The Bartender’s Handshake

As a professional imbiber, there are workdays that end with a feeling of accomplishment and sobriety and those that end with just the feeling of accomplishment. As my head hits the pillow and I become acutely aware of which kind of workday I had, I try to recall exactly where (in the case of the latter) sobriety flew out the window. But I only ordered two cocktails, I think to myself. Then I remember, Damn, I shook a lot of hands tonight.

I’m not referring to actual handshakes. I’m referring to what’s affectionately known within the industry as the Bartender’s Handshake, i.e. sharing a shot. Often times, depending on your city of origin, the shot is of the Italian amaro, Fernet Branca.

Imbibe Magazine talks about Fernet Branca and the Bartender’s Handshake here.

My first job tending bar had a rule about drinking at work. On-duty bartenders were able to drink on the job- but only from the staff bottle of Fernet Branca (this was San Francisco, after all). Throughout our crazy, chaotic, break-less shift, we’d convene for ‘staff meetings’, which consisted of a shot of Fernet. These “meetings” were the times of peace and calm during the night that reminded us that we were a team.

Raising a glass symbolizes friendship, camaraderie, and hospitality. Shots are poured as a welcome, a thank you, a goodbye. For visiting bartenders, this ritual of sharing a shot is the ultimate recognition of the brotherhood that extends beyond city, state, or country borders.

When a bartender raises a glass and meets your eye, it’s as if to say, “We are equals.”

When I make the choice to visit New York City cocktail bars Employees Only and Macao (both of the same ownership), I know which type of night- or morning, rather– I’m going to have. Reason being that there’s no such thing as just one drink once I walk through the doors. Hospitality and community is so deeply rooted in these particular bars that I’m shown signs of respect and appreciation all night in the form of Fernet shots. I love the gesture, and I wouldn’t want it to stop, but it makes counting my cocktails a literal and figurative challenge.

I’ve tried to respectfully decline or refuse, but I’m rarely successful. More often than not, I succumb to the Bartender’s Handshake and participate. And sharing these moments with my fellow industry professionals is something I would never regret. Until the next morning…

What do you think: Are you a fan of the Bartender’s Handshake? Is abstaining from a shot as insulting as refusing to shake hands?


  1. P Bolster says:

    Definitely a fan and a propagator of the Bartender’s Handshake. Of course, I am a bartender, so maybe my opinion is skewed a bit. As for abstaining/refusing a Handshake, it is only acceptable when the said person abstaining/refusing is on the verge of being sick, and by “sick,” you know what I mean. Thanks for the article!

  2. John Gakuru says:

    Great article! Thank you!

    As P Bolster says above, I too am “a fan and a propagator of the Bartender’s Handshake!” I’ve gotten a reputation for drinking Fernet-Branca that I don’t even need to ask for it by name anymore. A simple, “I’d love one” is all that needs to be said!

  1. […] bad. Once we weed through your ego and we become fast friends, you’re the person who hands us a cheeky during a rough night or steps in if we have the displeasure of dealing with a difficult […]

  2. […] you all love Fernet-Branca as much as I do? Do you get that “Bartender’s Handshake” after a long night out? Do you drink Fernet-Branca after meals to savour the incredibly […]

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