Bartending License: 4 Reasons Why You Might Need One

by Rob Doherty

Outside the bar industry there is often a lot of misconception as to what a bartending license is and whether or not such a license is required in order to enter the much heralded realm of the booze jockey. Some people think that a bartending license is earned through bartending school, and that attendance at such a school is necessary. Others think of it as a sort of notch on the belt to separate the serious bartenders from the amateurs. In reality, it is a much more complicated issue.

What is a bartending license?

A bartending license is simply a state or municipal certification that proves that a person has participated in a sanctioned course that teaches the regional laws pertaining to booze. Possession of such a license is required in only half of the US states, while all states enforce a minimum age for alcohol servers that varies from state to state. And in some places only an establishment’s management is required to hold a license.

Another variation between different states and municipalities involves whether or not there is an option to acquire a license before or after a bartender starts working. In some states you are required to obtain certification before starting a job. In other cases a bartender can work for a 45, 60, 90, 120, or even 180 day grace period before becoming certified.

Finally, a bartending license almost always holds an expiration date ranging from one to five years. This is to ensure that alcohol servers are kept up to date on changes to the law.

Why get a bartending license?

The first and most obvious reason is that it might be mandatory wherever you happen to live. While it is possible to find bar managers who are willing to look the other way on this issue, if an inspector happens to come through—as is known to happen from time to time—and finds that you aren’t certified both you and the bar are facing potential fines.

Besides, if a bar manager is willing to cut such an easily navigated corner, you should seriously consider whether or not you want to work at such an establishment. I’ve worked at a lot of bars that offer varying levels of adherence to the rules (let’s be honest and admit that one of the reasons bartending is so attractive in the first place is the general lack of rules and oversight), but the management that completely lets things go to the dogs ends up bouncing paychecks, firing people without cause, and generally acting crazy and making work more difficult and stressful than it needs to be.

The more you know

Another reason a bartending license is useful comes from the fact that as a new bartender, sitting for a couple of hours and getting some tips from a professional can come in handy once you’re actually on the job. Almost all certification courses are led by an experienced bartender, and beyond the basic laws and regulations they tend to inject each class with an abundance of tricks from the trade.

They’ll tell you how to spot a fake ID, how to tell if a customer drank too much, the best way to cut someone off once they’ve had a few too many, and how to keep them from driving. These are the kinds of lessons that can keep a night on the job from getting hostile or annoying, that can prevent people from getting killed, and will keep you from ending up in trouble with the law. If you serve someone who is underage and the authorities find out or they get in an accident, you will be held legally responsible. In most places even if a person is old enough to drink legally, if they get behind the wheel intoxicated and something goes wrong, the bartender who over served them can face serious consequences.

While these classes can get to be a bit of a bore once you have to go back in for recertification or when you change states, that first class will provide a wealth of useful information.

Start things off on the right foot

The third reason it is good to get a bartending license is because it will help you land a job in the first place, even if you live in a state with a grace period. As you peruse the various job ads, you’ll notice that a lot of bar managers include the requirement that you possess certification before you even apply. This is because they don’t want to have to deal with chasing you down and getting you to get certified 30 or 60 or however many days in. Once a new job is rolling along, it can be easy for the whole thing to go forgotten, and then once that inspector comes through everyone is in trouble.

Even if a bar manager doesn’t require that you get certification before starting work, the simple act of going through the hoops to get one in advance shows that you are dedicated to landing and keeping a job. This can be especially helpful if you’re lacking in experience. A lot of time a manager will take a chance on someone who is new to bartending if they seem to want it more than anyone else, and obtaining your bartending license in advance is a simple way of indicating your enthusiasm.

Keeping the job

Finally, getting your licensing in advance can ensure that you get to keep your job once the grace period ends. If 30 or however many days roll around and suddenly your manager realizes that he’s got an uncertified bar-keep, you might end up on the shelf until you find yourself a course, or worse yet—fired.

And even if you have remembered that the end of your grace period is approaching, it’s not always easy to get into a certification course. In some places they only happen once a month, and sometimes they have a limited number of spots and fill up fast. The easiest way to find information about your local bartending course schedule is by doing a simple internet search.

What it all comes down to is that getting your bartending license in advance presents a number of benefits—you’ll know more, get a job faster, and keep it.

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