How To Drink In a Craft Cocktail Bar: Five Tips

You walk up to a bar to get a drink and you notice they've got six types of rye, one kind of vodka, a lineup of brown-glass medicine bottles with eyedroppers, infusing jars where the line of beers normally sits, and really freaking pretty ice. Congratulations: you've stumbled into a craft cocktail bar, a place where cocktails are created with the same precision and care as food in a high-end restaurant.

Great, so... now what? You want a drink, they want to serve you a drink, but you're at an impasse as to how to get one, because no two craft cocktail bars have the same offerings. I put the question to some of Orange County's top bartenders, and this is what they had to say.

5. Know what you're interested in.

"Something like a Negroni, but less like being punched in the coglioni by a projectile gall bladder, please."
"Something like a Negroni, but less like being punched in the coglioni by a projectile gall bladder, please."

"I don't like sweet drinks" is not a valid drink order. Neither, for that matter, is "I like gin." "I usually drink Manhattans, but I find them a little sweet," however, is often all a great bartender needs to get you the drink you never knew you craved. Know what you like and what you don't; just be specific.

4. Don't be afraid to send it back, and don't lie about whether you like it.

"Maybe it could be just a little bit--or a lot--less bitter, please?"
"Maybe it could be just a little bit--or a lot--less bitter, please?"

This is hard to do. We've all grown up with this idea that wasting alcohol is worse than wasting food, and so when the bartender comes down the rail and asks us how we like our intensely bitter admixture of Cynar, rye that's been filtered through a Kentucky raccoon's liver, and an unpronounceable Italian amaro, we smile grotesquely and mumble our appreciation.

This is crap. If you don't like it, send it back. You know where the line is between genuinely not liking something and being a needy pain in the behind; stay clear of that line and give the bartender your honest feedback. It's not an indictment of their skill; it's just a taste mismatch.
 
3. Don't feel like you need to order some hipster drink.

OK, maybe we'll draw the line at asking for a pickleback.
OK, maybe we'll draw the line at asking for a pickleback.

We've all heard the horror stories of people being mocked in craft cocktail bars because they asked for vodka tonic or admitted a certain fondness for drinks involving DeKuyper schnapps. While those bars exist (happily, only outside of OC), a good bartender is going to be able to suggest something that matches the flavor profile you describe, even if he or she is temporarily (or permanently) out of Stoli Ohranj. You don't even need to know what a Corpse Reviver or an Aviation is--and if you want a martini, they ought to make you the best damn martini in the world.

2. Don't be afraid to ask for a custom concoction.

Probably not taken in a craft cocktail bar.
Probably not taken in a craft cocktail bar.

Every bar has a list of drinks that they're currently promoting. As with any bar, this is not generally an exhaustive list of what they'll make. If none of the listed drinks appeal to you, ask for something created especially for you--but bear in mind tip #5.

1. Make conversation with the bartender.

This can be hard to do when the bar is slamming, but one of the most obvious differences between a craft cocktail bar and a standard cocktail bar is that drinks take a little longer to make; while the bartender may be counting the number of revolutions as he or she stirs a drink in that Japanese mixing glass, a good one will be able to make conversation. Talk about what you've had and what you haven't had. Ask questions about what you see; you'll end up with a drink much more suited to your taste.

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