Here's what it takes to be a bartender in New York City

What it's like to be a bartender in NYC
What it's like to be a bartender in NYC

There's more to bartending than pouring beers and shaking cocktails, especially in the city that never sleeps.

On a busy night, bartenders in New York City are juggling multiple drink orders from a continuous flow of customers. "If I have 12 drink [orders] at the bar, and I'm also making drinks for the restaurant, it could add up to maybe 18 drinks at once that I'm making," says Don Young, who's been serving New Yorkers for three-and-a-half years.

He started as a barback, which is essentially a bartender's assistant. "My first two months of bartending, I worked in a fine dining restaurant, which oftentimes requires a lot more steps of service," he recalls. "I learned very quickly, in a very harsh way, that there's a lot that goes into bartending."

Currently, Young works part-time at The Penrose, a popular gastropub on the Upper East Side. He typically works the 9 a.m. - 3 p.m. lunch shift on weekends, but picks up an occasional night shift during the week, which starts at 7 p.m. and can go as late as 4 a.m.

It helps that he's "a little nocturnal," he says.

The job can be exhausting but lucrative in a bustling city like New York. On a busy, weekend night, bartenders in Manhattan can earn between $500 and $600, including tips, the management team at The Penrose estimates.

The Penrose is a gastropub on the Upper East Side in Manhattan
The Penrose

I stopped by The Penrose to pick up a few insider tips from Young and see what it really takes to work behind a bustling Manhattan bar. Here's what I learned.

The best way to learn the profession is 'trial by fire'

"Anyone can be a bartender," says Young. "It doesn't require any particular skill set — you just have to progress and get more knowledge," which comes with time.

You can go to bartending school, but Young advises skipping a formal program. "The best way to learn how to bartend is trial by fire," he says. That's why he recommends starting as a barback: "That way, you get to trail a bartender, you get to see what's behind the bar and you actually get to handle what's behind the bar."

Even if you have zero experience, once you step behind the bar, "it's really intuitive," he says. "A lot of it is just common sense."

The author stirs a daiquiri
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Technique is important

While you can learn as you go along for the most part, you need to know the basics, like how to properly pour a beer. That requires holding the glass at a 75-degree angle, Young tells me.

Since we're at an Irish gastropub, it's particularly important to know how to pour a Guinness, a distinctively dark Irish stout with a creamy head. "It's very similar to pouring a regular beer, but there's an extra step," he says. It requires two pours: With the first, you fill up the glass three-quarters of the way. After letting the beer sit for about a minute, you do the second pour, which requires adding nitrogen to give the beverage it's foamy top.

Serving a Guinness "takes a lot of patience," says Young. It's also more time-intensive than other beers. "If someone orders this at the bar, oftentimes they know they'll have to wait maybe an extra minute or so."

Young also shows me how to make a daiquiri, a rum-based cocktail that is typically mixed in a shaker. "It's a very simple cocktail," he says, but easy to mess up. "Oftentimes, bartenders will use this as a gauge as to how well someone can make a cocktail."

The author pours a daiquiri
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Finally, he teaches me how to make a negroni, a popular Italian cocktail traditionally made with gin, vermouth and Campari. This drink is stirred, which takes finesse. To stir properly, "your arm shouldn't be moving around," Young tells me. "Most of the work is coming from your hand, your fingers."

I pick up some other pro tips along the way: When mixing cocktails, always start with the less expensive ingredients (typically, the simple syrup) in case you make a mistake and have to start over. And when making a drink in a shaker, the shaking time matters. You want to shake it enough so the drink gets cold, but not too much to the point where you dilute it. Anywhere from six to eight seconds of consistent shaking should get the job done.

It's a labor-intensive job

You need patience and endurance to get the job done, especially in New York City, where many bars are open until 4 a.m. And that's something a lot of people don't realize, says Young. "I think that it looks a little bit easier than it is. It's a fairly manual-intensive job."

You also need quick memory recall. You have to keep track of multiple orders coming in, plus you're constantly looking up to see who is next in line, which gets more difficult the busier the bar gets. "If I make eye contact with you, I see you," says Young. "I know you're there, and I'm putting you in place in line. I will get to you as quickly as I can."

Don Young has been bartending in NYC for three and a half years
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It helps to be a people person

As a bartender, you're constantly interacting with people. "My job is just to make drinks and talk to people," says Young.

Oftentimes, customers are going to remember how you treated them more so than the specific drink you made, so a lot of your success as a bartender boils down to how you interact with people, he says. "Everyone has a different style. I like to make people feel as comfortable as possible. I want you to come in and feel like you're in your own little nook."

While constantly chatting and interacting with strangers "does take a lot out of you," says Young, it's also the best part of the job. "My favorite part is looking down the bar and seeing such a variety of people. I think that's the magic of bartending."

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