One Bar Owner's Secret to Success: Cutting Out the Booze

A man behind a bar smiling to two women.
Twelve Mile Limit bar owner T. Cole Newton doesn't let sobriety slow him down. Instead, he thinks a life without drinks makes him a better bartender. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

T. Cole Newton, ten-year bartending veteran and owner of Twelve Mile Limit in New Orleans, has a confession to make: He doesn’t drink. More accurately, he’s a temperate drinker, imbibing rarely if at all. Yes, you read right — Newton is one of those rare-breed bartenders who don’t drink. And it’s been nothing but good for his business.

Newton quit drinking a few years back, after he had already established Twelve Mile Limit in the NOLA bar scene, because he was “tired of waking up and not knowing where I was.” Even though he’s (mostly) sober, he doesn’t have any sort of drinking policy for his employees; they are allowed to enjoy a drink as long as it doesn’t become a problem. He even admits that some bartenders function better with a little bit of booze in their system.

“There are plenty of bartenders who bartend even better if they have a shot,” he said. “Bartending is a very social job. You’re constantly interacting with people. Alcohol is a social lubricant. It can help make you more comfortable, it can help make your motions a little smoother.”

But Newton also acknowledges that drinking behind the bar is a serious problem for many bartenders across the industry. The more drinks someone has, the sloppier they get. Quality of mixed drinks takes a nosedive. There’s more of a chance for spills and breaks and generally less-than-professional behavior. Cutting out drinking from his life has enabled Newton to avoid these issues at his bar, allowing him to serve customers a more thoughtful and well-rounded beverage with pleasant service.

“Bartenders are commonly functional alcoholics,” he said. “It sounds harsh but that’s almost the industry standard. To a certain extent, it’s like everyone in the bar industry around the world acts like they live in New Orleans. That sort of heavy, normal drinking is accepted; even I did it for years. There’s a stigma, like never trust a skinny cook, a bald barber or a sober bartender. People need to realize the consequences of that.”

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says one to two drinks a day is considered moderate drinking, and anything over that can be considered binge drinking and alcohol abuse. But according to Newton’s estimates, most bartenders are knocking back around seven drinks per night — an amount the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says is heavy drinking and most definitely a problem.

“I understand drinking at work and I don’t want to tell people they shouldn’t do it if that’s how they bartend best,” Newton said. “But at three or four drinks, you start messing up, even though you’re going to think you’re bartending better than ever.”

Newton straw tests drinks so he can make sure they’re mixed correctly while not taking a full swig. But for bartenders who want to completely abstain, try following some of these tips from Reddit users who’ve been there.

Learn the smell of a great drink. Redditor isellcars12 has been sober for two years and bartends between two and four nights per week. Ninety percent of the time, he can easily smell if a cocktail is mixed poorly. Try sniffing the drinks made by other bartenders to get your nose used to the right mixture.

Rely on your coworkers. Isellcars12’s other best tip is to utilize the people behind the bar with you. If you’re worried something might taste off or strange and don’t want to try it yourself, have a coworker test it.

Fake it. A necessary evil of bartending is having customers buy you a drink. If it’s unavoidable, follow in Redditors NotReallyARaptorYet’s and fleetwoodsac’s footsteps and just fake it. NotReallyARaptorYet pours cranberry juice and water into a shaker and strains it into a shot glass, toasts the customers, and carries on; fleetwoodsac has a Patron bottle full of water and pours from that, then makes a post-shot expression and reaches for a lime.

Create an alibi. Drinking and driving is illegal — so tell any customer who offers you a drink that you can’t because you’ve got to drive later. Redditor racer4 does — and also says it avoids lots of annoying lifestyle questions in the process.

Just spit. You’re not technically drinking if you’re not swallowing, so taste the cocktail and spit it right out.

Jennifer Billock is a writer and author focusing on culinary travel, culture and history. She is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip with her Boston terrier.

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