Updated: Nov 20
You’ve been there. Examining the drink menu, eyes glazed over, scouring the ingredients for familiar words that jump out.
Now, this can go one of two ways:
You spot it. “The __________ Mule”. Or, “The __________ Margarita”. “Oh, I like Mules/Margaritas,” you think to yourself, “Forget all this other scary stuff; I’m not spending $12+ on a drink that might suck. I’ll just go with that.” And it’s fine. It doesn’t suck. It’s actually not far from the same drink you’ve had a million times (or maybe it is the same drink you’ve had a million times), so it’s right up the alley that feels safe and comfortable.
And yet, you can’t help but wonder, “What if there’s something better?”
You’re feeling adventurous! The bartender finally runs up, opens their mouth to greet you, and you toss the menu aside, exclaiming, “Make me something good!” “Cool, what do you like?” they reply. “Something not too sweet,” you answer. And so it begins. They make you their favorite cocktail on the list. It’s strong and herbaceous. But you wanted something light and citrusy! It definitely isn’t sweet, which is all you asked for, but you hate it. And this bartender sucks.
For the next round, you order the Mule.
So, how can you possibly branch out and try new drinks (expensive drinks) without potentially wasting your hard-earned scratch and losing all trust in your bartender?
The good news is that there’s no one-size-fits-all, “best” cocktail for everyone on any menu. If there was, menus would just have that one drink on them. The best cocktail menus aim to have something for every palate.
Even more good news is that I’m not going to tell you that you have to memorize every liqueur and spirit flavor profile in order to get the best drink on the menu. That’s the bartender’s job. You just have to tell them what you like (or don’t like).
The following 3 steps will help you narrow down the best cocktail for you on any menu.
1. Read the Room
You might love Spanish Coffee more than your firstborn child. But before you go ordering one, take a look around and see if it’s the kind of place even capable of lighting a coffee drink on fire. The same goes for any drink you might be thinking of. Every place has its “thing”. So, what should you order (or not order) if you’re in a:
Dive bar Peep the daily special. It’s pretty much the whole menu. Dive bars almost always run a different special each day of the week. Is it Tequila Tuesday? Whiskey Wednesday? Whatever it is, it’s probably the best thing they’ve got aside from the pool table and reruns of Cops.
Nightclub You’re probably doing a lot more dancing than chatting in a nightclub, so something you want to enjoy slowly is more likely to end up spilled on your shoes or the hottie next to you. Is there a line for drinks? Bartenders are probably taking several orders at a time and making 6+ drinks at once, so order something fast and familiar. Your best bet is a shot (it’s gone before you have time to spill it) or a bottled beer (the small opening makes it less likely to go everywhere if you’re bumped).
Corporate Chain Restaurant Either get the biggest beer they have or something blue with candy fish floating in it. There really are no other options worth your money. Plus, I dare you to not to smile while drinking a comically large frozen tropical drink.
Casual Neighborhood Spot Now we’re in a place that might have a menu you’ll look at, and it’s probably even approachable. You may recognize a lot of the ingredients, but as far as you can tell it’s like rolling the dice as to which drinks are good, boring, or gross. See which ones were created in house and which are based on classics (house originals could be hit or miss depending, but riffs off classics are harder to mess up).
Swanky cocktail bar Here we get into a place where even the most experienced drinkers can end up overwhelmed. You don’t know what 80% of the ingredients are, but you do know that cocktails didn’t become their “thing” by making crappy ones. So, you don’t want to order something basic like a Lemon Drop; and you definitely don’t want to order something off-menu like an AMF or Tic-Tac (not only are they guaranteed to not carry blue curacao or any energy drinks, but your order is hands-down going to be discussed by staff during shift drinks).
Okay, so now we know when not to order a more adventurous cocktail. What do we do at the casual neighborhood spots and swanky cocktail bars when we do want to branch out?
2. Do you like the taste of alcohol?
No joke, that’s a serious question. There’s a very clear answer for most people, but your bartender doesn’t know what it is until you tell them. So let’s get into how to communicate your taste preferences. “Something not too sweet” leaves the option of literally any well-balanced cocktail. It’s not 1997, and unless you’re at TGIFriday’s or the like*, sugar-laden, fluorescent drinks have gone by the wayside.
So here are some cocktail characteristics that will help steer your bartender toward the best drink for you:
Light or Heavy? Do you want an easy quaffer that’s refreshing enough to toast on the patio? Or a hearty, slow sipper that will make you ponder the meaning of life?
Spirit-forward If you enjoy the taste of alcohol and strong, boozy drinks like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan, tell them you’d like something spirit-forward. If you don’t, tell them so.
Citrus-forward If you enjoy something tart and sour like a Lemon Drop, Margarita, or Whiskey Sour, tell them you’d like something citrus-forward. It will still have some sugar. Calm down. It’s necessary in order to balance the acidity of the citrus.
Fruit-forward Don’t be ashamed. There are a lot of you out there. A good bartender can make a fruity drink that’s as masculine or feminine as you want it to be.
Bitter If you enjoy the bitter, earthy flavors found in a Negroni or Jungle Bird, tell them you’d like something with an amaro in it. Fully stocked cocktail bars won’t be limited to Campari, either.
Herbaceous Maybe you like something complex and flavorful without fruit. Tell your bartender if you want herbal, vegetal, or spiced notes in your drink.
Make sure to mention how you feel about each category, not just one. A bitter or herbaceous drink can still be light or heavy, spirit-forward or citrus-forward. Pinning down your preferences for each category will paint a more complete picture of the perfect cocktail for you.
3. What flavors do you hate?
This one’s easy. Everyone loves talking about things they can’t stand. Do you hate anything spicy? How do you feel about anise, the spice that gives black licorice its flavor? Scotch: love it? Or hate it. Failure to mention flavors that you hate falls back on you and only you. Most bartenders actually are mind readers, but they don’t get tipped enough to bust out that skill set every single time, and it’s not worth it to be wrong. So, it’s up to you to tell them.
This may all be starting to sound like you’re being too picky or too high maintenance. Trust me, if you go about it the right way, you’re not. It could sound something like this “I’d like to try a new drink but I’m not sure what to get. Is there a light and refreshing drink on the menu that’s citrusy and kind of bitter; but not fruity or anise-flavored?” It’s much better than you trying to send a drink back because you made a request that wasn’t specific enough. That would be more high maintenance, and wouldn’t really encourage anyone to be friends with you.
So go ahead, take your new ordering skills and confidently spread your little cocktail enthusiast wings! Try something new! You can always make a Mule or Margarita at home.
*in which case you should definitely order one, just for the giggles.