Hey, Bartender! Why’d You Throw Me Out of the Bar?

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Hey, Bartender! When should a bartender stop serving someone?

In the first installment of “Hey, Bartender” we talked about the best way to get served in a bar. This week let’s talk about what gets you not served.

Divining drunkenness is not easy. People have varying degrees of tolerance and respond to alcohol differently. Some people are a hot mess after three drinks; others can drink all night and not even show it. So while there’s no magical calculus bartenders use to determine when to cut someone off, there are certain indicators we do look for.

One surefire way to not get served is to be obviously drunk. Look, we all know why you’re here, but that doesn’t mean you should flaunt your drunkenness. A bartender’s job is to serve drinks and make sure everyone is having a good time. Intoxication is a byproduct most of us would rather not deal with.

Any good bartender knows how to read a room, and can identify potential trouble spots. When scanning to see if someone’s too drunk, I’ll watch for obvious red flags like stumbling, slurred speech, or spilled drinks. Anyone showing these signs is going to get a little extra scrutiny the next time they place an order. I may not cut you off, but you’re definitely on my radar.

Of course, the biggest tell is putting your head down on the bar. You’re essentially tapping out. If you can’t keep your head up, it’s time for you to go home.

Also, don’t ever tell me how drunk you are. It’s one of those things that’s best left unspoken. If you’re drunk, that means I’ve overserved you. Pouring you another one would be irresponsible. I’m not going to kick you out, but I will suggest you sit out the next couple rounds for your own good. (Some bartenders may be more lax on this, but the establishments I’ve worked in had clear policies on overserving, so I’m kind of a stickler.)

That may sound like an overly technical reason for getting denied, but understand that bartenders do have a very real legal (and moral) responsibility not to overserve. First of all, if you’re driving, we want to ensure you’re drinking responsibly. Nobody wants to put a drunken person behind the wheel of a car. That doesn’t mean I’m going to breathalyze you every time you order, but if I see you hitting it hard, I will ask how you’re getting home. I’ll even help you get a cab, or figure out what to do with your car if that’s a concern.

However, if you insist on driving, I’m going to pour you a water and politely suggest you pump the breaks. People don’t always respond well to this, but keep in mind that you’re throwing a fit because I won’t let you drink and drive so maybe shut the hell up.

Our ass is on the line, too. I’m not sure how it works in other states, but in Vermont if you get into your car and kill someone (or yourself), the bar where you had your last drink (and bartender who served you) is partially on the hook, and will likely face some significant fines as well as potential lawsuits. So when we ask if you’re driving, don’t bullshit us. We are just looking out for you and other people on the road.

If for whatever reason you do get denied service, do not sneak drinks. I will not only 86 you, but your accomplice and potentially your whole party will also be tossed. This is a violation of trust and a sign of disrespect. No good bartender capriciously denies service; there is a reason for doing so. Not honoring that decision essentially confirms his/her reasons for not serving you. The only course of action at this point is to ask you to leave.

So far we’ve only talked about intoxicated people, but it’s also possible for a sober person to get cut off. If someone is being rude, using exceptionally offensive/hurtful language, or otherwise behaving in a way that makes other guests uncomfortable, he/she is not getting another round. This is the nuclear option, but if someone’s being a jackass, I don’t want him/her in my bar.

Most bartenders are going to do their best to keep the drinks flowing and guests happy, but sometimes we have to make a tough call. And while it may not seem like a just decision to you at the time, understand we really are looking out for you.

In the time-honored tradition of bartenders telling jokes, I’m going to end these columns with a standup clip. Enjoy. (FYI: language is slightly NSFW.)

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer and part-time bartender living in Vermont. Have a bar- or cocktail-related or question, you’d like answered? Send it to him on Twitter @JimSabataso with the hashtag #heybartender.

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