How to Cut Someone Off

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For many years before this whole cocktail thing really took off, I worked in dive bars. Really crappy dive bars where people would visit – often nightly – for what appeared to be the sole purpose of getting very, very drunk. These bars were loud, they were obnoxious, and at times they could be very dangerous.

We could cut people off as an act of self-preservation. Sometimes it was because we didn’t want to fined by the state liquor control board. Sometimes it was because we didn’t want a particularly drunk patron scaring away other, big-spending customers. And sometimes it was because we were genuinely concerned for our safety.

Which could backfire. I remember one night in college when, after refusing to serve an especially drunk redneck, he announced, “I’m getting in my truck, going home, grabbing my shotgun, and coming back here to blow your head off.” I locked the door and called the cops, who greeted him outside the bar about a half hour later.

And there came a breaking point, when I didn’t want to do that anymore. So I made the conscious decision to try to get jobs in better bars, where people didn’t behave like that as much. Which might be why you’re reading this now, because I devoted myself to learning how to make good drinks and do something more than sling cheap beer and cut people off. Starting this website was part of that process.

I think the question most bartenders have when they’re first starting out is, “Why would I want to stop serving someone that’s putting money in everyone’s pocket?” The answer quickly reveals itself after just a short time spent behind the stick. As I’m sure everyone here knows, being drunk kinda sucks. You can lose your keys, leave your credit card somewhere, say something really stupid to a pretty girl, throw up, text-message your ex, miss work the next day, have a headache, end up with embarrassing photos posted all over Facebook, and – heaven forbid – drive your car into oncoming traffic and kill yourself and a family of four. Believe me on this one. I’ve done everything on that list except for the last part, which I intend on never doing.

But just because now I’m charging eight bucks for a drink doesn’t mean that I’ve found a magic clientele paradise where everyone orders expensive cocktails and nobody gets drunk. It does mean, however, that I’ve had to take a different attitude to service that doesn’t include drawing a line across my throat with my forefinger to indicate that a guest was no longer allowed access to the alcohol.

But as I was trying to illustrate with my earlier story, telling someone “No more” can lead to an uncomfortable situation. So that’s why I now try to approach the denial of alcohol from a hospitality-centric perspective: I’m the one who helped get you into this mess, and now I’m going to be the one who helps you get out of it – a bartender in every sense of the word.

So you have to inform your guest that you can’t serve them any more liquor. It’s a delicate situation, but the most crucial part of the rest of your time together. There are a few points that you need to convey:

  1. You’re not comfortable serving them any more alcohol. This is important because it places the weight of the decision on you. Why are you uncomfortable? Because you’re concerned about their safety. Because you want to make sure they get home safely. Because they’re your guest and you genuinely care about the direction the rest of their night takes.
  2. You want your guest to continue enjoying their time at your bar. Offer them a coffee, offer them water, and if you can swing it, some food from the kitchen on the house. It makes such a big difference and shows that you actually care about their time spent at your bar.
  3. You want them to come back. It’s embarrassing to get cut off at a bar, it makes you reconsider visiting again. I like to tell people that their first drink on their next visit will be on me. It’s a hospitable way of saying, “This isn’t a personal issue, and I look forward to spending more time with you in the future.”
  4. You need them to get home safely. Offer to pay for a taxi home. Help find a ride from a sober friend. I’ve even known bartenders who have personally driven people home while the other bartender covered the bar in their absence. This is the very definition of hospitality.

This is merely a primer and my hope is that all of you will chime in to the comments section and share your thoughts on how best to handle a delicate situation. Personally, I plan on not getting to the point of being cut off this Repeal Day, but if I do, I hope I’m in the competent hands of a caring bartender at the time.

39 Replies to “How to Cut Someone Off”

  • cait says:

    Forgot to mention one other easy solution if you’re having trouble kicking someone out. If you’re lucky enough to have a bouncer, alert them that someone has had too much. That way, next time that person goes out for a cigarette, when they get ready to come back in, your bouncer can say, discreetly “Cait, I can call you a cab but I can’t let you back in tonight.” When you’re busy and really need to avoid a public scene, this method can be a godsend. And as some of our regulars like to say “I’ve never been kicked out, I’ve just been not let back in!”

  • Eva says:

    Jeffrey, this post just sealed the deal… you’re a stud.

  • Marick says:

    But what do you do when the guy who makes the drinks passes out on the couch?

  • Sam says:

    Marick wrote: “But what do you do when the guy who makes the drinks passes out on the couch?”

    He paid for those drinks himself? You tell him to be prepared to come to work ready for duty.

    Didn’t pay for the drinks? Fired.

    Jeffery, thank you a thousand times over. I’ve learned a great lesson here.

    Cheryl, I’m ripping you off. Sorry sister, that idea is just too good not to reuse.

  • Joerg Meyer says:

    Great Post Jeffrey. Great Great Great.

    It is interesting to read the “american” point of view. In germany Hamburg public Transport just started this month to not allow DRINKING alcohol in any kind of Public transport any more. It is the first in germany. Can you americans imagen that it is still allowed to enter a tube totally drunkw ith your bottle of vodka in your hand (NOT on a brown bag) and drink more and more in Transport?

    This new Hamburg Law start a dissucssion about “public drinking” and some bartender start to call it prohibition. I think we need a serious decision about public drinking because in some areas it should be banned. We, as bartenders, should make sure that great customers who had a few drinks to much should be save in a cab instead of drunk in the tube.

    In germany it is also still a big issue about the age of drinking. With 16 you are allowed to drink beer and wine, with 18 all kinds of spirits. And still, it is not usual at all to ID check people in any kind of bar or pub.

    New studie is out – 10% of germanies children around the age of 10 drink regular alcohol —wohooo!

    I love to sell alcohol – but some borders should not be crossed.

    Again, great article, great comments!

  • Garrett Nothern says:

    MAJOR respect on this post. Particularly what sums it all up for me: “a bartender in every sense of the word”.

    I’m not a professional bartender, but the one thing that keeps making the idea of it, for whatever reason,a nagging option in the back of my kind-of-youngish-but-not-getting-any-younger mind is the respect for the cultural institution.

    If we were to mine the majority of “bartenders”, we have the guys sliding watery whiskey-cokes, beers, and piss across the bar on one end, and the aspiring all-chick-having cool-guy mixologist on the other end. Not that there’s anything wrong with notoriety – or a plethora of options for who’s staying up waiting for you after the night is through for that matter.

    The sweet spot is that bartender who realizes the significance of their role and respects it, that’s what intrigues me anyway. The priest of libation, the medicine man, doctor, and overseer of the good times in that place on the corner or that industry-leaning speakeasy in the attic. Like many other trades, it is one with a deep tradition, and to fully embrace all that comes with it, the RESPONSIBILITY (as unsexy as the word may sound at first jump) of it, makes it a truly interesting profession to me.


  • KristinKingAuthor says:

    The scene I’m working on for my book leaves me asking this question which I hope you’ll be able to answer for me. Your patron is drinking whiskey after whiskey with no apparent effect whatsoever. Seriously–notta. At what point would you cut him off over a 5-6 hour period?

  • Bartender says:

    People like that usually cut themselves off. I’ve had regulars who are so use to drinking they have had 15-20 beers and they barely look drunk. But, this is after knowing them and their stamina and how far they live. A New person I’d say 5 mixed drinks or 6 shots depending on how they look after the first 3. You can usually tell in their faces when they’re super drunk.

  • bartender says:

    I work at a local bar. I have found a way to make most of those tips work. But I do have one question. Sometimes we get 1 or 2 patrons in who like to get a little carried away but don’t realize they are doing so. They will take 3 or 4 shots in less than 15 minutes. My boss has told me that in cases like that, it is okay for me to give them their shot but then politely (and quietly) explain that while we are glad they are having a good time, we will serve this shot but ask if they would be willing to wait 30 minutes till the next shot, in the meantime we can offer a beer or soda or water until their 30 minutes is up. It’s not exactly cutting them off completely, but slowing them down… We can’t always ignore or “forget”, but they are not always loud and obnoxious at this point, but the worry is in how much is taken in at such a short time interval… Is this something you could see your team doing? How can we tweak that to make it more effective? (it has worked in the past, but every once in a while the patron gets a bit obnoxious and rude when we ask if they could wait…Granted I take that to mean they obviously have reached that drunken point it is wiser to possibly cut them off, but we try to be respectful about it)… I was just curious if that is not something to be considered to be done in situations like that…

    Thank you for your advice and input. It is really helpful

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