Ask a Bartender: How do I know if a bar will serve a well-crafted cocktail?

From limerence + liquor on Feb 25, 2013

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I recently received an email from a reader with a question I thought might be better answered by a pro.  Luckily, one of my bartender friends was happy to help.  And it got me to thinking - I have a lot of great, intelligent friends in the industry, why not have them share their knowledge with my readers? So, I've created a new feature on this blog called Ask a Bartender. Please feel free to submit a question and I'll get it answered and posted on limerence + liquor in no time.  And don't worry...there are no bad questions - if you've been perplexed by something, you know there are many more who are also wondering the same thing. 


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For this first question I've tapped my good friend Gino Pellarin.  Gino is a bartender at The NoMad Hotel located in New York City (1170 Broadway at 28th Street). 

He's going to tackle questions that arise when ordering a cocktail. Specifically, what are the telltale signs that a bar or restaurant will serve a well-crafted cocktail? And what are the drinks that take minimal effort for a bartender to make?


Trent asks:

I live in the suburb of a big city in the Northeast and while I'm in my neighborhood bar I usually order beer and a shot of whiskey.  When I do head into the city I like to order a cocktail at a bar or restaurant. Mind you, these aren't one of the mixology bars that have been popping up, but they are "fancier" bars and restaurants.  When I attempt to order a cocktail that is not on the menu, I get perplexed looks from the bartender or I get a waiter returning to the table with his or her tail tucked between the legs, asking me to clarify my cocktail. And I never order anything outlandish.

So my question is this: what's the threshold of cocktail ordering that I can expect from a mid- to upper-tier bar or restaurant without being a jerk? Are most bars not employing well-informed bartenders? I have met perplexed expressions at ordering a Gentleman's Manhattan, a Rye Old-Fashioned, a Gin Rickey, and other drinks that I assumed are not complicated and slightly well-known. It's not as if I memorize names of obscure cocktails and request each of them until the bartender becomes humiliated. Is this a regional thing? Should I just stick to Old-Fashioneds, Manhattans and Lemon Drops until the trend of hiring well-informed bartenders spreads across the entire U.S.?

Gino answers:

Trent, your conundrum is one all cocktail lovers deal with, so take comfort in the fact that you're not alone. It can be confusing sometimes, as you'll see some quality booze behind the bar and wonder if they can make a proper Manhattan? Simple cocktail, three ingredients, been around for decades, right? Then you see the bartender pick up a Boston shaker and you no longer want that brown frothy beverage, strained and placed in front of you because it should have been stirred. Not because of some affluent archaic rules, but because there is no reason aerate a drink that has no syrup or juice to be emulsified. Bartenders worth their salt knew this in the 1800's and know this now, but apparently not all of them yet. 

So, what to do? 

If you can, get a head start by looking the place up online before you go. Did the owners or bartenders come from or own other successful restaurants? Did it get good reviews? Is the cocktail program mentioned?   It's always nice to have a little info before you blindly walk in to a strangers house, which is basically what a good restaurant is. If not, no biggie, there's other ways too. 

Consider the frontier of what you will order by adjusting your order by type of bar you're in first. You know when you're in a dive bar and when you're not, but the rest can be murky as some places invest all their money in the cover of the book but not words inside (or the bar or bartender for that matter). 

The first and most important thing to look for when you approach the bar is ice. Yep, just as simple as that: does the bar have quality ice? You might think, "What the hell is good ice?" It might not be that obvious but, frozen water is the principal ingredient in every single cocktail. It does two very important things: cools your drink and dilutes the alcohol, opening up aromas and flavors. 

There are different types of ice to look for, but Kold Draft, a machine that produces one-inch square cubes, is the industry standard. It's good evidence that someone in the restaurant or bar cared enough to invest in their ice machine because they are expensive and more difficult to service than other cheaper machines. Even if you're only having a drink on the rocks, a one-inch cube will dilute at a slower rate, meaning it will also chill your drink without watering it down too much. 

Second, look around, what are other patrons drinking? Not that what others drink should make your decision, but it helps in sorting the vibe of what the bar can produce. If half the bar's patrons have cocktails, I would bet they're doing something right, unless they're all Cosmopolitans, but you be the judge. 

Third, take a quick inventory of the back bar. Is it lined of different flavored Absolut or Stoli or both? Is there vodka on display at all? Or is it a complementary mix of gin, whiskey, rum, and cognac? Is there any amaro? What a bar keeps on it's wall is a statement, whether the bar manager or owner has purposely thought about it or not. Good bars stock not only booze people like to drink, but more importantly what they want to sell. 

Fourth, ask for a drink menu. It's a sign of respect. Even if you're not in the mood to adventure in to one of their proprietary drinks, it will give you an idea what they're trying to do and what they are mixing with what. Do you think mezcal, gin, pineapple, lemon and cane sugar can go together? It might just! Is each drink called a Martini? Put the menu down and go elsewhere.

Here's where you take control and assess your choices, or as I like to put it, managing your expectations. If they don't have good ice, don’t expect a well-crafted cocktail, even a classic. Just keep it simple, look for champagne, wine, beer, sherry, and whiskey or scotch depending on your mood. Otherwise you’ll be taking the risk of ending up with something you necessarily don’t want to drink. Are there bars without good ice still making good drinks? Yes, but they are few and far between. 

Know or learn some drinks you enjoy that take minimal effort from a bartender. Drinks that don't need to be stirred or shaken but can just be built in the glass you're going to drink from. This can be as simple as a gin and tonic or an Aperol Spritz but one of my favorites is an Americano. No, not hot water and espresso, but the bittersweet flavors of Campari, Sweet Vermouth and soda water. Be careful as an unknowing server or bartender might not understand right away, but it's easy to clarify: equal parts sweet vermouth (hopefully they have Carpano Antica) and Campari, topped with soda water and an orange twist or wedge. There are variations on this that can go on and on. For example, a friend of mine favors gin, Campari and soda. 

If they have good ice and some spirits you enjoy, go for it! Order a classic. Hopefully they'll make it to your liking. Start simple: try a Negroni, Manhattan, Old Fashioned or a Daiquiri and go from there. 

The unfortunate reality is most restaurants haven't invested in bartenders that understand cocktail history and how to properly make a drink (or want to for that matter, which is the bigger problem). It is a complex situation. A great whisky writer once compared alcohol to sex in the sense that the education of both has been taboo for centuries. Most people currently drink what they've been marketed to, not because they researched and understand why they're buying Jack Daniels versus Knob Creek. Most people don't even understand that one of those whiskies is made in different style and state than the other with different regulations. Therefore, because the clientele is ignorant, the seller doesn't have to be very knowledgeable either. 

Additionally in America, it's been seen as less than to have a career as a bartender or server, whereas in Europe it is common to have a long career in restaurants or bars. Therefore as patrons of American restaurants we've been resigned to the fact that part time high school and college students are in charge of providing our dining pleasure. 

The good news is we've come along way in the last ten years. Cocktail culture has grown immensely. Just last month I was at the new Delta Terminal at LaGuardia Airport waiting on a delayed flight and when I looked over at the bar what did I see but beautiful, perfectly square ice cubes. I actually did a double take and then walked over, sat down and ordered a drink. 

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