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.

40 Replies to “How to Cut Someone Off”

  • Kevin L says:

    I hope to find more bartenders with your mentality. Great advice!

  • Heath says:

    Great post–I always enjoy the writing on the actual work of managing the scene from the other side of the bar.

    I’ve never been told “I think you’ve had too much to drink; I can’t serve you any more,” but I have been “actively managed.” By that, I mean that when I probably have had too much, bartenders often take far longer to come back to ask for my next drink than they usually do, or they forget the drinks I’ve ordered, or introduce me to someone who’s about to go have a cigarette.

    I appreciate these measures that let me save face (and sometimes not even notice that it’s happening), while having the same effect of keeping me from having far too much more to drink.

  • Darcy says:

    Good post. Early in my bar career I worked at a government run casino where could only serve a person 3 drinks per hour, 8 in a gaming day. People protested all the time. The solution was to say:

    “Look, if I ran this place I’d be more than happy to get you drunk as hell, sit you down at a slot machine and take all your money. Sadly, the damn government says I can’t do that so consider yourself lucky.”

    Deflecting blame to a third party worked like a charm. They laughed, came back the next week and still tipped well.

  • Great entry, Jeffrey. I watched one of your team do this very thing to a kid who’d had too many Red Stripes, and I was amazed at how intelligently he handled it. Sorry, de-escalate, let me help: no muss, no fuss, no shotguns.

  • dietsch says:

    That might explain why my last four g-n-t’s in that one place tasted like water.

  • jenny Adams says:

    You forgot No. 5 – Toss them over your shoulder, yell “caveman” and walk them out of the bar while apologizing that you made the girl drink like a man. Ahem….

  • Lauren Clark says:

    Nicely done. When I tended bar in college, shutting drunk guys off was never a problem. I guess they were at least with it enough to know that threatening a cute, young girl was not a good idea (what with the burly regulars who used to sit at my bar). Shutting off an older woman, however, was another story.

  • Dominik MJ says:

    Very valid post Jeffrey.

    I think another important point is, to actively observe the guests and “cut someone off” early enough.
    If the guest is already drunk, he/she will be difficult to direct – though if it is early enough, you can slow down the drinking, you can offer complimentary water [which can help a lot] etc.
    If it is time, I will always offer a coffee or soft drink on the house, to de-escalate the situation.

    Great advise was indeed to invite a guest for a drink his next visit!

  • Greg B. Carlstrom says:

    First off, great article. Thanks much for posting! A couple things I like to keep in mind.

    – Try not to make a public scene and by all means keep the cut off quiet, not announcing to the bar.

    – Make sure all of the staff/management is aware of the cut off in case it escalates and obviously so no one else serves the patron.

    – We must remember that the only thing that sobers an individual is time.

    Thanks for writing the article, Jeff!

  • Thanks, everyone. And thanks to the bartenders for putting in their two cents.

    To reiterate what Greg said, the only thing that contributes to sobriety is time. The coffee, the water, the food, these are all ways of keeping the guest under your care while they sober up over time. One hour per drink consumed is the general rule of thumb.

  • dshenaut says:

    I like to take away their drink AFTER they fall asleep on the bar. This way you don’t actually have to talk to them.

  • Chris says:

    Great topic considering Thursday is the Oregon Civil War is tomorrow, with the Rosebowl on the line no less! It’s gonna get hairy down here in Corvallis…

  • Jim McAllister says:

    It may be nice to give someone a ride home I think one would have to be very careful when doing this.
    Make sure to create allies with the friends of the designated cut off as they may undermine your efforts.
    Through observation one can take a more proactive agenda to cutting some one off, slow service, weak drinks, glasses of water, I have even used some fruit juices mixed together and asked the person to try this and let me know if you like it as it is a new concoction I am trying.
    It is always important to let the guest know that you want them to come back for a long time to come.

  • The bulk of my 28 years of tending bar was in tourists spots/bars because I’m addicted to them (tourists have money, they are happy, and the faces changes often).
    Cutting tourists off isn’t so much of an issue to deal with because for the most part they walking back to their hotel room after…

    …but I have worked some local bars throughout those years and cutting someone off in this case takes a little more finesse. Some places had certain procedures. One that comes to mind is that the manager would take over, go to the guest, and tell them they have a phone call. This leads them away from the bar where the manager tells them, “we really appreciate your business and want you to have a great time, but for the next couple of hours we can only serve you alcohol free drinks of which are complimentary blah blah blah”…I’d say
    99% took it well.

    When I didn’t have a manager that had my back then I had to come up with something creative. It’s my bartender nature to always bring humor into as much of life as possible, so I went out and bought an Operation game. I used the game for guests I felt should be cut-off.

    I’d pull it out with a big smile and tell the drunken soul that I would strike a deal with them. The rules were simple. Get all the bones out without the red buzzer nose going off and I’d serve them another drink. The game on the bartop was a magnet of fun and as you might have guessed, a big hit. The people that loved it the best were the local cops. They called it my sobriety test. I wrote about using the Operation game in my 5th book, Miss Charming’s Guide for Hip Bartenders and Wayout Wannabes.

    Cheers!
    Cheryl Charming aka Miss Charming™

  • keith says:

    well said..ive even cut myself off and had bartenders push a shot infront of me when ive told them im done..seriously ….maybe im too handsome

  • Seth says:

    Way to be a responsible vendor. The OLCC is smiling upon you.

  • Reading this post made me wish — not for the first time — that I lived in Oregon so I could go to your bar. Your attitude toward hospitality is the absolute epitome of class.

  • Cielo Gold says:

    Great topic. I covered it myself on my Examiner page a few months back.

    One thing bartenders should always remember when cutting off a customer is to communicate to their fellow bartenders. It doesn’t do any good to cut off a customer, only to have them order from another bartender.

    Also, keep the whole transaction as non-confrontational as possible. Drunk people aren’t rational. If you can, have the friends of the drunk person help you. Drunk people aren’t likely to listen to anyone, but they will listen to their friends more so than they would a bartender whom they don’t know.

  • Mike S. says:

    This might be the best thing I’ve ever read on a cocktail blog.

  • Tokyo Tea says:

    Tiny Tavern Baby! I believe every seasoned bartender has needed a little dive bar experience to build a few extra bones to his/her spine. If we were all smart then we would have had patrons agree to a verbal legal disclaimer and make the greatest reality show ever. Nothing more entertaining than dive bars! Great pic by the way.

  • Joe Parrilli says:

    Hope you had a good repeal day . . . and no one had to cut you off. Cheers!

  • Adam says:

    Too bad more bartenders don’t have your attitude. On occasion I’ve faced a situation in which I was trying to settle down (and hydrate) with a bottle of water, and have been ridiculed by the bartender for not ordering another drink. Few and far between, and not at quality establishments, but it does happen… Perhaps after a reckless endangerment charge or two that attitude will change.

  • Bruce David says:

    This is one of your best posts Jeffrey. A really important issue for bartenders everywhere, even if you’re working at Clyde Common instead of the Tiny Tavern (I will never step foot inside that place). I really like the idea to offer them a free drink on their next visit because many people find it hard to not take it personally. I’m at Davis St. these days. I’ll try to get into Clyde for another drink soon. Cheers!

  • former B-tender says:

    I have been known to give them no booze and charge for a soft drink. They want a vodka/tonic – I give them tonic. 99% of the people don’t notice. You charge them for the tonic – no one gets hurt. A little dishonest, but a rational conversation can be difficult if the patron is at cut off point.

  • stephanie says:

    move to the northeast, namely Lower Fairfield County CT or NYC. You would be most appreciated here and rednecks are few and far between.

  • Isn’t it sad that even in the finest establishment that you still must have this interaction. I’m actually sometimes thankful that I have to kick people out of the bar, I find it a great release – like one of those spiritual retreats where people scream at the top of their lungs for hours. I pity the fool that catches me on one of those nights where everything I’ve touched has gone to shit and I’ve maintained a glowing smiling radiant facade for hours and hours and hours. Because the frustration is there, I just would never let it show. But given the chance, like some douche knocking stuff over or trying to fight with his friend I have no qualms about taking every ounce of that frustration and using it to haul him out of the bar. I weigh 120 pounds and I have hauled (all men – I’ve never had to physically remove a woman from a bar) men more than three times my size out onto the sidewalk. I don’t know who is more surprise, them – because they can’t believe that they are now outside or me – because of how much better I feel 🙂

  • Chris says:

    Excellent post. I especially like number three.

    Like you I spent time in dive bars that “no more” could cause a brawl, as well as high end hotels which is where I am now.

    The high end customers, especially in a hotel bar, can be more difficult than the blue collar bar goers in that the Richie Rich will pull the “do you know how much I am paying for a room here?” and felle they deserve another drink. A hospitable apprach is ALWAYS necessary.

    Cheers to you!
    Chris

  • Liza says:

    Love it!

    Working in a college area dive bar — I have had to deal with this on several occasions and with having a very heavy pour, very irresponsible bar right down the street — we get kids in all the time we don’t know have three quadruple cocktails in their bellies within an hour and when we serve them one cocktail and then KA-BLAM-O!!! They are hammered — it can be hard trying to cut them off after “I have only had one!!!!” (Uh, yea, here…) and thus, your suggestions work beautifully for this situation.

    … I like to play the good guy. I don’t think people realize that not only is it embarrassing for them but it is just as hard for us to step up to the plate and tell them “no more”.

  • Albert says:

    Good subject, Jeff.
    In my experience, cutting someone off has always been a fluid moment. All of the above perspectives are good examples of what one may do. While one approach may work for one guest, it might not for another. Gauging what kind of drunk you’re dealing with, and what environment you find yourself in, informs which tack to take.
    Generally, though, I’ve found there are three VERY important parts to cutting someone off:
    1. Communicate clearly. Give them the reason why they’re being cut off – “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to serve you another because you are visibly intoxicated.” Whether it’s because of them breaking glasses/acting obnoxiously loud/slurring their speech/falling asleep on the bar – that one phrase addresses the heart of the matter. Telling them “they’ve had enough” opens the door of debate, and hedging and hawing draws out the situation, often insulting their intelligence or making them irritable.
    2. Leave them as much dignity as they are able. If by themself, let them know quietly and discreetly. If part of a group inform their “host” discreetly as well. If part of a group you need to cut off entirely, be firm and vocal so as to discourage any misunderstanding.
    3. Remain calm. The worst cut-offs I’ve seen are the ones where the bartender emotionally rises to the drunk’s objections. They may throw insults and act indignant, but remember – they’re done. By remaining as professional as possible, you reinforce that your decision is based out of objectivity.
    In the end, I’ve found that someone intoxicated is more likely to respect you for your honesty and firmness, than by softening the blow to their ego.

  • cait says:

    As a fairly cute blond who started bartending at 17 (I know, illegal to be behind the bar and extremely illegal to be drinking there…) over the past 7 years I’ve learned quite a bit about throwing people out and avoiding dangerous situations. First of all, everyone who really drinks has probably been cut off or kicked out of a bar a time or two. (At the bar I work at these days we say you aren’t really part of the crew till you’ve been kicked out of your own bar!) So make sure to remind people of the fact if it applies, “Hey, I work here and I got kicked out last Saturday.” Turning being cut off into a status symbol of sorts can ease the tension a lot.

    I think Jeff’s responses are awesome. In my early days of being the sole authority at a restaurant/bar out in the middle of nowhere filled with men twice my size, I definitely had to learn finesse. I’ve gone in the kitchen and made sandwiches and coffee for drunks a million times, but when people get insistent-even after I’ve told them to wait till close and I’ll drive them home- there’s not always much you can do… but since in New York a bartender can be held legally responsible for drunken accidents, I used to explain this fact and say “Listen, I don’t want to do it, and I’ll drive you home, but if you walk out that door and get in your car, I’m calling the cops”

    In 99% of my experiences this works, but when it doesn’t, do not be afraid to make the tough decision and call the authorities. I’m full of options, I’ll always call a cab or let you use my phone to call a ride, but when nothing works, as the bartender, you are the last barrier between this person and a potentially life threatening situation.

    To reiterate: if the person isn’t alone, their friends are key allies in the cutting off process. And as everyone else says, communication is KEY!! Beyond just telling the other bartenders working with you at the time (if there are any)

    One really good idea: at one bar I worked in we had a notebook we kept by the register (it also had a calendar in it). In it we would jot down any unusual situations or events and even fun stuff like the regular’s birthdays and anniversaries. That way if Charlie just split up with his wife and has been getting shitfaced every night for a week, you can be prepared for him to cry and need a cab. The same applies if certain patrons have been fighting or if someone left without paying his tab one night. You can also use this to mention things like running out of jager or if some regular has switched from mich lite to mich ultras and you need to start stocking more of them.

    I could go on forever, but our St. Patrick’s Day parade is today! Cheers from Binghamton!

  • 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.

    Cheers.

  • 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

  • Lance says:

    We run a Designated Driver Service, What amazes me is that, in our area, a lot of the bartenders are at least as drunk as their patrons and many of the bar owners don’t seem to have a problem with this. We’ve tried to talk to them about cutting off the obviously intoxicated but still run into situations when we pick up customers and they are falling down drunk or confrontational. I have also been a professional bartender and it really bothers me that these people are allowed to over serve patrons with approval of or even instruction from management to do so. Even after supposedly being TIPS certified. I’ve seen patrons fall and get injured, bars cleared out because of confrontations between staff and customers, and even our own drivers put in jeopardy by customers who were over served before we were called. We do what we can to help get people home safe, but it is ultimately up to the bar staff to know when their customers have had enough and cut them off. Great article BTW.

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