If you want to drink like a bartender, you have to taste things. Taste new things, taste things you haven’t tasted in awhile, and taste things you’re very familiar with. Above all, you simply need to taste everything you can, all the time.
That’s the advice from Thea Engst and Lauren Vigdor, the authors of the new book, “Drink Like A Bartender: Secrets From the Other Side of the Bar.” Both women have years of experience behind the bar as bartenders, bar managers, and beverage directors, and they’ve accumulated a long list of things they wish people knew when they sat down at the bar for a drink.
For example, the first thing that comes to mind for Engst is a story she heard from another bartender. Every day, a woman would walk into her friend’s bar and order a bone-dry vodka Martini. Every day, she’d send that Martini back and say it wasn’t dry enough. One day, the bartender shook up some vodka without vermouth and served it to the woman. It was sent back for not being dry enough.
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
As politely as possible, the bartender told the woman that there wasn’t any vermouth in the drink and it couldn’t get any drier. They had a laugh, and then tasted vermouth on its own. Experiences like these are what propelled Engst and Vigdor to write the book.
“If people can take away one thing from this book,” Engst tells me over the phone, “it’s that you should drink what you like all the time, try new things, and ask lots of questions.”
“Drink Like A Bartender” is a mix of stories, cocktail recipes, bar lingo explainers, and alcohol basics. It’s not the end all, be all drinking guide, but that’s not what it’s trying to be. The book is a beginner crash course on making the most out of your drinking — whether you prefer cocktails, beer, or wine.
Wondering what drink you should order or make? The book has a flow chart for that (pages 112 and 113). Curious what the difference is between all of the sour beers out there? An explainer on five of the most common types of sours is a good place to start (pages 54 and 55). Ready to start stocking your home bar? Flip to page 117 and follow the advice Max Toste, the co-owner of three Massachusetts bars, gave for the book:
“My biggest tip for a home bar is to not think about what bottles or liquors you should buy, but what it is you like to drink,” Toste’s quote reads. “If you start with a cocktail that you like, get those ingredients so you can make that cocktail. Then do that for another cocktail and see where they overlap. Don’t start with ‘what bottles do I buy,’ start with what you want to drink.”
Ten years ago, this would have been a different book. The rise of craft beer, the rush of the cocktail renaissance, and a new generation of wine drinkers have changed the drinking scene over the past decade. Numerous books have been written to address the new breed of drinkers. Bianca Bosker’s “Cork Dork” angered the wine world, but gave an inside look at the wine service industry that the average person wouldn’t have been able to get before. Brewer tell-alls from pioneers like Samuel Adams’s Jim Koch, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, and BrewDog’s James Watt fill the shelves next to homebrewing books. It’s hard to know where to start with all the great cocktail books out there.
But few books also touch on how to make the most of your time at the bar from the bartender’s perspective. Which is interesting, because now is arguably a better time to be a bar patron than it ever has been.
“I think mainly we are trying to give our perspective as bartenders more of a voice,” Vigdor tells me. “People go to bars and restaurants all the time, but have never worked in one and don’t know a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff.
“The cocktail, beer, and wine scene is now more exciting than it’s ever been in this country, and we’re trying to keep people excited,” he says. “There’s a big theme in the book to keep being excited and asking questions.”
There’s something for everyone in “Drink Like A Bartender.” It’s 224 pages of witty, light-hearted tips and advice that reads easy. Who wouldn’t want to know how to drink like the people who know drinking best? To start with, follow Vigdor’s top three pieces of advice:
“Taste things all the time, figure out what you like, and don’t pick things out just because you saw a commercial on TV.”