How to Not F*ck Up Bartender's Choice

If you walk into the prix-fixe restaurant everyone raves about and nothing on that day’s menu appeals, you can’t exactly ask for a custom dinner to suit your cravings.

But if you walk into a cocktail bar and discover that the drinks list isn’t wowing you, you can always order “bartender’s choice.” And good bartenders will work with you to gather the information they need to create a drink you’ll love, says Allen Lancaster, master cocktail craftsman at The Bar at The Spectator Hotel in Charleston, S.C.

That said, you don’t want to go up to them and say, “Make me something good.” There are a few tips you can follow so that you wind up with a delicious drink — and don’t piss off the bartender with your request.

DO: Be open-minded. “One of my favorite things is to present something that changes someone’s mind,” Lancaster says. “Some people will say, ‘I don’t like gin.’ Well, you’re thinking of your grandfather’s gin that tastes like nail polish remover. There are myriad gins on the market these days using unique botanicals and other flavors, and they’re not as astringent. Plus when a cocktail is in harmony, the presence of alcohol is detectable but not off-putting.”

DO: Think flavor first. What flavors do you like in food, wine other drinks? The bartender can build off that, explains Ezra Star, general manager of Boston’s Drink, which doesn’t have a menu.

DON’T: Think much about the spirit. “The spirit is a tool, and depending on the flavors you want, one spirit could enhance that better than another,” Star says. “If you want something floral, for example, you’d be surprised at how different cocktails made with different spirits can be.”

DON’T: If you feel the need to ignore Star’s advice, don’t request vodka — at least not in Drink. “That has no flavor,” she says. “I interpret that as, ‘I like things with no flavor.’” Lancaster might make you a vodka drink, but more likely he’ll make a drink that’s less spirit-forward.

DO: Tell the bartender what your go-to cocktail is, or describe what you normally drink. Think: boozy, fruit-driven or sweet versus more acidic. Or, if you once had a drink that you loved on vacation and you remember some of the ingredients, tell her about it.

DON’T: Think you’ll be handed a drink that’s identical to anything you’ve had before. Whether you’re a Negroni fan or you once had something amazing with rum, torched cinnamon and a shrub you can’t remember, if you tell the bartender those things expect a variation of the drink you have in your mind. Who knows? It might be even better than what you’re recalling.

DO: If you do have a specific request, be concise and direct, Lancaster says. They get it — sometimes only an extra-dry gin martini on the rocks with a twist is going to satisfy you tonight.

DON’T: Unless you really want to piss a bartender off, do not say “not too sweet.” “Don’t be afraid of a little sugar,” Star says. “It can round a drink out to bring balance.”

IF YOU’RE REALLY STUCK: “Let the bartender go for whatever and just enjoy being in the space,” Star recommends. Or volunteer to be a guinea pig, as Lancaster does. “I’ll ask, ‘Do you have anything in the works or something you’re experimenting with?’” he says. Bartenders are always playing with new things before they add them to their menus, so why not get a preview taste?