It Takes Two, Baby
The dos and donts of a civilizedand successfulbar experience
The whole reason to go to a bar is to have a good time. Quality drinks are an imperative for sure, but at the end of the day, it’s the total experience that counts, not the booze alone. If it were only about having a drink—well, you can do that at home without ever having to put on pants (I’ll admit, it’s my favorite way to enjoy a fine single malt). No matter if I’m behind the stick at Planter’s House or working a private event for my spirits education and bartending company, Cocktails Are Go!, guests seem to have the best time when we work together, and it starts with a conversation. Recently, a bar-managing friend of mine and I were talking about the fact that there shouldn’t be a single question that a customer is afraid to ask at the bar. Let’s face it: Especially for those who don’t make the rounds very often, today’s cocktail menus can be daunting with their infinite listings of exotic, esoteric and just plain unfamiliar ingredients. I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked what an amaro is, or what constitutes a bonded whiskey. And let’s not forget all the assorted shaking, stirring, muddling and whatnot going on.
Sometimes bartenders get so caught up in their elaborate facial hair and vintage bow ties that they forget it’s job No. 1 to be hospitable, to ease patrons into the experience and make them feel comfortable throughout. Bar-goers should absolutely feel good about speaking up when they don’t recognize what’s on the cocktail list or what’s going on behind the bar. Like any professional, bartenders take pride in their craft and appreciate it when someone takes an interest in what they’re up to. Show a little bit of curiosity, and even that bartender who’s a little bit too cool for school will probably lighten up and be more than happy to explain the story behind that funky stick thing he’s using to make a Queen’s Park Swizzle (spoiler alert—it’s a swizzle stick).
We also love to talk about what we’re pouring, especially if it’s something that’s hard to get, specific to our place or has an interesting backstory. For example, I love relating the tale of how Four Roses bourbon got its name (if you want to hear it, you’ll have to stop by for a drink). It’s also a good way to gain some knowledge for your home cocktailing adventures, or as a clutch conversation piece at your next dinner party.
That said, there are some guest queries that should be re-phrased. I can’t lie: It’s frustrating when someone pulls up a stool, takes a glance at the menu and then asks me, “What should I have?” or, worse, simply tosses off a “Just make me whatever.” We’ve never taken any long walks on the beach or made out under the bleachers, right? We don’t know each other. I have no idea of your likes and dislikes, and without some upfront info to get me going, my chances of hitting a spirited home run here are slim to none. A better way to approach this scenario would be to let the bartender know right off the bat what you normally like to eat and drink and ask for a recommendation based on that. If you’re really unsure if you’ll like a certain spirit, absolutely ask the bartender for a small sample to taste before you commit to a full-sized pour. Same goes for a non-alcoholic ingredient that you’ve never heard of or have some trepidation about.
Some other things to keep in mind: While your bartender would probably have no problem showing you that pricey Japanese mixing glass or the spiffy bottle of one-off bitters that’s caught your eye, make sure to ask first—don’t just reach across the wood and fondle the goods without permission. Likewise, refrain from snapping, whistling or other ways of attracting the bartender’s attention that you might use to get Fluffy or Fido to come inside. Just like life in general, a little basic courtesy and consideration goes a long way.
At the end of the day, we’re all in this together. You want to have a fine time, and the bartender’s mission in life is to ensure you have it. A little bit of cooperation on both sides will make it so.
Illustration by Noah MacMillan