishments where staff may wear multiple hats.

An apprentice bartender might do some barback duties as part of their training, and a barback might get some opportunities to try their hand at basic bartending tasks. But the main end goals are different.

Bartending School vs Bartending Apprenticeship

When aspiring to become a bartender, you’re likely to encounter two main paths: attending a bartending school or a bartending apprenticeship.

Both routes have their merits and can be effective, but they offer different experiences and opportunities for learning the craft.

Bartending School

Bartending schools offer structured courses that typically range from a few weeks to a couple of months.

These programs are designed to teach you the basics of bartending, including cocktail recipes, pouring techniques, and the different types of spirits and their uses.

You’ll likely practice in a classroom setting that mimics a bar environment.

The biggest advantage of bartending school is the structured learning environment. You’re given a comprehensive overview of bartending fundamentals in a short period.

This can be particularly beneficial for those who prefer a classroom setting and enjoy learning in a more academic and structured way.

But one downside is that bartending school can be somewhat removed from the reality of working in a real bar.

While you learn the techniques and recipes, the experience might not fully prepare you for the fast-paced, often unpredictable nature of actual bartending work.

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Bartending Apprenticeship

On the other hand, a bartending apprenticeship throws you into the real-world environment of a working bar.

As an apprentice, you learn on the job, which means you’re gaining practical, hands-on experience from day one.

You’ll observe and work alongside experienced bartenders, picking up the nuances of the job that simply can’t be taught in a classroom.

Apprenticeships are also excellent for networking and understanding the day-to-day operations of a bar.

They provide a more holistic view of the bartending profession, including aspects like inventory management, customer service, and working under pressure.

The challenge with apprenticeships is that they may not always offer the structured learning of a bartending school.

Your learning is dependent on the environment and the willingness of other staff to teach you.

You may find the bar manager or other bartenders aren’t particularly bothered about your education which can be disheartening.

Career Progression From Apprentice To Bartender

The journey from being an apprentice to becoming a skilled bartender is a transformative process that involves much more than just learning to mix drinks.

It’s a path of developing expertise, building confidence, and understanding the intricacies of behind a bar.

As an apprentice, you start at the very beginning, immersing yourself in the environment of a bar and getting to grips with the basics.

This phase is crucial as it sets the tone for your entire bartending career. You learn by doing, observing, and constantly practicing.

Progressing from this stage, you gradually take on more and more responsibilities.

This might mean starting to handle simpler drink orders, getting more involved in direct customer service, and beginning to bring your own style and personality into your bartending.

bartender speaking to three men customers
Photo by Pressmaster

As you gain confidence and your skills sharpen, you’ll find yourself becoming an integral part of the bar team.

The transition to a full bartender is marked by a BIG increase in responsibility and skill.

You’re no longer just following instructions; you’re now expected to manage a section of the bar, create drinks efficiently and creatively, and provide an exceptional experience to customers.

Your knowledge of mixology deepens, and you become confident in handling the pressures of a busy bar environment.

Reaching the level of a competent bartender is a milestone that you should celebrate.

It signifies that you’ve not only mastered the practical skills of making drinks but also developed the soft skills necessary for excellent customer service.


Wrapping Up

In wrapping up this beginner’s guide to becoming an apprentice bartender, keep in mind that your journey into the bartending world is as exciting as it is demanding.

Don’t expect it to be easy, as I can tell you from experience it’s a tough gig that requires a lot both mentally and physically.

The progression from an apprentice to a full-fledged bartender is a journey of personal and professional growth, filled with challenges and rewards.

Embrace each step with enthusiasm and you’ll find that bartending offers not just a job, but a rewarding and fulfilling career.

See you next time and good luck on your journey.

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