When Should Bartenders Cut You Off?

Dear Helena,
The other night I was sitting at a bar having a glass of wine and catching up with my girlfriend, and this guy leaned over to listen to my conversation, clearly eavesdropping. He let out chuckles from time to time. We tried to ignore him. Then he leaned over and abruptly told us that he thought we were "boring." He was clearly drunk, and the bartender could see he was bothering us. Was it the bartender's responsibility to cut him off?
—Stay Out of My Conversation

Dear Stay Out,
Some people act like oafs whether or not they have had anything to drink, and the bartender is powerless to do anything about that. But bartenders are obliged to stop serving alcohol when customers are obviously trashed. For one thing, according to "dram shop law," bars and/or individual bartenders may be held liable if a drunk harms a third party after leaving the premises. (Exact laws vary by state.) And of course drunks can cause plenty of harm while they're still at the bar. Mike Ryan, head bartender at Sable Kitchen & Bar in Chicago, recalls a recent guest who drank seven or eight vodka martinis, then offended two female customers by suggesting a threesome.

So how does a bartender decide when someone has had too much? That decision shouldn't be based on quantity consumed, says Ryan. "There are no set rules, like people can only have five drinks. ... Some people are wasted after one cocktail; some can drink seven drinks in a row and still stand up." So the poster in this Chowhound thread was right to be annoyed: The bartender seems to have cut him off purely because he had consumed three drinks in a little over an hour.

In fact, the cutoff should be based on behavior. The symptoms of extreme drunkenness are pretty obvious: slurred speech, glassy eyes, and the loss of fine motor control.

Curtailing a customer's booze intake is a three-step process:

1. Anticipate. The bartender can ward off trouble—especially if he has seen the customer overdo it before—by taking a really, really long time to serve them. If the bar is busy, says Ryan, "they usually find someone to talk to and forget they've ordered a beer." If the bar is half-empty, it's trickier to explain why you're taking half an hour to make a vodka tonic.

2. Deflect. "Saying, 'No, you're trashed,' is a good way to provoke them," says Ryan. Instead of a direct refusal, Ryan prefers to "slide over a glass of water or Coca-Cola and say, 'Why don't you try this for now?'" Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bar manager of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, says he has to cut someone off about once a month; he serves coffee or food on the house, or offers to pay for a cab home.

3. Stand firm. Most drunks take the hint, says Ryan. "Usually if they order beer and get water, they say, 'Am I that drunk?' and I say, 'Yeeeeeah, sorry.'" But every so often, "they're feeling great and they just want to keep the party going." Some of the worst offenders are wedding guests, who frequent Ryan's bar because it's adjacent to a hotel. These people may have been drinking since lunchtime. "I've had to physically throw people out a couple of times. ... I've had to cut off the father of the bride because he was drooling on himself. He said, 'I spent all this money in the hotel. I demand a drink.' I was like, 'Well, you got what you paid for: You're trashed.'"

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