I know it sounds unbelievable, but trust me, there are several ways to order a drink that will cause your bartender to stare at you, head cocked slightly to one side, trying to figure out what it is you want for just long enough to throw off the whole rhythm of your night.
Some of these syntactical quirks are simple. You order a single liquor and mixer drink, like a Jack and Coke, just like that: Jack and Coke. Never, ever invert those two ingredients. Because Coke and Jack sounds like a felony and will grind the gears of a busy bar to a halt. This happens all the time with vodka cranberry — or as it’s often confused, cranberry vodka. Unfortunately, there are enough flavored vodkas out there now that I automatically respond, “I’m sorry, we actually don’t carry a cranberry vodka.”
Other mixups, though, can be much more complicated, like the difference between straight up and neat, which I get into in detail — so much detail — below. Speaking of below, here are all the things you can do to never get that knowing stare from your bartender (due to your unknowingness), and more importantly, get the drink you ordered exactly as you ordered it.
Wait Your Turn
When you go to a bar, odds are you want a drink — just like, you know, everybody else. Bartenders — good bartenders, anyway — constantly have their heads on a swivel. We notice the moment someone new bellies up to the bar or joins the crowd in front of us, and we keep track of who’s next in line. Waving at us or flashing money or a credit card in our face is like telling a bus driver they should skip the next three stops to drop you off first: It’s not going to work.
Case in point: A friend of mine was working a very busy night over the summer, and during his travels up and down the bar taking care of people in line, a man extended his credit card over the head of someone in front of him. My friend, stone-cold professional that he is, said, “Hey, man, I see you. I’ve got a few people in front of you, but don’t worry, I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
But instead of pocketing his credit card and waiting his turn, this guy shoves his Visa in my friend’s face over and over again. On the third pass — and after repeating that he’d be there as soon as he could — my friend grabbed the card out of this man’s hand and threw it like a frisbee over the heads of everyone standing at the bar.
Oh, and he didn’t get his drink either.
Don’t Skip the Pleasantries
An appropriate answer to, “Hi, how are you?” isn’t, “Two Manhattans.”
Be Ready to Order
That said, please, please, please know what you want when it’s your turn. If the bar’s not busy, sometimes we bartenders accidentally jump on you before you’ve had a chance to really look at the menu (sorry about that), but if you’ve been waiting for a bartender’s attention, you ought to know what you want by the time they get to you. Few things are more frustrating — for bartenders and the other people in line — for you to ask what’s on tap when you’ve already had five minutes at the bar to figure it out yourself.
Tap handles are brightly colored and highly visible by design; menus are handed out for a reason. If you freeze — or suddenly forget the name of the beer you always order — think fast, friends. Because the people behind you are plotting your demise.
Understand the Kind of Place You’re In
I’ve done it, too. I’ve been that person who spotted a dusty bottle of Campari on the shelf of a dive bar and ordered a Negroni… that I had to tell the bartender how to make. This doesn’t make them incompetent; it makes me an asshole.
The people who work in bars and restaurants spend a lot of time cultivating a vibe. We spend even more time deciding what we stock our bars with and what drinks go on our menus. We do so in order to curate a specific experience for guests, and we want you to take advantage of everything we have to offer.
All of that is to say, like everything else in life, read the room. Don’t expect every bar to carry your favorite Scotch. Don’t order a classic cocktail in a dive bar. And don’t ask for Jagerbombs at Le Cirque.
Substitutes Are Fine, Just Don’t Blame Us If They Don’t Taste Good
Sometimes a drink on a bar’s menu sounds fantastic except for one small thing: It’s made with gin. You hate gin. Can you have it with vodka instead?
However: Cocktails recipes are like food recipes. Bartenders build drinks around a specific spirit for a reason. We can’t guarantee that a drink will be enjoyable if you swap out the base spirit. This doesn’t mean we can’t (or won’t) do it, but if you want to make a rye-based drink with tequila, you’ll be warned that it might taste like shit.
Similarly, do you know what will absolutely NOT change or improve the way a drink tastes? Substituting a top-shelf liquor for the corresponding well spirit.
Gin for vodka, rye for bourbon, you got it, fine. But you really want to put Belvedere in a house cocktail made with passion-fruit puree, lemon juice and a housemade hibiscus-infused simple syrup? That’s gonna add $4 to what’s likely already a $12 drink, and guess what: With all those other flavors you won’t be able to tell the difference anyway.
Know What’s Up, What’s Down and When Rocks Are Involved
I’m not sure which movie launched the misguided practice of ordering shots or spirits “straight up” but whomever wrote the script ought to be banned from ever going to a bar again. That is, “straight up” has nothing to do with what goes in the glass; it refers to what kind of glass your drink is going to come in. Moreover, the correct terminology is “up,” “down” or “on the rocks.”
- Up: Cocktail glasses (or martini glasses as many people insist on calling them — more on that later) have a stem, like a wine glass, so that you can avoid putting your hands on the bowl of the glass and heating up your cocktail. Drinks that come in those types of glasses are said to be served “up,” cuz it’s up off the bar, get it.
- Down: A round, squat glass — basically, something without a stem — filled with booze, but no ice.
- On the Rocks: You got this one — it’s a spirit or a cocktail in a glass without a stem with ice.
What people typically mean when they say “straight up” then is that they’d like their drink “neat” — i.e., a pour of a straight spirit in a glass without ice. That’s probably why they’re always surprised when it comes “up” instead.
A martini is a classic cocktail made, originally at least, with gin and dry vermouth. Vodka has become a more popular spirit for martinis (thank you, 1980s), but the concept is the same: 3:1 spirit to vermouth (or olive brine if you like ’em dirty). As mentioned above, many drinks are served up to ensure they stay as cold as possible while you sip them. Martinis are the perfect example of this: That’s three ounces of hard alcohol, friend. Take your fucking time.
Somewhere between the 1970s and 1980s, though, the country went martini crazy and bars were flooded with appletinis, razatinis, espressoinis, etc. — i.e., hundreds of complicated concoctions that earned their name based solely on the kind of glass they were served in. (A cocktail glass does not a martini make.)
I’ve been to bars with martini menus, and only a handful of the drinks even begin to resemble the booze-forward original. I’ve also worked in bars where I was constantly asked what kind of martinis we served, drinkers simply looking for something vodka-based that came in a triangular glass with a stem. By 11 p.m., my answer was always the same: “Gin or vodka.”
Which really, is all it should ever be.