Nightclub & Bar: Drink Engineering with Tobin Ellis

Drink Engineering with Tobin Ellis


At Nightclub and Bar, I attended a lecture by Bar Magic‘s Tobin Ellis. It was entitled Drink Engineering. I didn’t really know what to expect as the title just sounded like how to make cocktails. But as it turned out, it was so much more. Tobin should really teach a whole class on how to open and run a bar. It would make a great course at a hospitality school.

Tobin Ellis


I had met Tobin last October at Portland Cocktail Week. There he taught a class on free pouring. I also respected his judgement when he judged the Triple Buck with the Bon Vivants. Though I didn’t really get to know until a few months later at Social Mixology’s Repeal Day party at the Cathouse in Las Vegas. I knew he and his company recently trained and hired the bar staff for the new Lynyrd Skynyrd BBQ restaurant and bar.

First Tobin opened with knowing what kind of bar you wanted to open. Whether it would be a dive, speakeasy, or sports bar, you needed to know that. And know your market. If you’re a mid-market bar, maybe you don’t need a fancy POS system.

Also, you should be aware of costs. The price of limes goes up and down throughout the year. If you don’t know how much limes cost, that could affect your bottom line.

It was interesting to hear about how the money maker is booze. We have always known that but Tobin pointed out that small beers are actually money makers because bars tended to reduce the price of bigger glasses of beers.

Then he delved into supplier relations. He mentioned while some suppliers want to put all their products in your bar and come up with your drink list, don’t let them. Don’t fall for pay for play.

When training, make sure even the bar backs know what simple syrup should taste like. And what good is training the opening staff when they may not be there in 6 months. Training and testing is important at all times.

In preparing the drinks menu, know you will have a loss leader but you can always side sell. So you have a craft cocktails bar. The name of the game is hospitality. Maybe you don’t want to make a Cosmopolitan because you’re a booze nerd. Well, make one and then make someone even better. Perhaps an Aviation. Make that customer love it, make your bar memorable and make that customer come back.

We delved into some finer points of menu design including making sure there is a letterbox around some key cocktails. Those cocktails will sell the most. And typography is important. Headers should be san serif and the body text in serif but don’t use too many different kinds of fonts. It’ll be confusing. There should be an odd number of drinks like 7. You want people to order multiple rounds and even numbers make it too easy to try the whole menu. Also have a hook like Old Milwaukee in a can. It’ll rarely sell but it makes your list memorable.

If you put limits on your menu, never break your own rules. If you tell people they can only have 2 of one drink, that’s it. Also, if you run out of an ingredient, 86 the cocktail right away. Don’t substitute. It’ll never be the same. People might come back for it. They always want what they can’t have.

Then we got down some brass tacks. A good bartender can engage their guests at all times. They make sure everyone is having a good time.

Without a doubt, I thought this presentation was phenomenal. Tobin had 50 minutes to speak but I’m sure he could expound on so much more given his experience in the industry. He did eventually get into drink recipe making (– don’t be afraid to sell sweet drinks– you want to make money)  or what I naively thought of as drink engineering but I found the information on running a bar so much more interesting.

I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a lot of inquiries after his presentation. It would be worth the investment if your sales soared with his recommended tweaks.


Check out the slides from the lecture here.


Nightclub & Bar Convention

Bar Magic


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