By: Heather Williams

Alcohol is a disinfectant.  Right?  That’s the little white lie we tell ourselves.  You may want to look a little closer at what goes on behind the bar.  It may be scarier than you might think.  We give restaurant kitchens a whole lot of scrutiny, but don’t think too much about what’s going on with our drinks.  From garnishes to glassware to the unthinkable ice machine, today we dive into the dirty little secrets found behind the bar.

Beautiful Garnish or Bacterial Flotation Device?

While this might not be the case with all restaurant or bar establishments, for many it is very much the case.  In general, the fruit used for drink garnishing is often not washed.  Unwashed fruit and rinds can harbor bacteria and chemicals that are later transferred to your foods.  Drinks included.  Bacteria such as Salmonella, E coli, and Campylobacter are often found on fresh produce, along with pesticides and even sometimes a waxy coating.  If unwashed, not only will the surface bacteria make its way into your beverage, but the knife used to cut the fruit can transfer surface bacteria into the fleshy part of the fruit you might later eat off the side of the glass.

While the health codes generally express that ready-to-eat foods should not be handled with bare hands, often garnishes are an exception.  In fact, some jurisdictions have added the exception at the request of many high-end bar owners, explaining that it takes away from the experience for a bartender to stop what they are doing and don a glove or that the garnish may not be able to be as artistic if the mixologist must wear gloves.  Others cited the cost and waste disposal associated with a glove change between every drink.  While the exception may have lasted for quite a while, many health departments are removing this exception to make the patron experience a safer one.

In addition to the bare hand or even gloved hand, consider what the bartender is doing with their hands while they are not handling food.  While not always the case, many times a bartender will serve a drink then take money (also known to be very dirty) and then move on to serving another drink.  A bartender should wash their hands after handling money or before handing food again.  We all know how hectic things can get behind the bar, particularly at peak times and happy hour.  This hygiene practice often gets ignored, leaving the consumer vulnerable to cross-contamination of unhealthy bacteria.

How Clean is That Glass?

How is your drink served?  We don’t give much thought to the glass as long as it looks clean.  What may harm us most could be lurking on the surface too small for our eyes to see.

Many establishments rely solely on the three-compartment sink method for washing glassware.  This both a common and acceptable practice when done correctly.  One compartments contains sudsy water, another with water to rinse, and finally a sanitizing solution.  In theory, the three-compartment method should clean and sanitize.  Watch closely on your next outing to see how quickly the bartender or assistant goes through the motions.  Generally, there is no scrubbing and in a busy establishment glassware is reused fairly promptly.  Don’t even think about how often the sink gets cleaned or disinfected throughout the shift.  Some establishments use a dishwasher with high heat.  While there are benefits to both mechanical and manual dish washing, the important concept is that the glasses are appropriately cleaned and sanitized.

After the glasses are cleaned, where are they stored?  To save space, many bars stack them on the bar or upside down.  Consider how often that surface is washed or sanitized.  Even more scary are the dry mats utensils are placed on after cleaning.  These are a breeding ground for bacteria and offer opportunity for reintroducing bacteria to the newly cleaned item.

Two Words: Ice. Machine.

When I asked around for some common practices and examples from those who I have interviewed in the industry, almost everyone replied with a resounding ICE MACHINE.  While restaurant bars and bars are not the only ones with this dirty little secret, all food establishments struggle with the cleanliness of this all-important equipment.

While there are many studies out there that have researched the contamination found in these machines, one in particular tested the ice and also the toilet water from several establishments.  It was determined that 70% of the time the ice was dirtier than the toilet water at the same establishment.

The Dirty Truth About Bar Towels

The bar towel.  Often seen hanging on the bartenders’ apron, out of the back pocket, or over a shoulder, does the dirty job of wiping up spills, drying off condensation, and general cleanup.  The bar towel does more than just cleaning.  When used more than once, it can pass around germs and spread illness causing bacteria.  Sharron W. remembers her time being a bartender.  You might even see a bartender wiping the ice off beer can tops and beer bottles with the same rag they clean tables with, she said.

What’s on the Counter and Behind the Bar?

What about that bowl of nuts?  Sharron W. remembers the bowl of nuts sitting on the bar that everyone puts their hands in.  Some places have pickled eggs served at the bar.  The fork might not be long enough and hands end up dipped in the pickling juice, she explains.  It is something we don’t like to think about, but often happens.

Something even more visible is the bottles of liquor on display behind the bar.  It’s a bar, right.  What better decoration than the beautiful bottles and labels that hold the ingredients for that amazing cocktail your mixologist is stirring up.  Just as dust settles in your own home, dust builds up on the bottles.  If not regularly maintained, dust containing dirt, grime, and even skin cells (gasp!) may find its way into your cool beverage.  Dust bunnies are not on the menu, but sometimes an undeclared ingredient.

What Can You Do?

Does this mean you should swear off all adult activities?  Of course not.  Just be aware of what’s going on in the establishments you choose to drink and dine in, and when possible make good choices.  Perhaps get the margarita without the salt.  Ask for the beverage without the garnish.  Clean the mouth of the bottle or can.  We can’t live in a bubble, but be safe while enjoying your bubbly.