When I’m on vacation, I often find myself going to great lengths to avoid looking like a tourist. Case in point: I’ve been known to casually pull up Google Maps as if I’m merely checking my coordinates and not entirely relying on it for my survival. Similarly, I stroll into a local restaurant as if I’m revisiting an old neighborhood haunt and not terrified of eating clam chowder from a bowl made of bread.
In unfamiliar bars, however, I’m lost. My cover is blown. Unlike restaurants, there’s no clear way to tell what the most hardened locals are ordering. With that in mind, I reached out to bartenders from various corners of the country to get their take on what the regulars are drinking. Here’s what they had to say…
According to Megan Coyle, a bartender for over 20 years in nation’s capitol, the go-to drink there for the longest time was a Grand Marnier. “This was very specific to D.C. to the point that if you went to another city in the 1980s and 1990s and ordered a beer and a shot of GM, you’d be clocked as a D.C. bar person,” she tells me.
Over time, however, that’s changed. Besides whisky Old Fashioneds and Negronis, Nick, who’s worked as a bartender in D.C. for 10 years, says the new cocktail du jour is the Gin Rickey. “It’s an old cocktail, invented in the late 19th century,” he explains. “Originally, it had bourbon if I’m not mistaken, but gin became and remains the standard.”
“The Maryland staple is what’s called an Orange Crush, made with orange juice, vodka, Grand Marnier, lemon-lime soda and garnished with an orange wedge and mint,” says Ben, a bartender in Ocean City. “Though people here usually just call them ‘crushes’ — some locals are so specific about their oranges that they only order oranges from certain states. It’s refreshing, light and easy to sip on while sunbathing on the shore.”
Lexi, a 24-year-old who tended bar for three years at Akron’s House Tavern, says in all her travels across the state, she’s never seen a town drink as much minty liquor as Akron. “We had a huge college crowd because of the location, and the Rumple Minze would be flowing heavy,” she tells me. “I don’t know where it started, but it’s a staple.” Either way, she adds, “I have never seen a demand for this shit anywhere else.”
“At least in the Detroit area, you’re going to get a lot of people ordering the Bull Shot,” says Brian, a former Detroit bartender. While many barflies in the northern Midwest lay claim to the Bull Shot, the drink was invented at the Caucus Club in Detroit. Akin to the Bloody Mary, Brian says the Bull Shot is made with “vodka, beef broth from a can, Worcestershire, Tabasco and then poured over rocks and garnished with black pepper and lemon wedge.”
Unlike a Bloody Mary, Bull Shots can also be served hot — because nothing eases a hangover in frigid temperatures better than a steaming mug of brothy alcoholic soup.
From Milwaukee to Sturgeon Bay, Oshkosh to La Crosse and Madison to Green Bay, the definitive drink is the “Wisconsin-Style Old Fashioned.” It’s a twist on the classic cocktail that includes brandy, lemon-lime soda and muddled cocktail cherries that leave Wisconsin bartenders with permanently pink fingers. “I work at one of the busiest, most well-established bars in town. We have visitors from all over the world, and they come for our ‘Legendary Wisconsin Old Fashioned,’” says Alicia, a bartender at Cleo’s Brown Beam in Appleton. “I have worked there for almost three years, and I’ve made a metric fuck-ton of them.
“I can’t speak for the rest of the state, but bartending in Chicago, specifically Wrigleyville, my regulars were big on ‘The Chicago Handshake,’ which is a shot of Malort [a local novelty liqueur] and a can of Old Style,” says John, a former bartender in the Windy City. “For regular regulars, the ones who don’t fuck around, that usually goes with a shot of Jamo and an Old Style. Fancier places I’ve worked, the go-to is typically an Old Fashioned — normal style, not Wisconsin style, that’s syrupy trash water.”
Historically, the signature drink was a “shot of [local beers] Lone Star or Shiner Bock with a shot of Jameson,” says Jack, a bartender in Houston. Nowadays, though, it’s become “Ranch Water,” which is “basically tequila, Topo Chico and lime,” Jack explains. “It’s nothing new, but someone along the way gave it a catchy name and it’s really getting wild in these streets.”
Meanwhile, Katie Cheney, a long-time bartender in Dallas, says, “My regulars lean toward whiskey, bourbon preferred, and order it neat with a little water. There’s one particular man who comes in every day after work, settles down at the same barstool, and drinks a single Whiskey Sour. I think he enjoys the ritual of it.”
“A Sazerac is usually what barflies in Louisiana order, followed closely by a French 75,” says one bartender in New Orleans. “Besides those, locals are pretty smitten with the New Orleans-staple daiquiris. There are even drive-thrus for them.”
From personal experience, Pimm’s Cup is also a NOLA favorite. The refreshing gin-based cocktail was invented in the city and makes for a perfect open-container companion, with much less sugar and grain alcohol than the aforementioned frozen daiquiri.
In Washington State, multiple bartenders confirm that the go-to for most locals is a Rainier tall boy and a shot of whiskey. Rainier is the staple beer of the Pacific Northwest, making this the PNW-equivalent to the Midwest’s PBR/Old Style and shot duo. The combo of Rainier and Jameson, which locals call a “Happy Meal,” is “so popular in Washington that it should pretty much be on every bar’s cocktail menu,” says Danika, a bartender at Cole’s Bar & Grill in Tacoma.
One bartender in San Jose reported most of his regulars order a “shot of Montenegro and a Hamms,” while Monica, a bartender in San Diego, says most of her regulars order a “Miller High Life with a shot of blanco tequila.” And in Sacramento, they like a gin-based cocktail called a White Linen.
In San Francisco and L.A., bartenders reported that most regulars are drinking fernet, a bitter Italian liqueur that gained a cult following in Argentina. “The hip places in L.A. now are using a lot of digestifs and aperitifs like Fernet Blanca, amaros and other such potable bitters,” says Steve Benson, a former bartender in the City of Angels. “But by the beach, people tend to drink beer, margaritas, mezcal and tequila.” In San Francisco, fernet is much more common. “It’s all anyone drinks in SF,” one bartender explains. “It’s gotten to the point that fernet to San Fran is what Malort is to Chicago.”
As I lifelong Chicagoan, I very much hope they have a great local hangover cure.