When walking into a bar for the first time, you never know what you’re going to get. The bar may look great from the outside and then, to your dismay, the drinks turn out to be terrible. Or the opposite might happen — a bar may look a little rough around the edges, yet proceed to make you the best cocktail of your life. So how are you supposed to know if a bar knows what they’re doing? We asked bartenders around the nation to fill us on in on which drinks to order to see if a bar knows how to make a good drink. Here’s what they had to say:
“A perfectly made Sazerac or classic Daiquiri are among my favorite things to drink. Typically, a glance at the bartender’s mis en place will indicate whether or not these cocktails are a sure thing or a long shot. Do you see neatly organized herbs, berries, bitters, and fruits? If so, it’s pretty safe to say the bartenders know what’s up.” – Meghan Kelleher, Distilled
“A malt Whiskey Smash. Nothing like it!” – Gina Chersevani, Buffalo & Bergen at Union Market
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“This falls dangerously close to wanting to act like a boss, but since a good bartender can spot one or know immediately what they’re dealing with by the very first action they take (usually something as simple as the way they handle the bottle), I try not to put other bartenders ‘to the test.’ It all goes back to knowing your environment. If you’re at a sports bar and you order an Old Fashioned, you’d better buckle up for a muddled, day-old orange slice and a glowing maraschino cherry.” – Tommy Warren, Bedford & Co.
“Here’s where I’ll talk about a Sazerac. It’s not a difficult cocktail, but because it’s so simple, there is very little room for error. One of the most common mistakes I see with an Old Fashioned or its variants is that they’re served under-diluted, so you have to sit with them for a minute and let the ice melt a bit before they’re truly palatable. A Sazerac isn’t served on ice, so if it’s under-diluted, it hurts. It’s just Peychaud’s bitters, sugar, and spirit with an Absinthe rinse and lemon twist, so you’ve got to get the balance right and not skimp on the bitters or overdo the sugar (or the Absinthe), and you absolutely can’t forget the lemon oil. When done right, it’s a transcendent cocktail, but there’s a lot that can go wrong.” – Lana Gailani, Seamstress & Holiday Cocktail Lounge
“An Old Fashioned, no question. If they start muddling fruit, run.” – John McCarthy, Greydon House
“Sazerac or Mint Julep. Two drinks that are relatively simple to make, but can be thrown off balance very easily.” – Joy Richard, Bar Mash
“The Daiquiri has always been a fairly wide-reaching industry litmus test to see how things are balanced.” – Jacob Ryan, Four Pillars Brand Ambassador
“Dirty Martini is something I would put in the hands of a great bartender. The right ratio of brine to gin or vodka is an art. Always stirred of course. And the olives make or break the drink. I also will order a Last Word with a capable bartender. This drink is so complex and delicious when made properly. If not, the flavors of Chartreuse and Luxardo will totally overpower. I like a brandy cherry dropped into mine as well.” – Cody Goldstein, NYLO
“I used to always order a Last Word to see if I should opt for a cocktail or just get a Campari and Soda. This drink is all equal parts but it has some very intense ingredients. So if the balance is off, you can taste it pretty obviously. Nowadays, I can usually look at what the bartender is doing as they are making other people’s drinks and tell whether or not I want to order a cocktail. I can usually tell by the menu and back bar as well. Stick to a drink you know and love and that you are familiar with and that way you will know if the drink was made properly.” – Tonia Guffey, Dram Bar