Behind the Bar

When – and How – To Cut Someone Off

A person handing their keys over to the bartender.
Cutting a customer off is a delicate matter, but ultimately, it's for the greater good. (Photo: Neustockimages/iStock)

Bartenders deserve far more credit than what they are sometimes given. They’re innovative mixologists, surrogate therapists, a best friend to strangers and regulars alike — and they’ve seen and dealt with their fair share of less than desirable patrons. Add to that the fact that sometimes bartenders are required to make the moral call of pouring another drink (and bringing in another tip) or cutting someone off when the time has come.

The latter is perhaps one of the trickiest scenarios for a bartender, as it requires an approach that’s equal parts authoritarian and sensitive. We spoke to a couple bartenders who’ve been there and done that to help you recognize the signs that someone’s past their limit, and how to say “That’s enough, pal,” with as little drama as possible.

The when

“As bartenders, we are in positions of great importance when it comes to cutting off an overly inebriated guest,” says Rob McShea, owner and lead bartender of Miss B’s Coconut Club and The Duck Dive. “In terms of legality and public safety, the consequences of not cutting off that guest when they have had too much to drink are terrible, even deadly.”

Regarding running a business, McShea says that it’s also important to spot overly intoxicated guests because they affect the rest of your patrons’ experience. Really, nobody wants to spend their night in the bar with the “drunk guy.”

“I tell my bartenders to look for four major physical components when determining if someone has had too much to drink: bloodshot and glazed eyes, slurred speech, decreased motor control and negative or aggressive interactions with other guests.”

When in doubt, it’s the combination of someone displaying all of the above that should throw up a red flag.

Sabrina Mitchell, bar manager at Del Sur Mexican Cantina, says that some other signs to look for is someone who’s overly loud, going through drinks more quickly, swearing or angry or someone who’s gotten too flirty.

The how

Ultimately, cutting someone off is at the bartender’s discretion. In general, though, protocol says that if you spot someone who’s over their limit, you should stop serving that person alcohol, hand over a glass of water, close the tab and call a cab. It’s not always that cut-and-dry when someone’s so wet, though.

“Personally, I have found that the respectful, direct approach works terrific for me,” says McShea. “Essentially, it is as simple as leaning to take their order, but instead letting them know that I think that they have had too much to drink and I don't feel comfortable giving them another.”

You need to deliver the decision softly and with resolve to show you’re serious, but to also avoid embarrassing or agitating your guest. One of the best ways to further soften the blow is to offer an invitation to come back tomorrow.

“A few times we've given the guest a water and they are usually confused at first,” says Mitchell, who co-manages the bar with Natasha Mitchell. “When they ask about the water, we tell them we don't feel comfortable giving them another alcoholic beverage, but we'd love to serve them in the future. It has always gone over well. Additionally, we have given the guest the check before they ask and they usually get the hint. There have only been a few times when the guest becomes angry, but they usually leave understanding why we did what we had to do.”

Another strategy is to enlist the help of the inebriated guest’s friends. McShea says to pull the friend over to the side – out of earshot – and explain the situation. The key is to not make a big deal of it, but to be straightforward, polite, and show that you genuinely care.

In the end, remember that you’re just doing your job. Not only are you looking out for the wellbeing of one of your paying customers, but you’re looking out for the comfort and happiness of your other patrons, as well — not to mention the fact that paying attention and being deliberate can also save lives.

Wendy Rose Gould is a freelance lifestyle reporter and photographer based in Phoenix, Arizona. From Tel Aviv to Miami, from Prague to NYC, she enjoys sipping on well-crafted cocktails in all corners of the world.

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