The dreaded send-back. It stinks, but it happens. If you’ve been bartending for any length of time, you’ve had a guest send their drink back. And if you’ve been bartending for a while, you’ve probably heard some pretty entertaining reasons too. Sometimes the reasons are completely understandable, and sometimes they’re downright frustrating.

No matter what the reason, here is some inspiration for keeping your composure, making it right with the customer and (hopefully) still making a great tip.

The Order is (Objectively) Incorrect

Let’s start with an easy one. If a customer orders a dirty martini and is served a lemon drop, it’s completely fair for them to send it back. Likewise for details like requesting a particular spirit, garnish, or serve.

If this happens, (and at some point it will) then it’s important not to make excuses – from the customer’s perspective, they don’t really care if it was the cocktail waitress or the bartender who got it wrong. Apologize, replace the drink, and consult your bar’s comp policy for the best way to compensate the customer. Typically if their drink is replaced in a timely manner and correctly the second time, comping isn’t necessary. If they are particularly irate or if it’s a really high end bar, you may decide otherwise.

The Customer Likes the Cocktail Made Differently

I’d have to say the #1 cocktail at risk of this send-back is the Old Fashioned. There are a thousand recipes and they vary more than perhaps any drink. If they’re expecting this and you serve a high end craft drink on the rocks, they might be inclined to send it back and think you made them the wrong drink. But it could happen with any cocktail recipe – there’s no law (in the USA at least) dictating the recipe for named cocktails. If a customer makes it differently at home, they might just think you have it wrong. And you know what? That’s OK.

First: don’t correct them. After all – they aren’t wrong! Acknowledge that you did make what they ordered, but that your house recipe may be different from what they are used to. Then offer to re-make the drink in the way that they prefer.

“I’m sorry you didn’t care for it. This is how we make our Old Fashioneds here, but if you have a particular recipe you prefer, I’d be happy to remake it.”

This gives them an opportunity to order what they really wanted, while letting them know that this is indeed what they ordered. They may keep the drink and have a chance to try the cocktail a new way they haven’t had before, or they may ask you to remake it. Either way, you’ve hopefully still given them a great customer experience.

Wine & Beer: It’s gone bad

Most common with wine or beer (but could happen with cocktails made with vermouth or rarely used liqueurs), a customer won’t usually say “this wine has gone bad”. Rather, they’re more likely to send it back with a strange look on their face and say something like “This just doesn’t taste right.”

Wine: it could be corked or the wine could have been open too long. The first thing to check is to go back to the bottle and taste it. If it’s gone off, the last thing you want is to keep pouring! If the customer’s right and the wine has gone bad, offer to replace it (with the same glass or something different.) If the wine tastes fine, then it’s possible they just don’t care for that style – offer to replace it with something else.

Beer: If the line is dirty or the keg is just off, you could be pouring a beer that tastes terrible and not even realize it. Like wine, taste from the source (not the customer’s glass). If the beer is bad, 86 it. Regardless, offer to replace it with something else.

“I can’t even taste the alcohol!”

Perhaps the personal favorite guest comment of every bartender worldwide, a customer will sometimes send a cocktail back with a thinly veiled request for more booze. They may accuse you of shorting them, or they may imply that you should add extra booze without charging them. Or they may not realize that they’ve been making the drink unusually strong at home. Either way, they’re looking for more alcohol than they ordered.

First: take a deep breath. Yeah, I know it sucks and frankly it’s insulting. They’re accusing you of not doing your job. But defending yourself is a risky move and likely to just make them even more unpleasant. Your best option at this point is to kill them with kindness, without giving away the bar:

“I’d be happy to pour you a double if that’s what you’d prefer.” By offering a double, you’re also suggesting that they will be charged more, which is appropriate if they are asking for more alcohol.

Or, if you’re feeling particularly snarky, you could pour a tiny bit of the base spirit down the straw. Their first sip will taste very boozy and they’ll probably be satisfied. Note: I’m kidding, don’t actually do this.)

They Just Don’t Like it

Last but not least: sometimes the customer just isn’t going to like your drink. Maybe they didn’t realize Campari was bitter (let’s be honest, it looks like candy!) Or maybe they had no idea what Mezcal tastes like. Maybe they thought “cider” is “apple cider”. It’s easy to forget how much we know about the products we serve, and how much the general public does not.

First, see if you can learn from their experience: “What didn’t you like about the drink?”  Be careful about your tone – while it may hurt that the customer didn’t love your beautifully crafted creation, remember that the purpose of this question is to make them happy, not to defend yourself. (And I thought your drink was great, FWIW).

Once you have a sense for what they didn’t like, you can start to make suggestions. If it’s too bitter, suggest something sweeter. If it’s too smoky, offer them something with tequila instead.

Warning: it may be tempting to use this as an opportunity to educate the customer, but it’s going to be really tough to pull that off while still making the customer happy. “Oh, well that’s what Mezcal tastes like” makes the customer look bad and feel like they should like the drink when they have already told you they don’t.

If you really want to, phrase it carefully with something like “Oh I could see why you would say that! This is a very smoky drink because the Mezcal really brings a lot of that smokiness. Can I suggest a tequila cocktail that you might like better?” It’s all about your tone – be friendly and welcoming, and offer to make them something they’ll love.

Killing with Kindness

Remember, 99% of people aren’t going to send a drink back, even if they don’t like it. That means if a drink is returned you either have a particularly picky customer on your hands (tread carefully) or you have a guest who genuinely doesn’t like what they’ve been given. 

Check out our podcast episode all about service recovery and making it right when things go wrong. But in general, just stay cheerful and hospitable, avoid getting defensive, and consult your comp policy.

I know a send-back can be really frustrating, but don’t let yourself get caught up in each individual drink that gets sent back. Remember your goal is to provide great guest experiences and turn this guest into a regular. This particular drink is water under the bridge. Use this as an opportunity to give them a memorable experience and a drink they will love!


Chris Tunstall

Co-Founder of A Bar Above and career bartender and mixologist. I love experimenting, creating cocktails, and drinking Green Chartreuse.