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Assessing a bar before ordering

This happened awhile back, but I was reminded of it today.

I was in a restaurant -- small chain steakhouse -- and ordered a Manhattan. The waitress first asked me if it was a Martini, and then said she didn't know if they had sweet vermouth when I told her what was in it. (They did, I could see it behind the bar.) I had to laugh when I was later looking through their beverage menu and the Manhattan was the very first item on the cocktail page.

I'm not a cocktail expert, but I feel like the chances of getting a good drink out of someone who doesn't know what sweet vermouth is is probably fairly limited. I decided not to have a Manhattan, but the whole encounter was awkward, and I'd like to avoid those kinds of conversations.

Is there a handy trick or rule of thumb for assessing whether to try a cocktail or stick to wine/beer/ice water? I mean, if it's the kind of place that offers 9 kinds of Martinis and 3 flavors of Mojitos on a plastic tent card on the table, I'm pretty sure it's not worth it unless I'm interested in a tequila slurpee. And if it's the place where the cocktail card lists 4 house drinks with spirits from a local distiller and house-made bitters, I'm pretty sure it's going to be worth a try. But what about all the places that are in between -- are there context clues you use to "read" a bar / restaurant and determine the likelihood that they'll pour a decent drink?

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  1. Talking to the bartender usually does the trick. Maybe s/he's even a *mixologist*. Ha.

    2 Replies
    1. re: linguafood

      I'd like to specifically avoid that conversation if it's likely to prove awkward.

      1. re: Jacquilynne

        Ah, gotcha. Perhaps other hounds have some magic solution.

    2. I tend to scan the spirits behind the bar. If all I see are the usual supermarket suspects and no liqueurs other than bottles of Hot Damn!, Apple Pucker, et al., I take one of three courses of action: (a) lower my expectations and opt for something easy (margarita being my default), (b) scan the beer taps and/or wine selection to see if anything decent can be had, or (c) head for the door.

      Generally, (c) happens after one iteration of (a) or (b)--the truly and deeply inept and/or very beer-centric folks often can't manage decent versions of "easy" cocktails. Of course, if I'm at the bar because of a social obligation, I just gut it out. ;-)

      7 Replies
      1. re: hohokam

        Must be a regional thing, because around the Northeast a Margarita is the least likely common craft cocktail to be drinkable in a questionable bar. It will almost certainly be Cuervo + sour mix. Maybe some low-end triple sec (maybe not). Maybe some orange juice from a can. Maybe in a blender. Served in a bird bath. Maybe with some strawberry syrup, too.

        I have never ordered a Margarita in a craft bar. I need to do this.

        A poorly-made Manhattan with Canadian Club, an aging bottle of Stock sweet vermouth, a raft of ice chips, and a neon cherry is at least I cocktail I could drink. I am simply not drinking a neon sour mix Margarita.

        If I spy Campari, I order a Negroni. The ingredient are simple. The ratio is simple. If the sweet vermouth is oxidized, that's not awful.

        --
        www.kindredcocktails.com | Craft + Collect + Concoct + Categorize + Community

        1. re: EvergreenDan

          You'd think that ordering a negroni would be easy, but we have received shaken negronis, negronis missing any gin (!), negronis with a fruit salad in them... Or people who had no clue what a negroni even was.

          1. re: EvergreenDan

            If the place isn't too busy, I feel like I can guide the bartender to something passable ("Could you make that with fresh lime juice and triple sec, instead of the Cuervo mix?"). I'm not saying that the marg is going to be a stone cold lock in every case, but often it feels like the safest choice, at least at the Tini-jito places. At beer-and-shot joints and TGIMcFunsters, I agree, the probability of getting anything other than a drink made with mix is vanishingly small.

            As to regional differences, my perception is that in these parts, the odds of finding limes and triple sec behind the bar are higher than finding any kind of vermouth.

            1. re: hohokam

              It is regional then. In the Northeast Triple Sec is no problem -- every bar has it. But fresh lime juice (rather than just a bunch of pre-cut garnish limes) is rare -- much less common that both sweet and dry vermouth. Now whether the vermouth is fresh is another matter....

            2. re: EvergreenDan

              I went to an italian place once. A fairly large chain, and ordered a negrini. The waitress asked initially if i meant peligrini, and i said no :ask the bartender if he / she knows how to make it.
              Bartender said no, so i told the waitress how to make one on the rocks, since it was simpler, and he he was happy to learn it. the resulting drink was good, and strong.

              1. re: TroyTempest

                Is a Negrini a Negroni that makes you happy? ;)

                1. re: EvergreenDan

                  Oops, I fat fingered it. I meant negroni, of course, but then all negronis make me happy.

          2. For me, ordering a cocktail is the exception and not the rule. That is, the restaurant/bar has to earn my cocktail order by plainly displaying that they know at least the basics of cocktails - for example, a good and detailed cocktail list, a bar that appears to be well-stocked beyond the basics, a server that's eager to talk cocktails, etc. If I don't see any of those, then I'm going to stick with wine, beer, or a straight pour of call liquor and not take the risk of ordering a $10 "manhattan" that's Beam with aging Martini vermouth and a bright-red cherry, shaken till it's full of ice chips.

            Funny story: I was recently at an upscale restaurant in the Colorado mountains and noticed that the Negroni on the cocktail list claimed to be made of "gin, sweet vermouth, and an orange slice." I asked the server if they had Campari and she said no, their Negroni didn't use Campari. Interesting choice. I went with a nice malbec instead.

            2 Replies
            1. re: monopod

              Agreed on your litmus test and that ordering a cocktail is the exception. Wine is a crapshoot at most bars too (oxidized, overpriced) so I tend to hit straight whiskey or a gin/soda.

              I ordered a Campari/soda once in Central PA and the bartender went into a rant about how gross vermouth is and he couldn't believe I was drinking it. I tried to explain to him that Campari wasn't vermouth (never mind explaining that a quality, fresh vermouth can be delicious) but he was convinced Campari was vermouth. On the plus side, I was charged for vermouth which was $4.

              1. re: monopod

                This. I used to frequent several neighborhood places, and only one of them would I ever order a cocktail at. At the rest of them I stuck to beer. Fortunately, I like beer. Once I ordered a pair of martinis at a pretty expensive restaurant and watched in horror as the bartender shook them heavily, serving us cloudy drinks full of ice shards. As it was a date I let it slide.

                Even at the places that know a good cocktail I have to specify that I want to be able to taste the vermouth, otherwise I get the "rinse the glass and toss" nonsense.

              2. Not scientifically tested, of course, but my quick and dirty rule of thumb is: Red, neon, plastic maraschino cherry = don't bother; quality cocktail cherry = good to go. I have started to informally test this theory. Not sure exactly how reliable it is yet.

                1. Rule of thumb for me is a menu - no menu or menu with 2/3 vodka drinks ending in tini I get a beer. Luckily the craft beer explosion has made this front a lot safer. Only exception is if I know the bartender knows his stuff.