Memorizing Cocktail Recipes – Bartenders Tricks & Tips

Memorizing hundreds of cocktail recipes for your new bartending gig can feel like you’re back in high school or university cramming for an exam, except this time rent money is involved. 

Yup. As a bartender, your ability to pay bills relies on your ability to make a margarita in less than three minutes. And to make a margarita that quickly (and pay your bills on time) means you’ll need to be able to remember drink recipes like your crush’s Instagram handle.

Not to mention, if you take too long, you’ll upset management and your guests. If you don’t know the recipe, you risk annoying fellow coworkers by asking them how to make drinks all the time. 

Sure, there are a lot of other available articles online to scour for the best tips and tricks on how to memorize cocktail recipes. But there’s only one Local Bartending School. We are a team of professional bartenders, instructors, and mixologists who are dedicated to improving your career in bartending. 

We’ve put together the most comprehensive guide on how to memorize drink recipes. So you can go ahead, grab a drink, and settle in.

Credit: Ralph (Ravi) Kayden via Unsplash | From glassware to garnishes, there’s a lot to keep track of for each cocktail recipe.

Today, you’re going to read all about the best tricks for bartenders to learn, memorize, and be able to crank out tons of classic cocktails and different types of drink recipes.

But before we do, I want to share a story that might make you feel less overwhelmed.

 I was 22 and just got moved from the serving floor to behind the bar. FINALLY. I had waited for this moment since I was a wee hostess! And having worked at this establishment for three years, I was thrown onto a solo shift a bit quicker than most new bartenders. Just my luck… 

And of course, I worked on the day that martinis were discounted. Martinis! For a novice bartender, this was a lot of pressure. I mean, I was sweating on my upper lip and everything, guys. 

The martini of the day was a Cosmopolitan. So I grabbed the recipe card, wrote down the ingredients at least 5 times, and made a little poem in my head. I still remember it, years later. All night I was crankin’ out those beautiful Cosmo’s. 

I surprised myself, actually. Like hell yeah, brain. Plus, on my next shift, I was praised for my poise under pressure. Not to mention made some serious tips!

So what made my experience so successful? Well, a few things: I wrote it down, made a tune, and kept making cosmos over and over again! More on all this later.

Let's break down all the tips LBS recommends for remembering bar drinks.

Plus, we’re going to dive even deeper by looking at:

  • Memorizing multiple drink orders
  • How to remember all of the ingredients in a recipe
  • What to do if you forgot a guest’s order
  • An action plan for when you don’t know how to make a cocktail 

1. Know the Most Popular Cocktails

Before you go thinking you have to memorize every cocktail and every type of sweet vermouth ever created by man, let me stop you there.

You see, at minimum, you really only need to memorize the most popular drinks that are served at the bar you’re working. At one venue, you may never get a request for a daiquiri. Move on to a new place and it might be one of your top sellers.

To find out what drinks you need to focus on, ask the veteran bartenders. They’ll definitely know what gets ordered the most. If you want straight data, you can also contact your manager. They can run a report and tell you exactly how many of each drink is being ordered at any given time.

I should mention, Local Bartending School has a job placement program that will find you the right venue after you’re done with bartending classes. Their instructors will make sure you know exactly how to make the drinks for your new gig.

Credit: Kobby Mendez | Drink families are groups of cocktails that are similar in ingredients and preparation.

2. Understand Drink Categories & Families

When I was first starting out behind the bar, I was totally overwhelmed by all of the different liqueurs, garnishes, types of tequila, and bitters. I thought I had to know every single ingredient ever and understand how they all came together to make thousands of cocktails.

Then someone introduced me to cocktail families or categories. They told me every group of cocktails follows the same style, with just a little change here and there.

Of course, there are a lot of opinions and a lot of debate when it comes to defining categories or families for cocktails. But an industry-accepted reference is Gary Regan’s ‘Joy of Mixology’

Gary Regan was the pioneer behind drink families; arranging them by common ingredients and techniques. While the list is a bit more vast (okay, a lot more vast) in his book, you can get an idea of how he grouped them below.

  • Frozen
  • Duos & Trios
  • Highballs
  • Juleps
  • Muddled

3. Make the Drinks! Memorization through Repetition 

When you were learning how to ride a bike, you rode down the same hill, path, or street until you could balance and ride on your own, right? The same applies to bartending and memorizing new drinks.

Muscle memory kicks in when you’re behind the bar. When I had to make cosmo’s over and over again on my first solo shift, it was through that repetition that I triggered the memory-making part of my brain and body.

This is why bartenders and mixologists who have worked (or still do) at nightclubs know so many drinks. They’re constantly cranking out cranberry vodkas, long island iced teas, and mojitos. But if you’re working at a slower venue with primarily wine drinkers, you won’t be able to make these drinks as often nor will they be etched into your memory. So if you really want to memorize a cocktail recipe, make it! Over and over again.

“Make them. Over and over again. Recipe cards help, but after enough repetition, you’ll never forget”

When you’re in class with an instructor at Local Bartending School, you’ll learn all the recipes and be able to practice a myriad of cocktails. 

4. Utilize Flashcards and Quizzes

Tried and true, these traditional methods have been around forever for a reason. We’ll give you a big hint–they work.

Remember when I was trying to not lose my job and memorize Cosmopolitans on my first solo shift? I started by looking at the recipe card, then basically quizzed myself and wrote the ingredients down until I felt like I had it down. 

You can do the same! Grab your recipes and cocktail cards, write them down on a ton of flashcards, and then quiz yourself.

Alternatively, you can use Quizlet! If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a fantastic online program that allows you to make flashcards and turn them into quizzes (and more). The best part? There’s a shared community of pre-made quizzes on all sorts of topics, bar drinks, classic cocktails, and drink categories. 

If you’re using other recipes found online, just make sure you’re memorizing a cocktail recipe that is approved by your establishment. 

There’s a lot of variations for drinks like whiskey sours, mai tais, or even a Tom Collins. Some corporate chains, hotels, or even standalone bars will want you to make a drink according to their specifications.

Sidenote: Don’t know what type of bar you want to work at? Read this article! 

5. Create Your Own Mnemonics

You might remember mnemonics from school days. The first one I can recall is the order of math operation PEMDAS, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”. 

This little memory trick has been one of my favorites to memorize bar drinks. For a manhattan, you can come up with a little mnemonic. It requires whiskey, vermouth, bitters, and cherries. So I’d break that down to WVBC, or “Wackos Vacation Because of Cold”. I’m sure you can craft something that you’ll uniquely remember for shifts to come.

Here’s a video for you to check out if you want to learn more about using mnemonics as a bartender.

6. Rely on Music or Phrases

For those of you who are musically inclined, you might be drawn to using tunes as a way to memorize a recipe for an old-fashioned or negroni. And even for those who love to read or write, phrases might be useful to you!

Using a manhattan again as an example, you can create a little jingle or rap to help you lock in the recipe. You can sing all the ingredients you need or sing the mnemonic you came up with. 

Your brain has an easier time recalling music or patterns of rhythm, which is why this memorization tool really works!

Use A Combination of These Tricks for Memorizing Cocktail Recipes

So, there are six tips that will save you when you’re learning and memorizing cocktail recipes. All procured by the team of bartending gurus over at Local Bartending School.

But we’re not stopping there. There’s still more you need to know!

There are few other situations that you’ll run into as a bartender where you need to be able to recall or remember. 

How to Memorize Multiple Drink Orders

Soon after I started to bartend, I found my first group of regulars. *Hair flip.* 

They would come in all at once and give me their drink order like it was roll call. Because this group alone paid for my water bill, I wanted them to think I was the amazing bartender they hyped me up to be. And that meant remembering their huge order.

That’s when I started to rap the 8-10 drinks they ordered in my head. Once I crafted my VMA-winning verse, I could remember their order for the whole shift. And dreamt of it, too. 

Some other tips I’ve learned and heard of are:

  • Repeating the order back to the guest 
  • Visualizing the drinks that were ordered
  • Collect all of the necessary glassware before you start making drinks

When in doubt, you can always write the order down (no shame in my writing-down game, here!). Some folks even said they simply make as many cocktails as they remember, can bring a few extra waters to sip on, and ask the group what’s missing. Giving them something is better than nothing!

Remembering All of the Ingredients

It’s tough being able to know every single ingredient for every single drink. Between simple syrup, ratios, and soda water there’s a lot of things and mixers to keep up with. We hear you!

Local Bartending School is the only place where you can not only have a personal instructor sent to your house to help you memorize recipes, it’s the only bartending school that can certify you nationwide across the U.S.

Credit: Tina Witherspoon | There’s can be a lot that goes into one cocktail.

Some of our secrets for remembering ingredients are associations, mnemonics, or any trick mentioned earlier in the article like creating a tune or flashcards.

What to Do If You Forget an Order

When you forget an order (and I say when because it will happen), first take a moment to breathe. It’s liqueur and draft beer, not life or death, people!

Next, try to walk yourself through the interaction again. What did the person next to them order? Maybe they’re a regular and order the same thing all the time, so ask your bartender buddy. If you really cannot recall, just be humble (you’re only human!), walk over to the guest, and ask again.

An Action Plan to Follow When You Don’t Know a Drink Recipe

Don’t worry! You have several options. Unless your guest made the drink up themselves (which has happened to me), you always have a resource to utilize. 

If you don’t know how to make a drink,

  • Ask your trainer or veteran bartender
  • Look it up in a trusted reference book
  • Use your bar’s recipe card, sometimes also known as a ‘build’

No matter what, don’t tell that guest you don’t know how to make it! Fake it ’til you make it, my friend. If you don’t have the ingredients, that’s acceptable. But try to get that drink in the person’s hand. That’s how good bartenders become the best bartenders

At the end of the day, remember…

You’re new! And it’s okay to tell a guest that. Just explain that you’re new to the team and you’re working to get their drink to them. 

Most people are lenient! Especially when you make a joke out of it! My favorite line was, “Sorry, I’m still learning! Think of it this way; you only get a few chances to craft the perfect bartender, now’s your chance.” I noticed my guests switched from annoyed to I-got-you.

Need More Hands-On Practice with Drink Recipes? Local Bartending School is Accepting Students!

Now that you have several ways to lock those drink recipes into your noggin, you can step up in the bartending world. And make more money by being able to make drinks without asking anyone or looking up a recipe. Win-win. 

Not to mention, you already have an action plan for what happens when you inevitably forget an order or don’t know how to make a recipe. You’re so ready for this.

Want even more tips? You can get in touch with the professionals at Local Bartending School to receive hands-on training, bartending courses, classes, and more. So, what are you waiting for? Don’t you want to start amping up your bartending career?

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Carrie Jean Lipe

Carrie Lipe has been writing creatively since childhood but jump-started her professional writing after college. She's an Indiana native, Ball State Hospitality graduate, and a bartender with over 10+ years in the industry. You can find her making basil Moscow mules when she's not writing. Follow her professional journey on Instagram! @contentbycarriejean

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