Yes, you can absolutely become a bartender without a license, and most bartenders don’t have one. In fact, there isn’t really such a thing as a license to bartend, just like there’s no license to be a waiter. If you asked most bartenders if they have a license to tend bar, they’d look at you with confusion and maybe a tiny bit of scorn (experienced bartenders tend to be no-nonsense but good-hearted people).
I’ve worked in restaurants for a few years, and I’ve never overheard someone say “you’d be a great bartender, but you need to get a license before we give you a bartending shift.”
However, depending on your state of residence, you may have to get an ABC license to work as a bartender, server, or anyone who gives alcohol to a customer. Except for newbies who want to break into the industry and need something to prove that they’re ready to work hard and know what they’re doing, so-called bartending licenses are not necessary.
Thinking you need a bartending license can be, paradoxically, a sign of inexperience—it means you probably didn’t come up through the industry as most people do, and you’re looking for some way to prove yourself. If you Google “bartending license requirement,” you may find a website that peddles bartender training like this one that claims that “over half of US states require a bartending license.”
This is at best a half-truth. It’s true that some states require anyone who serves alcohol to have an ABC (alcoholic beverage control) license, but this would include anyone, including servers, not just bartenders.
These companies offer training that is not ABC licenses. ABC licenses are offered by some US states, covering both how alcohol affects the body and how to protect people from alcohol-related injuries or harm. They don’t cover things like how to make drinks or keep your work area tidy.
There’s no nationally recognized standard for bartending licenses or big, official-sounding organization that issues them. Really, there are companies that offer week-long training that teach you the basics of bartending, like how to pour alcohol (a lot harder than it sounds), how to keep your area clean and attractive, and how to take care of people that have had too much to drink.
These are good resume builders, but not essential. With all of this said, none of this means that getting some formal training to be a bartender is useless.
It can be a sensible thing to do when you’re starting out or to brush up on your bartending skills if you’ve been out of the industry for a while. In fact, depending on what state you’re in and what your restaurant requires, you may need to get an ABC license to be a bartender.
How Do You Become a Bartender?
Become a Barback
Most people start out with another role in the restaurant before they become a bartender, and the quickest way to become a bartender is to become a barback. A barback does the dirty work behind the bar. The bartender is out of lemons for garnishing and needs fifteen of them for the party that just walked in the door at 11:00 pm?
The barback has to get them and help cut them. A new truckload of beer kegs just arrived and needs to be unloaded? The barback has to help carry them.
We’re out of cocktail cherries upstairs? The barback has to find them, and quick. More than anyone else, the barback tends to end up covered in stains and grime by the end of the night, and they have to be prepared to work hard and fast.
It’s a tougher and certainly less social job than being a bartender, but it’s almost as lucrative—a lot of restaurants will set aside a significant portion of the total tips that the bartenders make to divide among the barbacks. It’s also the fast track to becoming a bartender. You’ll learn your restaurant’s drink menu, how to make basic cocktails, how to pour liquor properly, and how to properly fill a glass with beer.
Soon enough, with patience and fortitude, you’ll be the one behind the bar taking drink orders.
Get a Front-of-House Job
The second most common way for someone to become a bartender is for them to get another front-of-house job (i.e., one where you don’t cook) and wait until a bartending or barbacking position opens up.
This path is ideal if you have no restaurant experience whatsoever. It can be surprisingly nerve-wracking and brain-scrambling to start waiting tables with no experience whatsoever, and being a host, busser, or food runner can be a good place to start.
Maybe you’re naturally shy or cautious and prefer to get comfortable with your environment and the people around you before you open up. Spend a few months as a host to get some experience interacting with guests if that doesn’t make you lose faith in humanity (just kidding—the vast majority of guests are kind and reasonable, but you have to deal with the odd Karen). Of course, your mileage may vary—every restaurant has its particular needs and quirks.
For example, I was a host, then a busser, then a server at a restaurant that didn’t have bartenders—the servers made all the drinks, and I had to learn how to make cocktails on the fly. You might find a restaurant that’s desperate for a new bartender and is willing to train anyone with half a brain after a few shifts barbacking and waiting tables, or you might have to wait a year for the staff of a restaurant to rotate and a slot to open up for you.
The good news is that turnover in the restaurant industry is high, you can always check other restaurants in your area for more options, and most people are able to get the hang of it with time and become successful in the industry, whatever their skills and personality.
Get a Bartending License
While the senior bartending staff will still want to make sure that you’re a reasonably sociable, aware, and resilient person before they let you take control behind the bar, getting a bartending license can be a way to speed up your training process as a bartender.
Nothing beats real experience, and if you walk into a restaurant waving a bartending certification you just earned with no prior experience expecting to immediately get a job, expect some quizzical looks, laughter, and for someone to tell you to slow your roll. Again, none of this means that you shouldn’t go do a training course—there’s no chance it’ll make you a worse bartender, and it could even be the clincher that gets you hired over someone else.
The best that can be said for training is that they cover all of the aspects of bartending in a methodical way, and they leave nothing out. If you take one of these training courses, make sure it’s got a good reputation, and try to get a referral before spending any money on it.
There are training companies out there who try to confuse people by claiming that you need a bartending license when the only state-mandated document you could possibly need would be an ABC license, regardless of whether you’re a bartender or simply anyone who hands out alcohol.