Seeing Both Sides of the Great Layback Debate

A woman pouring alcohol into a man's mouth.
Are laybacks harmless fun, or unprofessional? Bartenders have fallen on both sides of the debate. Photo: Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

When Dale DeGroff told Thrillist recently that he wants to see laybacks retired, it sparked some discussion: Are laybacks — the pouring of a shot directly into a guest’s mouth — ever appropriate? Or is it best left to college kids? Should they even be, as once tried in New Zealand, illegal?

It depends on your definition of appropriate, but all bartenders would caution you to pay attention to the crowd and the brand of alcohol you’re pouring, as bartender Yael Vengroff notes. “It may not fit with their ethos,” she says. “Fireball is definitely a brand that comes to mind as a brand that would be pro-layback. A single-malt scotch would probably be much less appropriate.”

Vengroff is actually very pro-self-layback, as it gives her the reins. “I’m a bit of a control freak, if you will, so I like to take charge,” she says. They became a part of her repertoire, a signature. “When I was working at Harvard & Stone, I would do them every night,” she continues. “I like to do self-laybacks to avoid dirtying glassware. Now that I work in a hotel, I cannot do these anymore, as we have video cameras and we cannot drink at work.”

Others, like Samuel Gauthier, the head bartender at Boilermaker, see them as a tacky performance in a bar setting. “While laybacks at a private event, between friends or after bar close are very fun, serving drinks this way over the bar is a loud display of over-serving and is not in the best interest of the brand being poured, the bar serving it or the guest being egged on,” he says. “That is not to say that at some point in the past I haven't indulged — only that we all can get caught up in our own party occasionally and that our guests health should be as important to us as their (and certainly our) entertainment.”

Dale DeGroff, King Cocktail himself, agrees. In reiterating his stance, he says, “I don’t think laybacks have any place in on-premise world. It sends the absolute wrong message about the establishment's attitude and procedures to promote responsible beverage service.” He won’t judge you for taking part when you’re off duty, though: “In a private environment with some bartender friends kicking back and relaxing in a home where alcohol is not being sold to the public, it can be fun and entertaining.”

A quick scan on Instagram will show you, though, that they’re being poured regularly — propriety be damned. But whether you’re for or against, whether you do them on yourself or want them outright banned, there’s probably a bar for you out there.

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