Why are you at a shitty bar? Maybe your friend is the worst and decided to ironically host her birthday at Hooters. Maybe there’s nowhere else to get anything remotely alcoholic and “Bill’s Booze Hut” was still open. Maybe you just straight up hate yourself. Either way, there’s hope yet.
Because despite the fact that the bar you’re currently standing in has a standing order with Red Bull, you can still get a decent drink. You just have to know what to order.
A few rules of thumb before we get into actual drinks: when at a shitty bar, your best bet generally is to go with classics. If there’s a stained greasy old cocktail menu with drinks like “Purple Paradise” or “Jim’s Elixir No. 14,” you’ll want to avoid those. (Despite the fact that it took Jim 13 previous attempts to get his elixir just right.)
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Another tried and tested rule: avoid bottom shelf. Picking from the shitty bar bottom shelf is like looking through the Lost and Found at a Danity Kane concert. You’re going to wake up with regrets. Go middle, even top, shelf—if such a shelf even exists in Shitty Bar—because (silver lining) most shitty bars are a bit less expensive, given the shittiness and all.
If you’re going for a beer or a glass of wine (your choices: $10 Pinot Noir and $8 Chardonnay—and those are bottle prices), smell your glass first. Many of the worst bars have less interest in cleaning your glass than filling, and refilling and refilling, it with $2 PBR. A soapy or moldy smell? Glass must be returned. Politely. Since shitty bartender has a lot of angry lookin’ tattoos.
OK, onto the fun part: what should you actually order to drink? We’re not trying to be dull here, but keep it simple. Yes, you’d be tempted to order a Whiskey Sour—and made in the classic style, it would be a terrific drink. Except shitty bars as a rule rely heavily (heavily) on sugary mixers. Unless you want to drink 200 calories of Sour Mix, steer clear of any “sours.” And Margaritas, for that matter. Instead, go for some whiskey neat. A Whiskey Soda is also always an option, which brings us to another shitty bar tried-and-true favorite: the Gin and Tonic. Again, assuming you’re ordering from the middle/top shelf, there really aren’t a ton of ways this drink can go bad. It’s classic, bright, bracing, refreshing, and nicely boozy.
And never forget the Martini: basically vodka or gin dosed with vermouth, a minimum of ingredients, ensuring you’ll get a fairly decent dram no matter who’s mixing. If the vodka or gin isn’t to your liking, go for a Dirty Martini (the same as the above, plus some olive juice; deliciously briney). Assuming they have grapefruit juice—and most bars actually do—you can order yourself a nice Paloma. Normally made with tequila and grapefruit soda, you can juke your Paloma by asking for tequila and grapefruit juice topped off with soda water. If you’re a bourbon lover, don’t despair. Bourbon’s so popular, your shitty bar is bound to have a bottle—and that means you get to have an Old Fashioned! Just bourbon, sugar, and Angostura bitters (also ubiquitous in the bartender worlds high and low). If by some glorious magic your shitty bar has a bottle of Campari, you have two more decent options: a Negroni (made with the same decent gin you used for your Gin and Tonic) or a Boulevardier (basically a Negroni made with whiskey).
If you’re going for beer, chances are you don’t have a ton of “craft” options. Maybe some Blue Moon on tap? Well, that’s the closest you’ll get to a Belgian witbier, so this time we’re saying go for it. Bottle options at shitty bars are often more extensive than tap options, so it’s always good to check. You never know when a bottle of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA might be lying around (though, yeah, check the “best by” date if possible). And yes, you are also more than welcome to embrace the shitty bar vibes and order yourself a frosty bottle of America, aka Budweiser. But a can of something like Porkslap will give you a lot more flavor bang for your buck. Even if it can’t declare your dual love of patriotism and intoxication.
*Wine, generally, is not a good option at a shitty bar. You’ll end up spending too much for the lackluster contents of a neglected 6 year old bottle of Merlot.