Bartender Basics: How to Get Free Drinks in a Bar

Animation of money being turned down for a drink
Illustration by Eric DeFreitas

The most asked question in Bartender Basics is one we’ve gone out of our way to avoid: How do you get free drinks in a bar?

The short answer is, you don’t. Don’t misunderstand, free drinks—referred to as “buy backs” in industry parlance—are as common in bars as wobbly stools, bathroom graffiti or people who drunkenly rap along to the first 6 bars of Biggie’s “Juicy” before losing all rhythm. But the catch-22 is that, by trying to get the bartender to give you free drinks, you’re almost always disqualifying yourself.

That said, in the interest of looking behind the curtain (or under the lowboy) of bar culture, let’s explore at why some people are more likely to get special treatment at bars while others won’t.

Rule #1 For Getting Free Drinks: Never expect a free drink.

This rule can’t be overstated. It even supersedes more commonly assumed bartender-endearment techniques like being a good tipper. Free drinks, along with the ability to 86 customers, are the two main tools a bartender has to exercise control over their domain. If you ask for or even imply that you feel you deserve a free drink, you’re unwittingly attempting to usurp the bartender’s agency. This intrusion on their discretion will cause most bartenders to reject any freebies outright, on principle.

Every other tip or technique to procure buybacks is predicated on you never, ever explicitly asking for one. The second you talk about it, the magic is broken, and you pay full price.

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Rule #2: Be cool.

An addendum to Rule #1, this goes beyond asking for free drinks, and governs all bar behavior. Be cool and don’t harangue the bartender for free drinks. Don’t act like an entitled jerk to staff or other patrons. Be a good guest by recognizing that you’re in the bartender’s second home, and “the customer is always right” is a throwback phrase that doesn’t really apply in the modern world. Sometimes the customer is wrong and sometimes the bar is wrong, too. Be understanding and don’t try to bully your way into free drinks.

“Don’t ask for ‘a little extra,’” says Devin Ayers, general manager of Catfish in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. “Don’t ask ‘What’s your strongest drink?’ I mean, how old are you? If you’re just trying to get drunk, you can pay for it.”

Also, be a good customer and a good neighbor. Respectfully engage with your bartender and other patrons. Happily take a backseat if it seems like those around you would prefer not to talk. Free drinks are secondary to the other benefits you’ll gain from being kind.

“I’m a sucker for buying a drink for the lone person at the bar,” says Greg Floyd, bartender at The Holler in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. “If you’re polite and there with a book and just doing your thing, I’ll get you.”

Rule #3: Tip well.

While tipping well is a fairly straightforward way to become a preferred customer, tips alone won’t grant you free drink status. The world is full of terrible people with money to throw around, but that doesn’t mean it’ll gain them entry into the hallowed grounds of, say, a bar lock-in. Tipping well can be part of being a good customer, but only in conjunction with the first two rules regarding not being an asshole.

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That said, if you’re trying to make a new bar your local and plan to return repeatedly, throw down a $20. A $20 bill is an industry handshake, one that says, “I appreciate you and will be back again.” You don’t need to overtip to draw attention (see Rule #2), just lay down a simple $20 and be comfortable in the fact that if you are well-behaved, it’ll karmically come back to you in the form of free drinks, friendship, or just satisfaction of being a good person.

Rule #4: Understand how your order affects the bar.

“If you keep ordering the same thing, and it’s easy to remember, you’re more likely to get one on the house,” says Floyd. That’s not to say you need to order one thing all night, every night. It’s just helpful to understand how your orders impact the bartender’s workflow.

How you order matters, too.

“Know what you want,” says Floyd. “Don’t come to the bar each time asking, ‘What do you make good?’”

There are also financial motivations for buybacks, or lack thereof.

“When someone’s ordering Ketel martinis nonstop, it’s harder to buy [back] a drink because it hurts the bar,” says Victoria Netram, a bar professional in Carroll Gardens. “Well drinks, shots…you’re more likely to get a free drink if it’s not hurting the business.”

Rule #5: Every-third-drink is a guideline, not gospel.

This “rule” is an old bartender shorthand that unfortunately was taken as standard operating procedure by many entitled customers. It goes that every third (or fourth) round is bought-back by the bar.

To be clear, this is still common, and many bartenders hew to considering buy-backs after two or three rounds. But the key word is “consider.” The free drink is still a kindness, and not mandatory. You’re owed nothing. Other factors come into play, like whether it’s a slow weekday with a handful of people at the bar, or a hectic Saturday night. Citing this loose policy to your bartender violates Rule #1 (never expect a free drink) and can immediately disqualify you for a round on the house.

Worth noting, the every-third standard only applies to rounds and not drinks. This means if you’re ordering a round of 12 shots for friends, please don’t argue that you should only pay for 8 of them. Ever. It happens more often than you’d think.

Tipping on free drinks

If you’re given a free drink, tip appropriately. The minimum should be tipping as though you paid for the drink. Better yet, add to your tip what half the drink would have cost­—if a bartender gives you a free drink that would’ve been a $10, tip them an extra $5. You’re still saving 50% while fulfilling an unspoken compact among bartenders and regular customers that says, “If I give you free booze, you help me make rent.”

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The buy backs you don’t realize you’re getting

Even if it’s not a free shot or cocktail, there are other ways the bartender may be hooking you up without your knowledge (or, conversely, holding you and your tab financially accountable for poor behavior).

At many bars, there’s an array of buttons in the computer systems used to increase the price of drinks. These can be the Up button, or any modifier like “margarita” or “martini” that are added to your base spirit to inflate the price by a few dollars. The purpose is to accurately reflect the increased cost of making a cocktail, and give a good estimation of inventory for ingredients that aren’t normally rung in. For instance, a “gimlet” button may increase the baseline price of a gin by $1 to account for the limes and simple syrup used in the drink. A martini button may increase the price by $2–3 to account for the cost of vermouth and give the bar manager a loose idea at inventory time of how much vermouth is being used, as the ingredient is rarely rung into a bar’s computer system on its own.

A bartender that likes you will often not charge you for any of these “extras,” but just ring in the base spirit. So, your Grey Goose martini will just be a charge for the two-ounce pour of vodka while the trimmings are on the house. The bartender may let you know about the hook-up, though many won’t, in the interest of playing it cool (see Rule #2). That said, it’s worth noting on your final check if these discounts were included, and if so, leave a generous tip in appreciation.

Note that if you’re a problematic customer, you’ll likely see a line charge for every ingredient in your drink, down to the water used to make the ice. If you see these extra charges on your check, take it as an opportunity for personal reflection and growth, by revisiting what kind of patron you were, and how to improve upon it in the future.

Reasons you won’t get a free drink

In the interest of debunking misconceptions, let’s run down a very short list of examples of things that don’t immediately qualify you for free drinks.

  • It’s your birthday.
  • It’s your friend’s birthday.
  • You know birthdays exist and are aware that statistically it’s someone’s birthday, somewhere.
  • You know the owner. (So does the bartender.)
  • You’re famous.
  • You believe yourself to be famous.
  • Flirting.
  • Another bartender usually gives you free drinks.
  • You spilled a drink you’ve already paid for.
  • You decided you don’t like a drink you’ve ordered.
  • After being served your drink, you ask/comment, “So this one’s on you, right?” (See Rule #1.)
  • After ordering a double, asking why you were charged for two drinks instead of just one.
  • You let the bartender know you plan to tip well, but the tip is contingent on getting free drinks. (Spoiler alert: You probably won’t, and a tip is not blackmail.)
Published on December 17, 2021
Topics: Bartender Basics