As anyone who’s worked in a restaurant, or even been out to dinner with an entitled, picky type can tell you, nobody likes the “ordering-off-menu” guy. But at the bar it’s a different story. Any bar that takes its cocktails seriously, and that’s about every bar worth drinking at now, will have a menu that highlights what they think they do best, or one they’ve tailored to the taste of their guests–but remember it’s just a set of guidelines. Unlike the kitchen, where the ingredients on hand are fixed, and the chef is probably a grumpy prick anyway, the choices at the bar are almost infinite. So go ahead, order off-menu, or better yet, ask for the bartender’s choice. It’s a good way to expand your drinking horizons. After all, they are the experts.
A bartender, it’s important to remember, is not like a DJ. They aren’t annoyed by your requests. In fact, they’re probably more annoyed when you don’t have a specific request. (In both cases, however, no one wants to hear you slurring “Can youse playsh some Gaga, it’s muh birfday.”) But there’s a right way and a wrong way to spin the bartender wheel of fate. We asked a few bartenders in New York and Boston to explain how to get the most out of the experience as a guest ordering an unfamiliar drink, and to alleviate the common headaches they encounter when dealing with an overly indecisive guest.
Location is key. It sounds obvious, but know where you are before you start experimenting. Is there more than two grizzled old-timers drinking with their heads down on the bar here? Is the bartender wearing a bikini? Then you’re probably not in the right spot to trust the bartender’s choice. Stick with the shot of whiskey and crappy domestic. As something of a dive bar “expert,” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve saddled up at a hole-in-the-wall and asked for a Manhattan only to be disappointed by the lack of bitters in stock, not to mention the “Can you believe this a-hole?” reaction from the bartender. Thing is, I was an a-hole. I should’ve known better.
Time of the night is key, too. Don’t ask for bartender’s choice or expect to get into a lengthy back and forth about the provenance of your spirit of choice when the bar is packed. That’s not when a bartender is going to be receptive to indecision. Go in earlier in the night, or else be prepared to wait longer than you normally would. “I think the best quality a guest can have at a bar is the ability to read the room,” says Frank Caiafa of The Vault at Pfaff’s in the Village. “If it’s early evening and there is obviously time to have some fun experimenting, they should feel free to request a special cocktail that may take some time to make or ask general questions about the spirits and ingredients. If it’s three deep at the bar, it may not be the right time for a Ramos Gin Fizz.”
The bartender probably doesn’t trust that you’re automatically going to like whatever they make, unless they know you, so they’ll be wary of mixing you anything, because people do that a lot, and then say “I don’t like this.” People are dicks. Narrowing the parameters ahead of time ensures that you’ll come away with a drink that you’ll enjoy, and that they won’t have to remix it five times. “I won’t make a drink unless I get a bit of information from the customer,” says Tara Pollari of Sons of Essex in the Lower East Side. She’s not annoyed by bartender’s choice requests at all, she says, but “I would just like to get more information from the consumer to make sure they are happy with the end result. There are so many drink combinations, but if you get a few details up front, you are bound to get a happy drinker.”
“I believe that if you truly take the time to listen to what the guest is asking for and make a balanced cocktail, you will always hit the jigger in the head, gain the trust of your guest, and soon find yourself with a fan base,” says Moses Laboy of Red Rooster in Harlem. First, Laboy says, he would want to know what flavor profile the guest is looking for: sour, sweet, fruit-forward, herbaceous and fragrant, or boozy. Having a general game plan for your cocktail, even if you have no idea what it’s actually going to be, is important. “Then I would want to know what type of spirit they would like or I would suggest what I think would go best with the style of cocktail they’re having. Finally, but not always, I would ask if they would prefer a classic, contemporary, or my personal spin on the cocktail.”
Think of ordering a cocktail like you might be browsing around Amazon or looking for new music on Spotify–the “recommended if you like” method of drinking. Do you like Manhattans? Then maybe you’ll like a rye-based cocktail made with Cynar or Fernet or another variation. That’s the approach Ted Gallagher of the superb Craigie on Main in Cambridge, MA takes. “The first thing I ask is whether they’d prefer something shaken, with fresh citrus juice, or something stirred, like a Manhattan. I adhere to the line of thinking that generally speaking, these are the two biggest camps of cocktail style. Choosing one of these directions is thus the first step towards a drink that someone will enjoy in that moment.”