Cutting Someone Off - The Right Way


Let’s be honest. As bartenders, we sell a drug. It’s addictive and dangerous when misused. (Not to leak all the fun out of your bubble, but it’s true.)

We make the party happen. We make delicious drinks. We enable fun and relaxation. But we can’t pour the love all around indiscriminately. Sometimes we have to say no.

The worst of us take this as a long-awaited opportunity to be nasty. We’ve been fake-friendly long enough. Now we can turn it around and tell the patrons what to do:

“You can’t have any more drinkies. Get out.”

But is it possible to stop serving alcohol to someone but maintain a friendly relationship? Of course we can. With the right approach, Captain Tipsy will thank you and come back again when he’s not over the limit.

Every situation is different. Each deserves a unique approach. Here are some battle-tested methods of denying service. The first ones are the best. They only go downhill from there.



The Buddy System

If your over-served guest is with a group of friends, you can use the easiest and least confrontational method:

Identify the most sober/reasonable/rational member of the group. Pull him (or her) aside and say: “Hasn’t your friend had a little too much? I don’t think I can serve him anymore.”

With a bit of luck, the buddy will take his soggy friend under his wing and get him a cheeseburger. (And the tipsy guest won’t even know you cut him off.)

Why this works: The drunk person doesn’t know you. You refusing service could offend him and make him confrontational. His buddy, on the other hand, has probably partied with him on many occasions, and this probably isn’t the first time he’s been cut off. Bad news always comes much easier from a friend.

When this doesn’t work: If your guest is alone, of course, or if his buddy is not as reasonable as he looks.



The Legal Approach

Remind your guest that your state liquor board forbids over-service. Your manager or owner is present or could be watching the surveillance.

“I’m not allowed to serve anyone who’s heavily intoxicated. I could lose my job.”

You’re not cutting him off because you don’t like him. Your hands are tied!

Why this works: This takes the decision making away from you. You’re not deciding they can’t drink. The law already decided that. You’re still their friend, but the call is not yours to make.

When this doesn’t work: This is a complex concept for a drunken brain. You might just get a confused look. Or, they may see through it. “Heavily intoxicated” is a judgment call and you’re the judge. In fact, you are the one deciding they can’t have more.



Defer to the Manager

Another way to remain the good guy is to have your manager break the news. Like The Legal Approach, you’re not making this decision, so you’re not the bad guy. Your manager is. (In fact, some corporate operations require a manager or supervisor to cut guests off.)

Why this works: Your manager brings a level of authority to this. From you, it might seem like a suggestion. From management, it’s the law.

When this doesn’t work: The effectiveness of this approach relies heavily on your manager. Your manager probably didn’t see everything you saw. You may need to convince him/her to cut the guest off. If they decline or hesitate it could be too little too late.



The Librarian

Your guest doesn’t want to be embarrassed in front of the crowd. If you get down to eye level with him and speak quietly, only he will know. It’s a secret between the two of you.

Why this works: Your guest avoids an embarrassing moment and can make this look like his decision. He can tell his friends: “No, I’m cool. I’m going to catch a cab and go to bed.”

When this doesn’t work: In a loud club, clandestine conversation is nearly impossible. Also, like The Legal Approach, this requires some cognition on the part of your guest. He may still perceive embarrassment and stand up for his free will, or insist on his sobriety.


The Shakespearean

Sometimes over-served people won’t respond to anything quiet, gentle, friendly or polite. Only stern, loud and forceful gets through their fuzzy filters.

Stand tall and square. Take a deep breath. Speak from your diaphragm as if you were addressing the back row of the Globe Theatre. Quoth thee:

“Verily, thy cup runneth over. Thy tongue slosheth. Thy stride swayeth. Get thee to an Uber post haste.”

Or, if Shakespearean slang might go over his saturated head, speak clearly and firmly that, no, he can’t have more to drink.

Why this works: You’ve tried to be the nice guy and have been ignored. Now it’s time to deliver the message loud and clear. Be undeniable.

When this doesn’t work: It’s the opposite of The Librarian. It’s loud and it alerts the crowd. It’s confrontational and embarrassing. In return, you could get anger from your guest.



The Chemist

A normal human liver removes one drink from the bloodstream per hour. If you have three drinks in an hour, you have two still in you at the end of the hour. Three hours later, you have none.

So a person who’s over the limit will drop under the limit again. Tell him: “Just take it easy for a while and maybe I can serve you in a couple hours.”

Why this works: The chemistry doesn’t lie. No one stays drunk forever.

When this doesn’t work: It encourages them to hang around and ask: “Can I drink now?” They won’t stop being a behavior problem. Plus, it makes you seem accountable for their sobriety. A cut-off should be permanent until the next day.



The Short Pour

If you won’t tell your guest to stop drinking, start serving lighter drinks. Put just a splash of liquor on top of a glass full of mixer or on the end of the straw.

Why this works: The first thing he’ll taste is sauce and he’ll assume the drink is full strength. His whole face already tastes like liquor anyway. He’ll continue to sip away not knowing he’s been throttled back.

When this doesn’t work: First of all, don’t get caught. (This should be your first clue that this is a very risky, and overall bad approach.) Your guest should be angered and now you’re the bad guy. Plus, you’re charging full price for weak drinks, which is not generally considered great customer service. Finally, most states forbid cut-off guests from having any alcohol in front of them – so this doesn’t actually help you abide by the law.


The Handshake

Again, when a person is cut off, he can’t have a drink even if he drinks it slowly. He can’t take another person’s drink. You have to get it away from them. Of course, ideally you can simply stop serving them more – but sometimes you’ll need to confiscate their beverage. Here’s how.

While reaching in for a polite handshake or high-five to signify no hard feelings, take the drink with your other hand.

Why this works: At this point it’s safe to bet you’ll have quicker reflexes and hand-eye coordination than your opponent. You can dump out the drink and move on.

When this doesn’t work: You’re being physical and deceptive. Plus, if it goes wrong, you’re wrestling over a glass, which could spill or break and you may end up in a fight. Not to mention arguments over whether they’d already paid for said confiscated drink. It’s a risky choice.



The Fake Last Call

Near the end of the night, you may have one guest who’s had plenty while the rest of the crew is okay. Make last call, let that person leave, then serve the remnants.

Why this works: Your over-served guest may be ready to bounce to a bar that will serve him. You don’t have to have a hard conversation and everyone has a good time.

When this doesn’t work: You’re lying. You want to be above reproach in these situations. If the guest doesn’t leave or comes back, now what? He has legitimate cause to be upset. This is also less than ideal if your inebriated guest is just one member of a large party – you’re likely to lose the whole crew.

Cutting people off becomes easier with practice and experience. It’s your bar. Stay in control. Over-service benefits no one.



Think about the right technique for each situation. Analyze what works for you and what doesn’t. Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations. Your business will benefit from your assertiveness.


Cutting Someone Off - The Right Way