5 Ways to be The Best Bar Guest
Across America, talented individuals are pumping out cocktails we can be proud of. I'm not talking about bartenders in college bars on game days mixing up Jim Beam and coke (although those poor souls deserve their own special round of applause).
I'm talking about the kind of people at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans right now. And you know, even some who aren't there too. These are craftsmen and craftswomen who know the history of cocktails, hand squeeze fruit juices into drinks, prepare homemade syrups and shrubs, and take time to craft the perfect cocktail to your liking - just to name a few of their many attributes.
If what I just described doesn't sound like qualities you want in the person crafting your drink, stop reading and go back to your Jim Beam and Coke (nothing wrong with that).
For everyone else that is still with me: listen up. This post is for people like me, that want to sit down and appreciate all the complex flavors and balance that a cocktail can hold. But you don't know where to start. And you don't understand one ingredient on the menu except for maybe the type of ice the drink is served over. You're only 22, the bartender is approaching, and with nervous apprehension you say..... "I'll take that one glass of wine you have on the menu"... because you had no other words.
That is no way to become friends with the people behind the bar or with the experienced patrons at your side. To solve this problem, I asked cocktail guru Anthony Auger of Ice Plant Bar in St. Augustine for help. Here's what he had to say:
Step 0: Before talking to the bar staff, look at the menu. Like, actually read it.
Reading the menu will give you an idea of what kind of bar it is, what they offer, what kind of shit you got yourself into. Take a second, look around, and notice your surroundings. Is it a dive bar? Is it a mixology lab? Hell's center? Fancy as f'? You don’t want to order the same drink everywhere you go (it wouldn’t hurt to shoot for a little variety in your life anyways). But the main message is to do your best to be aware of your surroundings – of where you are, of the kind of bar you have entered – before approaching the bartender.
Step 1: For your first drink, stick to the menu or to a recommendation from the bartender (based on your preferences).
If you don’t see anything on the menu that looks directly enticing, and/or if you don’t recognize half of what’s on the menu, ask the bartender for a recommendation or an explanation. He or she would be happy to help you find a drink that you can enjoy. (Small secret: until they climbed over to the other side of the bar, they didn’t know most of those obscure bottles either.) When talking to the bartender, try to hone in on specific flavor profiles that you would enjoy. Keywords to use are: citrusy, bitter, floral, clean, refreshing, boozy, etc.
In the event you’re person without any personal preferences or tastes (or personality), you can ask the bartender what they like to drink, but be warned: you’re probably not going to like it. In fact, unless you shower in Chartreuse and wear Eau de Fernet cologne, you’re almost definitely going to hate this cocktail. Odds are you’ll receive a drink that will be unbearably bitter, and potentially boozy enough to power any four-stroke lawnscaping equipment that you have in your garage.
Step 2: Taste the drink and be honest about it.
Once you have your libation, take a sip. Actually, take 2 – first impressions aren’t always accurate in the cocktail world. Then, be honest. This is really important. Do you like it? Do you hate it? If you lie and say you like it when you really don’t, you’re going to continue to receive similar drinks all night – none of which you like, and certainly don’t want to pay $12 for – because you weren’t completely honest about your first round.
What did you like about it? “The little umbrella looked really pretty, and the perfectly clear ice cube just blew my mind.” Okay, that’s great, but what about the flavors? “It was balanced – not overly sweet, not too sour. The citrus component tasted fresh, clean, slightly tart, without being overwhelming.” Good, that’s something we can work with.
What about the drink did you not like? “It was drier than I prefer, a little too bitter. I didn’t like that bubbles.” Heard that.
Step 3: Trust the bartender.
It’s time for Round 2, and by this point you have (hopefully) struck up an extremely shallow relationship with the barkeep. Whether your first drink has just become your new favorite, or whether it was just “aight”, the bartender is now better accustomed to your tastes and should have a good idea of where to go next.
To help guide your next drink, the bartender may ask you a few clarifying questions to hone in further on what you would enjoy.
“Do you want to stick with the same base spirit (i.e. gin, bourbon, vodka), or do you want to change it up?” “How adventurous are you feeling?”
And, if you’ve really won over your barkeep, you might even hear: “I’m working on a new cocktail right now that I think you might like… Would you be willing to try it?”
Step 4: Order a shot of Fernet Branca and offer your bartender one.
If your bartender has managed to create a cocktail that even someone as picky as you can enjoy, then she/he has certainly earned a shot of Fernet. Sharing a shot of Fernet Branca with your barkeep has become known as the “bartender’s handshake”. It’s a friendly gesture towards your bar staff to let them know you’re cool, they’re cool, we’re all cool. It won’t give you instant cred, but it is a step in the right direction and serves as a token of appreciation for a job well done.
Step 5: Go on drinking happily ever after.
You’re in. You and the barkeep have theoretically struck a slightly less shallow relationship based on some thin mutual respect. You’re in good hands. So pass your keys to your nearest/most trusted friend, get the taxi company on speed dial for later, and carry on drinking responsibly. Just don’t over indulge on your first night. That would be like telling a girl “I love you” on a first date, and would probably be received with similar disgust.
Thank you so much to Anthony for his input! Do you like the new wave of craft cocktails that are spreading across the country?
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