Want to be a sober bartender? I’m not gonna tell you how to live your life. And there are people who can do it. But in my experience, bartending in sobriety has been a bad idea.
I have worked as a server in several restaurants in New York City for the past five years (and I’ve been sober for seven). In many of them, the bartenders did less and made more than the servers. Plus, I’d heard legends of bartenders earning upwards of $500 per shift at the right places. As a broke artist with two years of sobriety, I decided to learn to bartend.
Why not? If I could quit drinking, I figured I could do anything. So I bought a book on mixology and made flash cards. I got colored pencils and filled in the liquors with different colors. I had my professional bartender-slash-actor boyfriend quiz me.
Then I proposed my grand idea to the bosses at the bar/restaurant where I was waiting tables. Knowing I don’t drink, they didn’t understand how I would taste my cocktails to check I’d made them properly. Hmm…I hadn’t thought of that. I could study all I wanted but the bottom line was, I wouldn’t have a clue how my cocktails tasted.
I had previously worked with a sober pastry chef who whipped up alcoholic milkshakes. Once, a guest returned one, saying that it tasted spoiled. To check, the sober chef tasted it herself. As I watched her, I knew I could never risk my sobriety for a disposable service industry job. I wasn’t willing to taste the drinks; that was where I drew the line.
So I abandoned my dreams of making $500 in one night. Instead, I got a bartending job at a place that only serves beer and wine. With no cocktails to taste, I thought I had it made! But I quickly realized that serving $14 fancy drinks might have been easier.
What did tempt me was watching a customer guzzle 10 beers with a big ol’ grin on his face. Watching people drink the way I used to drink made me jealous.
Back when I was drinking, I never spent a fortune on a tiny drink in a fancy glass. Cocktails didn’t tempt me. What did tempt me was watching a customer guzzle 10 beers with a big ol’ grin on his face. Watching people drink the way I used to drink made me jealous.
Once when I was changing a keg, beer squirted all over me and almost got in my mouth. Since then, I “Just Say No” anytime someone asks me to change a keg.
My job has other uncomfortable elements, too. I never over-serve people, but sometimes it’s clear that customers are drinking compulsively. They’ll come to the bar alone and it seems like they’re drinking to drown their feelings—an activity I’m very familiar with. I see them consciously trying to pace themselves and only ordering the cheapest drinks. I feel bad. If I didn’t need the money, I’d never serve them.
I also have a lot of customers who know I’m sober and talk to me about their drinking problems—while they’re drunk. One customer went a few months without drinking and he’s now back, making a mess of his life again. It’s hard to watch. And one time, a person I used to bring with me to support group meetings asked me for a drink. I said no. That was too much for me.
Sometimes, when I see people letting loose, or running off to the bathroom to do drugs, I still feel jealous. Stocking plenty of sugar and caffeine during my shifts seems to help me.
Money is money, and bartending is where I’m at right now. But for a person in recovery, it’s far from perfect.
Learn more about the drug and alcohol recovery process.
Jane Smith is a pseudonym to protect the writer’s anonymity
Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org, pixabay.com