In the midst of the Cecil The Lion debacle, I stumbled across this Vox article revealing that an animal psychic was weighing in on the whole thing. After rolling my eyes, I sent the article to my friend Chaim, head bartender at The Up & Up and also someone I frequently rely on for cocktail bar FAQ information. He responded, “Communicating with peoples’ dead loved ones is incredibly easy. I actually spent a whole day talking about how to do it during our training at The Up & Up. True story.”
Of course, that piqued my interest.
What Chaim was actually referring to was how he was teaching his staff to use the technique of cold reading to better satisfy their customers. I’ll explain. Have you ever been to a psychic reading? I have. It’s actually remarkable how much information psychics can seem to “guess” in a short period of time. This isn’t actually magic in action or happy coincidence, it’s cold reading in action. Cold reading is a exercise psychics and mediums use to figure out what’s going on in your life in only a few brief moments.
Psychics/mentalists/moms do this all the time. Instead of outright predicting stuff (hot reading, ex: “Hi, I’m Psychic McGee, your rabbit is dying and it’s making you incredibly sad, am I right?”), they probe gently with vague, open ended questions and statements (cold reading, ex: “something is upsetting you”). They can pick up on things via your body language, how you’re speaking, what you’re wearing, and more. They can then use these seemingly miraculous discoveries to “predict” outcomes or tell a customer what they want to hear. Ultimately, the goal of cold reading is to tell you the good stuff and to get you spending more time – and more money – with the psychic. So in the context of psychics/mediums, cold reading has a goofy if not nefarious connotation.
However, with bartending it’s different. Many times, a bar menu will tell you what a house favorite drink is. Bartenders are also often happy to tell you what their favorite drinks are. However, a good bartender will go beyond giving you suggestions and instead turn to cold reading you. Chaim explains that he and his staff will ask customers questions like, “Do you like things that are bitter? Do you like cucumber? Do you find lemonade refreshing?” This will help determine what the customer wants to drink, of course. However, Chaim says that when push comes to shove, a Negroni, Old Fashioned, East Side, or variations of the above will typically do the trick. What’s more important is that much like a cold reading with a particularly talented psychic, a cold reading with your bartender makes the experience seem magical.
When you’ve been asked about your drink preferences in more relatable terms (“do you like cucumber”) as opposed to questions in cocktailese (“what do you think of peated whiskey, aged twelve years?”), you truly feel that your palate has been considered while ordering. When you receive the drink of your dreams, because of the cold reading, you’re included in the final product. You get the sensation that the drink was made just for you, and that your preferences are especially considered. With the craft cocktail movement in full zeitgeist, it’s now more important than ever for bars to not just to serve great drinks, but to serve them well, making the customer feel the experience is catered to them. As Chaim puts it, “It’s something I think about a lot. I think that we could all stand to spend more time thinking about how we serve and less time thinking about what we serve. When in the business of understanding what people want, there is really very little difference between a skilled bartender and a fortune teller. One might use a crystal mixing glass, the other a crystal ball.”
A cold reading from your bartender could ultimately cost you as much as spending several weeks with a psychic. However, while one doesn’t have a particularly fruitful outcome, the other does: a delicious drink and feeling cheery at the bar.