Nine Things You're Doing Wrong at a Cocktail Bar
The owner of one of New York City's best speakeasy bars, Jim Meehan, shares his cocktail bar dos and don'ts
Getting a drink at a good bar is one of life's great pleasures, but there are right and wrong ways to go about it. Jim Meehan, co-founder of the New York City speakeasy bar PDT (Please Don't Tell), has strong feelings about how to behave when you're getting a cocktail. Following are his rules on being a bar pro, and he should know - PDT, accessed via a vintage phone booth inside East Village hot dog store Crif Dogs, topped The World's 50 Best Bars list in 2011, and still regularly appears on it, coming in at No 45 on last year's list.
1. Asking the bartender what's good
At any reputable bar, a bartender's job is to fix a drink based on your preference, not theirs. Most will answer by asking a variation of the question: "What do you like to drink?" This is your chance to give them something to work with: "I like tequila", or "Something tropical". If there are spirits or cocktails you don't like, tell them up front - just don't make it a five-minute debate.
2. Adhering to your no-added-sugar diet
Here's the way it works when a professional mixes a drink: Any cocktail that includes citrus or some kind of acidic ingredient needs a sweetener for balance. It's what every bartender strives for, a balance among strong, sweet, and sour, and to completely cut out one of the pillars will create something you will not want to drink. Trust me. In the event that you are especially sensitive to sweetness or don't want any sugar in your cocktail, say, "I take my drinks very dry" or order a highball, such as whisky soda or a gin rickey. Or a shot.
3. Substituting your favourite spirit
If you prefer a certain brand of spirit in your drink you're more than welcome to request one - and I recommend it in a classic cocktail. But "house" cocktails created by the bar staff are a different matter. That bartender specifically chose the gin, rum, mezcal, etc., for their creation. Asking the bartender to substitute it is the equivalent of a hasty move in a game of Jenga: It has the potential to topple the stack and ruin the drink. The one exception: If your last name is Beam or Daniels.
4. Sending back half-empty drinks
You have every right to enjoy your $20 cocktail. If it's flawed in a way that will diminish your experience, you should ask for a replacement. Any good bar will respect your choice. But there's a right time and way to do this - as soon as you've tasted the drink, and by making eye contact with your waiter or bartender when they're in your vicinity. It's never fun to have a drink you mixed sent back, so be nice when you ask for something else, and don't yell across any distance to get someone's attention. If you take this route, order something you know you like, so there's no repeat performance. No one wants to hear you didn't like your cocktail twice in a row, or after you've finished half of it, which is the universal sign that it was satisfactory.
5. Dissing the wait staff
Nothing is more demeaning to people who take pride in their work than assuming they don't know the product they're working with. If you have a technical question about a spirit, cocktail, or anything related, first ask the person who's taking care of you. Many top cocktail bars rotate their bar staff on and off the floor. Remember the hashtag #respect.
6. Tipping $1 tip per drink if you're in the United States
Tipping is personal, so I'm not going to tell you how much - or even if - you should tip. But I will say that the amount of elbow grease that goes into the juices, syrups, infusions, and preparation of your $20 drink is significantly more than the bottle of beer someone opened at your local. Most guests tip 20 per cent for fancy cocktails. You don't have to, but you should know what's standard.
7. Guilt ordering a cocktail
More and more cocktail bars are upping their wine and beer games; if they aren't, feel free to hold it against them. If you do want to drink booze but don't see anything to your liking on the cocktail menu, don't feel bad about requesting a classic that's not on the menu, such as a Negroni or an Old-Fashioned, Daiquiri, or Manahttan. The bartender is there to give you what you want. Just remember Rule No 1.
8. Overstaying your welcome
Especially in high-rent cities such as New York and London, your seat at a popular bar or restaurant is a commodity with high overhead costs. Operators will be grateful if you treat it that way, which is best demonstrated by eating and drinking while you're occupying it, and vacating it within 20 minutes of finishing your drinks. If you'd like more time, you can always ask. Keep track: Three drinks per person, 30 minutes apart, is a good rule of thumb for a good night out.
9. Being that guy.
If you're wondering whether you've had too much to drink, you probably have. Many places around the world hold bars and bartenders legally responsible for the safety of their guests after they leave the bar. If you sense you're about to be cut off, avoid a fight you're not going to win.
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