Bar Mysteries: Why Do Bartenders Scratch Empty Bottles?

why do bartenders scratch empty bottles
Joe | Last Updated: May 23, 2023
I'm Joe, a veteran bartender with over a decade in the industry and a burning passion for mixing drinks.

Have you ever wondered why bartenders scratch or hit empty liquor bottles behind the bar? While this may seem like a mysterious ritual, there’s actually a very good reason behind it.

You may be surprised to learn that it’s not just a quirky habit but a necessary step in the world of responsible bartending and compliance with alcohol regulations.

In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at a bar mystery that seems to have everyone talking and wondering what on earth is going on.

So the question is; Why do bartenders scratch empty bottles?

If you’ve ever been curious about why bartenders scratch empty bottles or sometimes even break them, continue reading as we dive in and solve this mystery.

Why Do Bartenders Scratch Empty Bottles?

The reason for those distinctive scratches or hits on the bottle is to indicate that it has been emptied and is no longer in use. By doing this, bartenders ensure that the bottle won’t be refilled with a cheaper or inferior liquor.

There are some strange people out there that actively look for empty bottles of liquor to refill them with a cheaper alternative to sell them on for profit.

In certain states like Texas, Virginia, and North Carolina, establishments are required to pay taxes on all liquor bottles intended for resale at the bar. That’s where the scratching comes into play.

why do bartenders scratch empty bottles

By hitting the tax stamp on the bottle, bartenders ensure that the bottle cannot be reused with a cheaper version of the liquor.

It’s a measure put in place to safeguard the customer’s interests and ensure the integrity of the products being served.

Nobody wants to order an expensive premium whiskey only to be served a cheap house alternative.

While these regulations may vary from state to state, it’s clear that the purpose behind scratching empty bottles is to prevent any tampering or substitution that could compromise the quality and safety of the drinks being served.

It’s a precautionary measure that ensures a better experience for customers, and in some cases, even protects against severe allergic reactions.

>> Read more: Why do bartenders wear armbands?

Undercover ALE Agents & Fines

Not only does scratching bottles help protect customers, but it also keeps the establishment and bartenders on the right side of the law.

Undercover Alcohol Law Enforcement (ALE) agents occasionally visit bars to monitor compliance with alcohol regulations and they pay close attention to how bartenders handle empty bottles.

Failure to immediately hit the stamp and discard the bottle can result in fines for both the bartender and the establishment.

The presence of ALE agents serves as a reminder to bartenders of the importance of promptly scratching or hitting the stamp. It’s a way to demonstrate that they are following the necessary protocols and maintaining transparency in their operations.

By complying with these regulations, bartenders not only avoid fines but also contribute to a safer and more accountable bar environment.

In one case, a bar in North Carolina was caught filling all of their Grey Goose and Absolut bottles with house vodka to increase profit and subsequently closed down.

why do bartenders scratch empty bottles
Photo by cottonbro studio

However, it’s important to note that this doesn’t happen in every bar or alcohol-serving establishment as it depends largely on the state.

I’ve personally never experienced this working in bars throughout the US, but I’ve heard stories of bars being shut down and bartenders being fired due to non-compliance.

>> Read more: Why do bartenders open cans?

Why Do Bartenders Break Empty Liquor Bottles?

Scratching the tax stamp usually works well, but breaking the bottle altogether works best. It’s a sure way to prevent any empty liquor bottles from being used for resale.

There’s a need to ensure the integrity and authenticity of the spirits being served and by breaking the empty bottles, bartenders eliminate the possibility of unscrupulous individuals refilling them with inferior or counterfeit alcohol.

Just like scratching the tax stamp, it’s a measure taken to protect customers and maintain the quality standards of the bar.

Is Refilling Liquor Bottles Illegal?

Yes, absolutely! Refilling liquor bottles is illegal and is heavily regulated in most jurisdictions.

The act of refilling liquor bottles with a different or inferior substance is commonly referred to as “adulteration” and is strictly prohibited by laws and regulations governing the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages.

The reasons behind such strict regulations are to ensure consumer safety, protect against fraud, and maintain the quality standards of the alcohol industry.

By prohibiting the refilling of liquor bottles, authorities aim to prevent the sale of counterfeit or substandard products that can pose health risks or deceive consumers.

If you want to watch an interesting Crimewatch episode on exactly this, check out the video below;

What Do Bars Do With Empty Bottles?

As you would expect, bars are left with COUNTLESS empty bottles at the end of each shift that must be disposed of somehow, and they use various methods for doing so.

The most common is recycling, which aligns with the industry’s growing emphasis on environmental sustainability.

Bars often participate in recycling programs, segregating empty bottles by material types—such as glass, plastic, and aluminum—and sending them to recycling facilities.

In certain regions, bottle return programs are prevalent. Customers may receive a refundable deposit when purchasing bottled beverages, incentivizing them to return the empty bottles to the bar or store.

These returned bottles are then collected by the establishment, which then either recycles them or returns them to the distributor for proper handling.

>> Read more: Why do bartenders shake drinks?

Wrapping Up

So, the reason why bartenders scratch empty bottles is to remove the tax stamp, preventing others from refilling the bottle with cheaper liquor or god knows what else.

There are some strange people out there that will do anything to make a quick buck and increase their profit margins, so removing the tax stamp ensures the liquor cannot be resold.

So, the next time you witness a bartender breaking an empty liquor bottle, remember that it’s not just for show. It’s a practical measure to prevent reuse and maintain the highest standards of quality and authenticity in the drinks served

If you are a bartender like most of our audience, no matter the state you’re in, it’s still a good practice to start doing this to help combat the fraud.

Hopefully, this post has been insightful and you’ve learned something new today. See you in the next one.