Accept no substitutes…unless…
There are a lot of brands of liquor out in the big wide world – more than you can possibly stock in any given bar. I personally love Prince Igor vodka which is very inexpensive, and even comes in a plastic bottle, but the flavor suits me perfectly. I dislike Smirnoff because I perceive a peppery taste. We’re all different; we all have our preferences. It’s unlikely I’ll find my vodka anywhere but the liquor store, or my home.
As a bartender you’ll have to know a substitute. If a customer specifies clean, pure tasting vodka, with no spicy overtones, you offer Skyy or Three Olives or even Stolichnaya (aka “Stoli”) – it’s up to you to know the alternatives.
It gets worse. If a customer asks for C.C. & Coke, you have to know that C.C. is Canadian Club Rye Whisky. Having to ask a customer what their short-form means is embarrassing, and makes you look unprofessional. The learning-curve can be steep in the beginning, but once you have it down, you’ll be set for life.
It makes sense to know the shapes and colors of the bottles, labels, and caps. Bailey’s has a chunky, brown-glass bottom, with a long thin neck; Stoli has sloped shoulders down to a clear cylindrical bottle, with a gold cap, white paper collar, and red bands, top and bottom, over its mostly white label. All the Johnnie Walkers have a diagonal label. Maker’s Mark Bourbon has a huge, drippy wax seal that’s easy to spot. Galliano, aside from being in a tall, thin bottle, is bright yellow; Skyy vodka is in a Cobalt Blue bottle.
Go to a liquor store every day. Go to the Rum section and look only at Rum that day. Look at each bottle. Read its label, note its identifying characteristics. Look at every single brand of rum, but no other liquor. Now leave. Next day, look only at Vodkas, and repeat his everyday with something different. This is called grouping; you’re associating things in your brain into related categories. When you think of Bacardi you’ll think of Captain Morgan, White Sail, Lamb’s, Appleton Estate, and so on.
If you’re the lead bartender and get to set up the bar, put the rums in a cascade from the top; same for the vodkas, gins, whiskeys, and so on; most expensive on top, cheapest on the bottom. This will speed up locating what you want.
You can really help yourself by setting up the bar properly, or in a way to aid you such as putting the “Calls” (basic, nothing special, common) things up front where you can get to them easily, “Premium” on the next level up, “Super Premium” on the next level up, and the “Top Shelf” on the, you guessed it, top shelf. But it doesn’t end there…
Sort the uncommonly used remainders, like Galliano, Ports, and Sherries into higher, off-center racks, and things more common like Goldschläger schnapps, and flavored vodkas into lower, off-center racks. Making things easy-to-locate will make you faster and more efficient.
People appreciate it when you can mix a drink, hardly pausing to find a bottle, without even looking as you grab exactly the right one. This level of familiarity can be yours with appropriate training. There are lots of tips and techniques to develop your skills. And we’re the place that can get you there quickly.
Do it now while you’re thinking of it and don’t let this opportunity get away.