Eh, just a beer actually.
June 4, 2013 6:06 AM   Subscribe

Let's say you're in an unfamiliar area and walk in to a bar you have never been in before. You appreciate a nice cocktail, but don't know anything about this bar's bona fides. What do you ask for?

I often find myself traveling and in a situation where I would like to go in to a bar and order something nice to drink, but if the bar or bartenders aren't up to snuff I'd rather just skip it and order a beer. I need a test to quickly determine whether or not this random bar is worth ordering drinks at or whether I should stick to whatever the bartender can easily pour into a glass.

If there's a particular ingredient that bars that don't really do cocktails would not normally stock, that could be a good hint. Or maybe a drink that's pretty classic but the bartender is unsure how to make it. Or something else?
posted by backseatpilot to Food & Drink (36 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
See if they have vermouth. The manhattan and martini are the classic cocktails that even dive bars should be able to make.
posted by spaltavian at 6:09 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Ask if they have fresh mint. How they answer is half of what they answer.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:10 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, Mojito. It means the bar has some simple syrup, fresh mint and a muddler on hand, and it's surprisingly easy for lazy or cheap bartenders to mess up - bad places will use nasty well rum and too much sugar to cover it, or use sprite instead of sparkling water and simple syrup. If they can't get a mojito right, stick to what's on tap.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:26 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Promising signs: Campari, Chartreuse, good rye whiskey, fresh citrus fruits, multiple types of bitters. A Negroni is easy: equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, with an orange twist. Rocks or up, your preference.
posted by letourneau at 6:28 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I try ordering a classic daiquiri. A few times I've been told they don't have a frozen drinks machine & when I tell them "no, a regular old timey one," if they look at me funny, I order a beer.
posted by pointystick at 6:30 AM on June 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: A Negroni is easy

This is what made me start thinking of this, actually. We were in a bar in Chicago recently that came with a good reputation, but when I ordered a Negroni I was asked, "That's got Campari in it, right?" And then they had to go searching all over the restaurant for the one bottle of Campari they had stocked. Should have stopped them right there and gotten a beer instead.
posted by backseatpilot at 6:33 AM on June 4, 2013

Ask if they can make a Negroni. If they don't know what it is, order beer.
posted by j03 at 6:35 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Most of my cocktail snob friends use either the Manhattan or Old Fashioned for this purpose. I prefer the Old Fashioned because there is an art to getting the right proportions and if they crush fruit in it I know its not a place for me, but the case for the Manhattan is that there are more steps. Is the Vermouth vinegary? Do they chill the glass? Is it stirred or shaken? Do they offer me different whiskeys (or better yet, Rye)? Do they have orange bitters? Do they have any bitters?
posted by Lame_username at 6:35 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Basically, the first thing to check is that they use real fruit juice rather than sour mix. That's the baseline. Plenty of bars might have dusty bottles of Chartreuse or Benedictine that they never use. A good strategy is to point out one of those bottles and ask -- "What do you usually make with that?" If the bartender doesn't know, or describes some kind of woo-woo sort of shot, you know to skip the cocktail.
posted by neroli at 6:36 AM on June 4, 2013

I was going to say, I don't think Mojitos are a good test because they're so popular. Lot's of crappy places will still make a Mojito with fresh mint.
posted by j03 at 6:36 AM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Gin and tonic. If they have bottled tonic, that's the first good sign (many dives just have tonic on their pop/soda system and it's horrible stuff). If they have fresh limes cut generously, that's another good sign.

Cocktails like Negronis and Martinis are easy to look up in a bartending book and most bars have the ingredients. You can watch the bartender make these drinks to see if they've memorized the recipes but I wouldn't count on the bar to even have fresh garnishes (or mint, ha!).
posted by hydrobatidae at 6:38 AM on June 4, 2013

Maybe I just go to a lot of crappy bars, but it's usually pretty apparent to me if a place is "cocktails" or "bottled beer only." Is the bar full of candy-flavored vodka? Is there promo crap all over the place? Do the garnishes look fresh? (Bonus points for a cutting board behind the bar.) What do their specials look like...creative or dumbed-down?

Two specific lessons I've learned: don't order a Pimm's cup in a mall (even if the place looks like a decent bar) and don't order a snakebite in an "Irish" bar that only serves Mexican food.
posted by JoanArkham at 6:56 AM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

I dunno--when I tended bar, anyone who sked "What's the best drink you make?" got the answer "Scotch on the rocks". Beer on tap can be messed up as well.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:03 AM on June 4, 2013

Yeah, I'm with you; I order a negroni. Good sign if there's campari behind the bar.
posted by mlle valentine at 7:03 AM on June 4, 2013

I think this really begins and ends with the availability of fresh squeezed citrus. If they don't have fresh lemon and lime juice just stick with beer. A negroni is like the most easily taught drink in the world if you must have a cocktail.
posted by JPD at 7:14 AM on June 4, 2013

Ask the bartender what he or she makes best, what their favorite is, or what they like making most.
posted by mibo at 7:15 AM on June 4, 2013

I have two things I like to drink, Dark and Stormy or a Bacardi Cocktail. I only want the Dark and Stormy if they have Ginger Beer, so I'll ask about that. If they suggest Ginger Ale, forget it.

The Bacardi Cocktail is a stumper. If they know what it is, I'm golden. If they don't, forget it.

Another good one is a Sea Breeze. If they get a puzzled look, again, never mind.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:53 AM on June 4, 2013

Since I'm going to have to actually drink whatever I get, I just say "straight rye, rocks, dash of bitters". Now I know if they have straight rye, what their ice looks like, if they have to go hunting for the bitters or if they have more than one kind – and even if in their confusion and ignorance they give me Crown Royal straight up, hell, I can enjoy that.
posted by nicwolff at 7:59 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sloshed: How to Order a Proper Drink in Any Bar, Anywhere includes info on sizing up the bar.
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:19 AM on June 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

It's funny, I popped in to say check to see if you can see Campari behind the bar, which is what my friends do as a thing, but I had no idea other people used that meter as well.
posted by General Malaise at 8:21 AM on June 4, 2013

I think the martini is a good litmus test.
• Order a martini
• If the bartender immediately reaches for vodka = Fail
• If the bartender asks if you want that on the rocks = Fail
• If the martini comes poured into a glass the size of a hubcap = Fail
posted by Thorzdad at 8:25 AM on June 4, 2013

I've tried the, "what do you make best or like making?" and gotten the answer "BEER" from good craft cocktail makers - just because beer is easy, and making craft cocktails all night is hard work (admittedly, those guys were slammed and usually also gave me cocktail options).

I usually ask if they have a cocktail menu. Sizing up That menu can tell you a lot about whether you want to order something crafty or not - and, extra bonus, you haven't paid money for it.
posted by ldthomps at 8:27 AM on June 4, 2013

As others have said, just look at what booze they have. If they have high end booze up on the shelf with varying degrees of stuff being drunk out of it, go for it and order a drink. If not, get a beer. If so, get some rye and some ice cubes. Fancy drinks are for the marketing department.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:36 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

You don't need to order anything. I agree with ldthomps that you can learn everything you need to know by looking at their cocktail, spirits, and beer menus. I find that places fall into one of three camps: they make good, serious cocktails and it's obvious - the list will have a fair share of classics, some inventive new ideas, and some twists on old favorites; or they think of themselves as a cocktail place but what they really do is serve mostly insipid candy drinks like flavored-vodka based "martinis" and odd-flavor quasi-margaritas and other sugary stuff; or they only give cocktails an afterthought and really focus on the beer, or just don't give much of a shit about quality in general.
posted by Miko at 9:29 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Over the years I have distilled (see what I did there?) my criteria for a worthy bar down to two: A grownup bar will have a) no plants, and b) no blender.

The absence of these abominations does not guarantee greatness, but their presence almost always precludes it.

Having confirmed the first two criteria, order a manhattan.
posted by dinger at 9:44 AM on June 4, 2013

Aperol behind the bar is another good check for me. It's recently slid back into favor, so a bar with Campari *and* Aperol is usually good to go, in my experience.
posted by ersatzkat at 10:47 AM on June 4, 2013

Agreed with Campari and/or Aperol, and checking to see if they have more than just Angostura bitters behind the bar. I walked into one random place once and saw that they had a good 15 different types of bitters on the shelf. That was a fantastic night.
posted by bedhead at 10:50 AM on June 4, 2013

I can usually size up the bar's level of mixological sophistication just by looking behind the bar at the liquor selection, and/or at the drinks menu. Is there decent booze? Mixers that aren't in plastic bottles? A decent selection of liquers that isn't covered in dust? Is the only thing on the menu that ends in -tini a martini? Then I feel OK ordering a cocktail. If not, then no cocktail.

If it's sub-par and I still want a cocktail, I'll go for a Manhattan (but without the gross zombie cherry that's been sitting in a tub out on the bar with the whole staff's fingers in it all night) or a martini (but with a twist rather than an olive for the same reasons as above). Really, anything that's entirely spiritous works, as long as they have booze you consider drinkable, because that removes the possibility of crappy bottled sour mix or canned pineapple juice etc. from the equation. And even a bar that doesn't have any Campari on the shelves can probably still make a decent Manhattan. And if they struggle with either of those, go for the beer.

If the selection is really crappy, frex if the best bourbon they have is Maker's, then I'll just embrace the diveyness and go for [booze of choice]-and-Coke. (And then if they make it with Pepsi or something diet without warning I'll run out the door crying.)
posted by rhiannonstone at 10:58 AM on June 4, 2013

Regarding the comments on the Negroni: If you're using it as a litmus test, I agree that if the bartender doesn't know what that is, you're probably not in a bar where you can expect to get a great cocktail.

However, so long as the bar stocks Campari, you can get a good Negroni no matter what. That's because it's easy to tell the bartender (or waitstaff) how to make it---"equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, on the rocks, built in a rocks glass"---and it's hard to screw these instructions up (unlike a Martini or a Manhattan, which often come watered-down or in an oversized glass).
posted by crLLC at 11:05 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is really beside the point, but: for reasons having to do with my taste in music, I frequently find myself ordering a drink at a social club - VFW, Elks, etc. I have found that there's a fifty/fifty chance that, if I order their top-shelf whiskey, neat, I'll get a rocks glass filled to the brim. This does not tell me whether they can mix a Negroni, but I really didn't come in for a Negroni.
posted by mr vino at 7:35 PM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Ask for the cocktail menu first.

If there isn't one, you have your answer.

If there is, have a seat for a few minutes and see what others are ordering, check out the booze selection, garnishes and overall competence of the bartender.

You should then have your answer.
posted by Youremyworld at 7:54 PM on June 4, 2013

a fifty/fifty chance that, if I order their top-shelf whiskey, neat, I'll get a rocks glass filled to the brim

This is good advice. A friend spotted a dusty bottle of Pernod on a back shelf at a NYC dive bar, and ordered one. They gave her a pint glass of it, neat.
posted by JoanArkham at 5:47 AM on June 5, 2013

However, so long as the bar stocks Campari, you can get a good Negroni no matter what.

If they don't make cocktails frequently and the vermouth isn't refrigerated it can go rancid quite quickly.
posted by j03 at 8:40 AM on June 5, 2013

Ask for the cocktail menu first.
If there isn't one, you have your answer.

I'd have to disagree with this approach. Some of the best bars I've been in didn't have cocktail menus. They had very experienced, veteran bartenders.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:09 PM on June 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

How about just a nice bourbon or scotch on the rocks?

You cocktail snobs have a much better chance of finding what you like than us beer snobs.
posted by jander03 at 4:16 PM on June 5, 2013

I'm married to a bartender. In an unfamiliar bar, I don't order a test drink, I look at the well to see what quality it is. (And I listen to whatever imprecations about its skeeziness my husband may be muttering in my ear.) If it's sketchy but they have a bottle of Fernet Branca, hello there! Fernet shot, please, no back. If they don't have Fernet, I'll go for the most acceptable bottled beer they have. If there's no acceptable bottled beer, and none of the call whiskeys or bourbons look reasonable, I'll walk.
posted by Lexica at 9:06 PM on June 5, 2013

« Older InDesign 6 is giving me a headache - literally   |   Book Award Recommendations? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.