They are the unsung heroes of any alcohol-fuelled night out. But what do the staff make of us from their vantage point behind the bar? Words by Richard Erhlich. Photographs by Martin Salter
You're sitting on a barstool with a terrible dilemma: should you have another vodka Martini or move on to a sea breeze? The person behind the bar has a more complicated dilemma. He, or she, has to make ten different drinks for the table in the corner. The merchant bankers at the end of the bar are squealing for strawberry margaritas. There's a stack of glasses to be washed, and the bar-back, whose job this is, had to rush out for emergency supplies of ice. The ad execs at table five are groping the waitress, and things may get ugly.

To understand the bartender's lot, you have to understand one thing: while you are relaxing, they are working as hard as anyone in the country. You unwind; they walk (and run) several miles an evening. You have to decide where to eat dinner; they have to make hundreds of perfect drinks, some requiring lengthy preparation and microscopically fine judgement. You're drinking with friends; they stay sober and have to be nice to dozens of strangers - even the loudmouthed Jerks In Suits who demand instant attention and then leave a pounds 1 tip on a pounds 150 tab.

Drinking culture in Britain has come a long way from beer and Babycham, but bartending remains a social, service-based job. Good publicans, in the old days, were treated with respect by their customers. In many of the hippest bars, newly affluent drinkers may treat the people working there as servants. Despite the rise of cocktail culture, the creativity of bartenders has yet to be widely recognised.

Yet they're expected to do more than ever, and above all they must be quick. This is easy for an order of a beer and a G&T. But when the drinks are complicated, speed requires dexterity, precision, encyclopaedic knowledge and boundless physical stamina. They must retain their composure under working conditions that make a trading floor look like a Zen garden. And they must be polite even when the customer is unbearably loud, unspeakably rude, or oafishly sexist.

These pictures show the glamorous world of modern bar-life from a different perspective - the perspective of sobriety, hard work and economic necessity. If you ever go to bars, you owe them your full attention.

Captions: Where: Leisure Lounge, Holborn, London

When: 26 March, midnight

Behind the bar: Eddie Santos, 20

"It's a Sixties, Seventies theme night. A lot of drunk people. Good atmosphere. They love drinking, man! They love to dress up Sixties and Seventies style as well. The majority come in wigs, flares and so on. It's a fun night. They're a lively bunch actually. They like to chat when they're drunk, but mainly they come just to have a dance and get drunk on vodka and Red Bull. Some crowds you get, they're a bit funny, rude as well. But most of them are all right. You don't really deal with people on a one-to-one basis because it is quite busy and you don't get that much time to mix with them. The only time you ever chat is when they come to you for a drink: you might have a two-minute conversation. At the time this picture was taken, things were starting to warm up. Most of them had probably just come in."

Where: Floyd's Sports Bar, Charlton Athletic FC, London

When: 3 April, 1.45pm

Behind the bar: Kelly Luby, 19

"Before the match they come in and then again after the game to drown their sorrows or celebrate. They're like, `I knew it, we're useless.' They often cheer up after a few drinks. They drink more when we win. If we lose, they're normally gone by eight or nine. But if we win, I've seen them staying right till close. They don't come in when there's no game on, because a lot of them come from far away. It gets so busy before the match, by the time we've cleaned up, you think you can go out and grab five minutes of the game - but by then it's half time and they're back in. Nightmare! There's never any aggro - we're all in the same boat, we all want Charlton to win. You couldn't really not be into football, working here, because everyone who comes in is talking about it."

Where: Gaudi's, Bradford, West Yorkshire

When: 12 May, midnight

Behind the bar: `J', 43

"Since we opened in November, we've not had one incident. It's not that type of place. When you get to know your customers, they don't want to embarrass you and we don't want to embarrass them. Our policy is not to flood the place - we want to be able to natter with the customers. If we can't spend three or four minutes with a customer, then we control entry on the door. There's nothing else like Gaudi's in Bradford. We don't class ourselves as upmarket or low market, we're simply a bar. We're the Audi or Volkswagen of the bar world. My view is that the American-style bars that are flooding the country, are not really suited to the British. I think we prefer more reserved service, pleasantness. We appreciate that more than any fake `Have a nice day' image."

Where: Slug & Lettuce, Bank, London

When: 26 March, 8pm

Behind the bar: Chris Pollitt, 25

"We do get to know a few of the regulars here, but most of the customers tend to stay with their friends. The traders are a good bunch. It takes a while to get to know them, they can be pretty arrogant, but as soon as we speak to them on their level they relax a bit. If it's been a bad day, they're usually on a bit of a low, so they go home and cut their losses. If they've had a good day, it does get rowdy and they can be very sexist. But it makes our job easier if they're all having fun. From what I've heard, we don't get as much in tips as bars in Covent Garden and Leicester Square. They're a bit shy to - although I don't know if shy is the right word. But three feet of mahogany separates us from them. That's our bit of security. It means we don't have to take too much shit."

Where: May Ball, Oxford

When: 30 April, midnight

Behind the bar: Sam Allen, 27

"I've got a full-time job as well, I don't need the money, so I look for the fun aspect. At the Ball, you get so many students or toffs uncontrollably drunk and I do my best to get them as drunk as possible. All the alcohol's free - they're given a token to hand over at the bar, and then you aren't allowed to serve anyone without empties, but basically I grab hold of anybody that comes near me and pour alcohol down their throats. Most people come in with the pretence of being sophisticated. Within two hours, that's all dropped. The bow ties are off, the dresses and tights are torn and coming off - or being ripped off. People think you don't notice, but as you're stone-cold-sober, you think, `Actually mate, you're in a bit of a state, aren't ya?' I've seen people molested - well, boyfriends and girlfriends who've had too much to drink."

Where: Macy's Pub, Bigg Market, Newcastle

When: 14 May, 9pm

Behind the bar: Rob Strange, 21

"There's about 30 pubs in Bigg Market, close together. You have a drink in one, fall into the next. Macy's is big, American in style - or it's supposed to be. At the moment, we're aiming at getting more of the clubbers in. It's so busy in here we don't really get to talk to people. I've worked the quieter nights, when you get the regulars. We've got this one who comes in on Wednesdays, we call him Santa. He starts off normal, but after a few pints he's absolutely ratted. You get your raggies, your local trouble in, but it's not excessive. People make out that Bigg Market is bad like that, but it's calmed down a lot. All the doormen have radio contact to the police now. You see all sorts happening: people scoring, falling over, fights and stuff. It's a different way of looking at things, from behind the bar, from the other side."

Where: The Rectory, Wilmslow, Cheshire

When: 12 May, 8pm

Behind the bar: Jessica Bentley, 20

"I wouldn't say Wilmslow is a town as such, it's more a place where beautiful women drink coffee, do lunch, drive cars and say `Hi' to friends. But then it's not like we have loads of expensive restaurants here. It's got everything from fast food to fancy food. The Rectory is here to suit everybody - if you want a quiet drink in the week it's the place, or if you want a really noisy night then we've got that as well. It's undergoes a bit of a transformation at night, when it can get quite loud and club-like. We've had name DJs come and play here. I'd definitely say it's a meeting place for friends and family. Eight o'clock is early doors - that's when a lot of people who know each other drink here. It's cliquey in some aspects, but you wouldn't ever feel left out. I come and drink here on my nights off ... bit of a busman's holiday really."