Here’s what bartenders do to keep you from overdrinking
Jarrett Bury likes his nickname: “The Cut-Off King.”
A bartender for 30 years who mostly works at the Roxbury, a popular dance club in uptown Charlotte, you can usually spot him behind one of the club’s three bars, the one right by the front door.
You can bet he’s already spotted you — especially if you’re slurring your words a little, maybe fumbling a bit with your wallet, and definitely if you try to order too many drinks at one time.
“One per hand” is one of his rules, which covers “a shot and a beer.” If you try to order more, even if you claim it’s for someone else, he’ll expect that person to be right there beside you.
“If you say, “Gimme three vodka sodas,’ my answer is, ‘Gimme three people.’ If you can’t order for yourself, you can’t drink.”
Bury is known among Charlotte bartenders as a guy skilled in the fine art of the cut-off. His first job, at 19, was at a bar in New Orleans, where you had to handle drunks with tact – “people would throw drinks on you.”
Whether you’re in a college-age hangout where the colors of the drinks are as loud as the music, or in a fine-dining restaurant with carefully crafted cocktails, people like Jarrett Bury are watching you, trying to make sure your night out doesn’t become their headache — or worse.
Several high-profile cases recently have brought attention to the rules on serving alcohol.
In one, a college sophomore died after falling from a party bus. In another, a Mooresville mother is suing Mellow Mushroom after her two daughters were killed in a car accident in Arizona: The young driver who hit them had a blood-alcohol level more than three times the legal limit after leaving a Phoenix restaurant. (The restaurant recently agreed to pay a $9,000 fine and give up its liquor license for a week, while the suit by Cathy Hocking and the girls' father, Perry Richardson, is continuing. They're suing the restaurant for overserving the driver.)
North Carolina’s rules about drinking, driving and who can be held responsible are called “dram shop laws.” Named for a historic term for any place that sold spirits by the dram (⅛ of an ounce), they hold accountable anyone who serves alcohol, from an experienced bartender to a server just learning the ropes.
They put responsibility on you, too: If you’re serving friends in your home, you’re also expected to stop serving someone who’s intoxicated.
So bars and restaurants are in a strange position: It’s the staff’s job to sell you drinks and they get tips for doing it. At the same time, it’s their job to make sure they don’t sell you too many. Telling you that you’ve had enough might not make them popular — and might cost them a tip they have worked hard to get.
“It’s such a tough thing for a bar owner and bar staff,” says Stefan Huebner, co-owner of the private club Dot Dot Dot and a longtime bartender at Charlotte bars like Heist and Cosmos Cafe.
“Their job is to sell alcohol and this totally goes against their job. But at the end of the day, I train my staff, it’s your job to throw the party responsibly.”
Part of what makes it tricky is that a bartender never knows what you’ve done before you come in, but they’re responsible for what you do after you leave. You may have been drinking already, or you may have taken something, from a legal prescription to an illegal substance, that interacts with alcohol. You may have been drinking on an empty stomach.
What you did before you got to their bar doesn’t matter if you leave and go on to get in a wreck: The last place you were served will be the place that ends up in a civil or criminal case. Under North Carolina’s dram shop law, it’s illegal to continue to serve a person who’s intoxicated. Figuring out who’s had too much, especially in a bar that might be dark and loud, takes savvy, and every bartender looks for different things.
For Bury, it used to be “glassy (eyed) and squinty.”
“But now things have changed, with Red Bull." He calls the popular drink of Red Bull and vodka "the problem child."
"Now you have wide-awake drunks. So it’s the slurring of the voice. That’s unmistakable. Nobody stumbles anymore – they have so much caffeine already.”
“It’s manners,” says Bob Peters, who recently left the Punch Room at the Ritz-Carlton to pursue his own business as a cocktail consultant.
“If their inhibitions are gone, if they repeat themselves over and over, any wavering in how they stand or walk. I’ve been doing this so long now — if I’m talking to you at the bar, I’m looking around the room as I’m talking. I call that having bar eyes. You’re always paying attention, always.”
Every bartender has a bag of tricks to keep a lid on the situation. Ever been at a bar and gotten frustrated because you can’t catch the bartender’s eye to order another drink? That may be deliberate: They may be waiting on you more slowly, to slow you down. While they can’t water down drinks — that’s against alcohol regulations — they might steer you toward something that’s lower in alcohol, or add more ice to dilute it a bit.
If you’re in a group, Huebner says, he may quietly say something to the people you’re with: “ ‘Hey man, can you slow your friend’s roll?’ The last thing you want to have is a confrontation. It’s a fine art of being subtle. And then there are times you have to be as subtle as a ball-peen hammer.”
Bury likes to rely on fast patter. He has a well-practiced list of quips and lines. His humor can defuse the situation — or just confuse you, which is the idea.
“If I start talking faster than they can process, they’ll walk away.”
Others, like Larry Suggs at The Stanley, will offer you water — often. (And if a bartender offers you water, you really should take it.) He’ll also offer food if he can: “ ‘Can I feed you?’ Who’s going to say no to that?”
Here’s the thing you need to know: While they can’t physically stop you from driving, although they’ll certainly try to convince you, they can — and must — stop serving you. And they have the right to refuse to serve you for any reason other than race, religion, color, national origin, sex, or disability. They don’t need proof that you’re drunk, they only need to suspect that you are.
“ ‘I think you’re intoxicated.’ That’s all I have to say,” Huebner says. “I have the right of refusal.”
They’re doing it for their good and for yours, so try not to be a jerk about it. But if you think you’re getting even by leaving without that tip, they’re probably expecting that already. Bury just greets it with a shrug and advice for servers who might be reluctant to cut someone off.
“Drunk people don’t tip,” he says flatly. “You gain nothing from drunk people. It’s the people who have just a few drinks who tip very well.”