Many people believe that the alcohol in a cocktail kills cold and flu germs. While ethyl alcohol does kill viruses of many kinds at concentrations of 60-80%, that’s far below the strength of alcohol in your average cocktail.
Working as a bartender a 4-star and 5-star hotels, I saw many things that made me question the standards of hygiene at service establishments. Anyone who has worked in the food and beverage industry will likely agree with me. To this day, I always skip the garnish - no lemon for me. Heading to the cocktail bar tonight? Follow a few simple tips to avoid picking up germs that cause the cold and flu.
How to Avoid Germs at Cocktail Bars
- Use a straw. Bar dishwashers should clean and sanitize all glassware. But often they don’t function properly. Perhaps the water isn’t hot enough, the soap is out, or the glasses get pulled out to use before the wash cycle is complete. At one bar that I worked at, we didn’t realize the dishwasher was malfunctioning for weeks. When we did, it took another week to get it repaired. Did we close the bar during that time? No way. We made do with cold water washes. It may be against health codes, but it happens all the time - and you’ll probably never know. Use a straw so there’s no lip-to-rim contact. Feel bad about using a disposable straw? Carry your own a reusable, stainless steel straw instead.
- Don’t eat the bar snacks. Free food is attractive, especially after you've had a couple of drinks. But sharing bar snacks like peanuts, popcorn, and pretzels with strangers means sharing their germs, too. Even if the bartender pours a fresh bowl when you sit down, there’s a very good chance that your bowl has not been washed since the last customer dug around in it with their slobbery fingers.
- Skip the lemon and all garnishes. Orange slices, pineapple wedges, and stemmed cherries add color and fun to your cocktail – but they also might be adding bacteria. In many bars and restaurants, lemon slices come standard in water and iced tea. While health regulations state that the lemon must be handled with tongs or plastic gloves, this rarely ever happens. Those lemons may have been cut a few days ago – and have often been sitting out since the bar opened. At one of the bars where I worked, we never washed the fruit before slicing it. Not once. Other bars may not wash their cutting boards. A 2007 study in the Journal of Environment Health found microbial growth on 69.7% of lemon wedges served in restaurants, with a total of 25 different microorganisms including yeasts and bacteria.
- Order drinks that don’t need ice. In most bars, ice bins are at waist-level, which is the perfect position to catch spills and other items that are dropped: garnishes, spoons, etc. Even if bartenders are careful, every time they fill their scoop with ice, their knuckles and/or shirt cuffs are likely brushing against the ice. Ice bins in bars are filled from ice machines in back, machines that are notorious for harboring bacteria like E. coli. A Daily Mail study from 2013 showed that restaurant ice machines contained more bacteria than toilet water.
- Learn how to spot dirty glasses and poor hygiene in bars – and avoid these establishments. It’s easy to recognize bars that aren’t following safety standards if you know what to look for. Check your glass before you drink. If the head on your beer falls flat fast or bubbles cling to the sides in clusters – you’re drinking out of a dirty glass. Do bartenders seem super rushed and stressed? They may be cutting corners on cleanliness to save time. And always look for the obvious. If the counters are sticky, the floors are dirty, and the bartender isn’t washing their hands – then there is probably much more going on behind the scenes.
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