Bar owners, bartenders, and servers who serve alcohol all have important legal responsibilities. Here are some important things to remember:
The legal age for drinking is 21 in all 50 states, and serving to anyone younger than that can leave you criminally liable.
You may face civil liabilities if you over-serve a guest and they injure themselves or others. This could mean you could be sued and forced to pay for damages.
Every state and municipality has their own liquor laws set by the liquor authority in that area. Make sure you are aware of and abide by the rules and regulations that apply to your establishment.
Gender discrimination laws make it illegal to deny serving a pregnant guest who requests an alcoholic beverage. For this reason, some bars and restaurants opt to post signs warning of the dangers of alcohol consumption on the developing fetus.
To serve alcohol safely, you must know a bit about what you are serving. First, all drinks are not equal in terms of alcohol content.
1 drink is considered:
12 ounces of beer (4%–5% alcohol content) 1 ounce 100 proof liquor 1.5 ounces 80 proof liquor 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content)
A drink’s “proof” refers to how much strength it has. You can calculate the strength of a drink by dividing its proof by 2. For example, a beverage that is 100 proof is 50% alcohol, and one that is 60 proof is 30%.
Most states impose legal consequences if a driver has a blood alcohol level (BAC) of 0.08 or higher. Although you are not expected to know the BAC of a guest, you should have a general understanding of the concept.
BAC is influenced by several factors, including weight, how much the guests have had to drink, and how quickly it was consumed. For example, a 150-pound man who has 2 drinks over the course of an hour on an empty stomach will have a BAC of around 0.5, whereas a 300-pound man will have a lower BAC if he drinks the same amount. “Tolerance” has no effect on a person’s BAC, and despite many urban myths about drinking coffee or taking cold showers, time is the way to lower it.
Here is a quick cheat sheet of a few factors that influence BAC:
Age―Older guests typically reach higher BAC than younger guests when all other variables are similar.
Fat―Fat does not absorb alcohol, so a person with higher body fat content will likely have a lower BAC than a lean person if all other factors are equal.
Drugs/Medications―Drugs and prescription medications can sometimes interact with or speed up the effects of alcohol.
Gender―Women typically are smaller and have a higher percentage of body fat than men, so they are affected by the same amount of alcohol more quickly.
Everyone handles their liquor differently, but there are several indicators that can reliably predict if a guest is drunk or not. These include impaired judgment, slowed reaction time, decreased motor coordination, and relaxed inhibitions. If you feel a guest is in danger of becoming intoxicated, there are several things you can do to help them drink more responsibly:
Offer high-fat or high-protein food. These types of food digest more slowly than simple carbs (such as breadsticks), so offer food such as chicken wings instead.
Do not serve the guest more than 1 drink at a time.
Every state has different laws regarding which type of identification is acceptable to use when confirming a guest is legal to drink. But most states allow a driver’s license, state ID card, military ID, or passport, though some states may take issue if the ID presented is from a different state or country. If you are unsure if a certain type of ID is valid in your area, it is always wise to contact your manager.
Beyond receiving the correct type of ID, it is equally important to ensure the ID is valid. Double-check that the photo on the ID is actually a picture of the person standing in front of you. Many underage drinkers will try and borrow the ID of a slightly older friend who has a similar look. Make sure the birth date, signature, and expiration are all present, and that the ID is not expired. Many states do not consider a damaged ID to be valid, so be familiar with the laws in your state if you encounter identification with any peeling, splits, or bends.
Tip: When checking an ID, an easy way to determine if the person is 21 is to add 20 to their birth year, then another 1 to that number. For example, for someone born in 1987:
1987 + 20 = 2007
2007 + 1 = 2008
In this example, someone born in 1987 was legal to drink in 2008. If the person was born 21 years ago from the current year, make sure their birthday was on or before today’s date.
When you are checking a guest’s ID, ensure that the identification you are holding was actually issued by the government. Underage guests will sometimes produce counterfeit or “fake” IDs. Many are easy to spot but some may be close replicas to the real thing, so always look over every ID very carefully. Although fake IDs are constantly evolving, here is a list of common elements that differentiate a fake ID from a real one:
Text―Ensure the text on the ID is even and in the typical font used in your state.
Images―If your state ID uses holograms or images that appear under black light, make sure they are present or not distorted.
Photos―Pictures on any government-issued ID should be clear.
Back―The back of every state-issued ID should contain some type of information, such as bar codes, magnetic stripes, organ donation information, or license restrictions. If the back of an ID is blank, it is definitely a fake.
When and How to Card
Everyone who looks under 21 must be carded, though many establishments set this age much higher, such as 40. Check with your establishment to see what is expected, but when in doubt, always ask for ID.
When you are carding a guest:
Hold the ID completely in your possession. Check for tampering and validity. Assess the guest for nervous behavior that may indicate they have a fake ID.
If in doubt:
Ask for a second ID. Ask for signature comparison. Ask the guest to state their address, birthday, or middle name. If you feel the guest has a counterfeit ID and that they are under 21, you have the right to refuse them service.
Sometimes, alcohol can serve as the catalyst that makes a violent or angry guest act on their feelings. To protect yourself and others from violent or dangerous behavior, take the following steps:
Observe―Always be on the lookout for guests who seem rowdy or upset.
Call a manager―If you notice a group or individual who seem upset or angry, notify a manager right away.
Call the police―If it looks like there is going to be trouble, and guest or your personal safety might be compromised, don’t hesitate to act. The police are trained to deal with these types of situations.
Separate guests from the conflict―If a fight breaks out, clear surrounding guests from the area, but do not attempt to restrain those involved in the fight.
When a guest becomes intoxicated, you should stop serving them for both their safety and yours. Make sure you have backup in case the guest becomes angry and always adhere to the following guidelines:
Be discreet. Try and let the customer know you are stopping service as privately as possible.
Be concerned. Let the guest know you are concerned for their safety.
Offer non-alcoholic beverages, such as water.
Ask for the keys. If the guest is drunk and planning on driving, ask for their keys and help them arrange for alternate transportation. If they do decide to drive, call the police and provide them with as much vehicle and route information as you can.
Be judgmental. Don’t use a “you” statement. Instead say “I’m sorry, but I will not be able to serve you any more alcohol tonight.”
Waiver. When you have decided not to serve a guest, stick with the plan, even if they ask for “just one more” or one “for a friend.”
“Throw out” intoxicated guests, as they may get behind the wheel. Instead, call them a cab or help them arrange for someone to pick them up.