In tip-happy America, picking out when, who, and how much to tip in every bar scenario is enough to make a person’s head explode. Are we supposed to compensate for happy hour discounts? If auto-gratuity’s been added, is a little extra on top expected? What if that seriously good-looking bartender just hooked me up with a round of free shots?
To get to the bottom of proper tip etiquette, Thrillist enlisted the help of Hayley Karl from Mugs Alehouse — one friendly-yet-firm NYC bartender with over 10 years experience behind the taps — to give us the expectations and the ideals. Customers, of course, don’t have to follow these guidelines, but your bartender will probably think you’re a dirtbag if you don’t.
How To Tip Your Bartender
If service was fucking fantastic
What you should tip: Whatever your heart desires
If your bartender has totally gone out of his or her way to make sure your time at the bar has been the absolute best, throw down the standard 20% to start, then add on however much extra you can spare, like your phone number. Just kidding, always tip in cash.
If service was fine and normal
What you should tip: $1-$2/drink at a regular joint, 20% of the total for a swankier spot
One or two singles will do for an average, respectful exchange of money for alcohol — no special treatment, no drama, just efficient, cordial service. “$1 minimum per drink has always been the standard, but I’ve noticed an increase to $2 per drink over the past year,” Karl says. Try to keep up, buddy.
If service was bad
What you should tip: 15-18%
“We all have bad days,” says Karl, “so a little understanding goes a long way. Unless the bartender was racist or somehow violated your human rights. Then you should fucking leave. Just leave.” A bad Yelp review might also be in order.
If service was downright abysmal
What you should tip: Stiff ’em!
If your bartender is racist, violent, petulant, completely oblivious, or at any point insists in the superiority of Attack of the Clones, pay for your drink (somebody’s gotta be an adult), lay down exact change, and leave without saying a word. They’ll remember you, sure. But you won’t be back.
If you’re getting a beer (draft or bottle)
What you should tip: $1-$2/drink
Rule of thumb? Base the tip on the labor a drink requires. If someone’s knocking back twist-off Bud Heavies at a local dive, $1 per bottle is just fine. If they’re at an upscale craft bar and the pours necessitate a bit more time and effort — a lengthy explanation, multiple samples, the perfect amount of head, flights — an extra buck is due. “Try to tip $2 for extra-fancy craft beer (anything $8 or higher per glass). I know it doesn’t seem like a skill, but there is an art to pouring beer. A good bartender keeps your price point down and awesome beer coming in by knowing exactly how to move those kegs,” Karl says.
If you order a fancy cocktail
What you should tip: 20% or $2-$3/drink
The same logic applies to cocktails, of course. Up the labor and knowledge, up the tip.
If you’re chilling on water/soda
What you should tip: $1 or anything EXCEPT change
Want to piss off an otherwise friendly barkeep? Park it at the bar, order a constant stream of non-alcoholic libations, and toss a few quarters down before leaving. As Karl says, “Think about it, if you’re chilling on a stool and not spending money, you are quite literally taking money out of the pockets of the bartenders. If you want to hang, just make it worth your bartender’s time.” You’re not the tooth fairy and the bartender is not an 8-year-old coin collector. Deal with it.
If it’s happy hour
What you should tip: Same as regular hour
“Just fuck happy hour. They’re giving you a deal on the drink, not the tip. Just tip how you would for normal drinks,” says our ‘tender.
If it’s a holiday
What you should tip: 25-35% of your total bill
If someone’s kind enough to sacrifice a nationally recognized day of relaxation to help you drown your yuletide sorrows, you should probably respect that. In cash.
If it’s mad busy and you’re ordering multiple drinks
What you should tip: 20% minimum
As always, more work for the barkeep = more cash from the customer. If someone’s going to drop a slew of orders on a bartender who’s already dealing with a big rush, they should absolutely factor in a few extra big ones for the trouble. It’s way too easy to get lost in the fray during a high-traffic spell, so greasing the wheel can only work in a drinker’s favor.
If you’re rolling deep
What you should tip: Auto-gratuity (if there is one) + at least 10% additional
If a patron’s coming through with a huge crew all ordering drinks at the same time, it’s only fair that they chip in a little extra on top of the bar’s gratuity cut. They’re bringing in a bunch of business, sure, but they’re also taking up way more of the ‘tender’s precious time and energy. “Think of it this way: if I’m going to go out of my way to make sure your whole party has a good time, it’s the same as if a restaurant prepares something special for you because of a dietary requirement. Pay it forward… literally,” she says.
If your friend/date is the worst
What you should tip: 20% minimum (especially if you plan on returning)
Nobody likes a pushy customer, especially the person forced to accommodate their rude ass. If you want to keep your nice-guy rep intact, at least try to offset their jerky behavior. “And write in the receipt that you’re sorry for picking terrible friends,” Karl adds.
If you’re the only one there and you’re treating the bartender like a therapist
What you should tip: $125/hr (or 30% minimum)
“Get a therapist… or find a bartender that takes your insurance,” Karl jokes… kind of. If the bar’s dead and you’ve been venting for hours like the person in front of you is paid to help you confront your mommy issues and not to pour your Scotch, pony up.
If you’re shooting for regular status
What you should tip: 30-40% of the total, including the full price of any free drinks (buybacks)
Major key: “Be careful — you don’t want to buy your regular status because that can come off as creepy, depending on the bartender. But if you’re getting hooked up with a sweet buyback or two, definitely step it up to 10-20% extra,” says Karl. For friends — you know, those sweet folks who bring all their pals from work because they “know the bartender” — “30-40% is the unspoken minimum.” And, hey, if somebody feels like buying the staff a shot or two, no one’s going to complain.