Illustration by Eric DeFreitas
The most asked question in Bartender Basics is one we’ve gone out of our way to avoid: How do you get free drinks in a bar?
The short answer is, you don’t. Don’t misunderstand, free drinks—referred to as “buy backs” in industry parlance—are as common in bars as wobbly stools, bathroom graffiti or people who drunkenly rap along to the first 6 bars of Biggie’s “Juicy” before losing all rhythm. But the catch-22 is that, by trying to get the bartender to give you free drinks, you’re almost always disqualifying yourself.
That said, in the interest of looking behind the curtain (or under the lowboy) of bar culture, let’s explore at why some people are more likely to get special treatment at bars while others won’t.
Rule #1 For Getting Free Drinks: Never expect a free drink.
This rule can’t be overstated. It even supersedes more commonly assumed bartender-endearment techniques like being a good tipper. Free drinks, along with the ability to 86 customers, are the two main tools a bartender has to exercise control over their domain. If you ask for or even imply that you feel you deserve a free drink, you’re unwittingly attempting to usurp the bartender’s agency. This intrusion on their discretion will cause most bartenders to reject any freebies outright, on principle.
Every other tip or technique to procure buybacks is predicated on you never, ever explicitly asking for one. The second you talk about it, the magic is broken, and you pay full price.