It’s time to take a break from walking around town, grabbing drinks at local establishments and pontificating. Instead, let’s talk cocktails and cocktail culture for a bit!
Tipplers of all types can enhance nights on the town by being savvy about what to expect from an establishment. How do you know what a bar does well? Well, there are certain tells, and with just a little knowledge, you can get the most out of your night, no matter where you go. Just like you would have more fun off-road with a Jeep than a Porsche, and the opposite on a racetrack, understanding what a bar does best is easy to discover once you learn what to look for.
First, look at the back bar (what we bartenders call the shelves behind the bar). There is no truer sign of what the bar director envisions for the bar program: How much room is given to flavored vodkas? How many labels are variations of the same brand? If the answer to either is more than a few, you are not in a craft-cocktail bar. You are in a bar that has probably been in business for a long time (there’s nothing wrong with that) that doesn’t want to challenge guests (which, again, makes business sense). The guest wants a “(blank) and soda,” and they get it. This bar is not trying to make the guest read a menu of Prohibition-era variations. Don’t see a bottle of Green Chartreuse? Then don’t order a Last Word at this bar. Don’t see little bottles of bitters on the bar—or at least that stalwart white-paper wrapper of Angostura? Then this place is probably not going to make a good old fashioned. I spent a lot of time over my long career working at places like this, and plenty of good bartenders still do. Maybe they make great money; maybe they have fun at work, a good relationship with ownership, or aren’t into cocktails. There’s no sense trying to embarrass him or her by ordering a Penicillin.
So … how do you make the most out of drinking here? Be specific: “A Manhattan, two parts to one rye whiskey to vermouth, with three dashes of bitters, stirred, with twist of orange.” If the bartender says they don’t have rye, gives you a blank stare, or says they don’t have bitters, perhaps you should just have a bourbon and soda. We are past the point where this should still be excusable, but it will happen. If this is a restaurant you really like otherwise, let the bartender or manager know that you would come in more often if they could make your drink. They may take the hint!
Also: The next time you have a great … let’s say a Manhattan, ask the bartender for the recipe. (Say: “This is great; what are your specs on this drink?” You’ll sound like a pro.) That way you can get it the way you want anywhere, theoretically.
Now, let’s say the back bar is super-varied, perhaps with brands you aren’t familiar with, and lacking some of the famous labels. It would seem you have found yourself a craft program! This is a truer sign than twisty mustaches and suspenders. Are the bottles mostly whiskey, gin, tequila or rum back there? Maybe they’re dominated by bitter-sweet bottles with Italian names, or mescal—that would tell you how the program is grounded. A whiskey bar should still be able to make a margarita, of course, but chances are the bartender is more proud of his or her classic sour. Looks can be deceiving, of course; we only have two mezcals at Seymour’s, for instance, but I am super-proud of my mezcal drinks. Nine times out of 10, though, the extent of a bar’s selection is a good sign of its strength.
So, how do you make the most out of your experience? Well, firstly, please don’t ask which drinks are “sweet.” A good craft program is going to have balanced drinks—sweet, tart and bitter, all in the right proportions. Save that question for the flavored-vodka bars!
Secondly, if you normally drink vodka, please give gin a chance. I have drinks that use gin and taste nothing like that plastic-bottle stuff you got sick drinking in 1988. Yes, I can substitute vodka, but I promise it won’t taste as good; vodka gets pushed around by strong flavors, trust me. Start with a Bee’s Knees or a Corpse Reviver No. 2, and you will be pleasantly surprised. If gin is still too scary, maybe try a fruit brandy. They are generally clear and like vodka in many ways, but retain some of the natural flavor of the fruit. I use Clear Creek pear brandy often; pisco (a South American brandy made with grapes) used to make a classic sour is another great choice for those who don’t like brown spirits.
Thirdly, please don’t rewrite a recipe you haven’t tried. We get people all the time asking for “no simple syrup” or “no egg white” or whatever. If you have dietary restrictions, just let us know, and we can tailor a drink just for you. Just want rum and lime juice? Cool; I think it would be better with a little sugar, but if you insist, I will be happy to make it. But, really, there’s no need to deconstruct a balanced, complicated drink to get something the bartender won’t be proud to serve. Besides, egg whites are delicious in cocktails, so give them a chance! Trust me—it’s a lot more work to put them into drinks, and I wouldn’t recommend them if I weren’t convinced they make a better product.
I know I sound preachy or fussy, but I promise you most of us are not stuck up divas. I drink a beer and a shot when I go out after work much of the time, and so do most of my bartender friends. We just are proud of what we make, and want you to enjoy our drinks. (That said, if you see the bartender up to his or her eyeballs in drink orders, ordering a vodka soda instead of a Ramos fizz is just fine!)
Wait … did I say I was going to take a break from pontificating? Well, sorry, I can’t help it, and here’s just a little more before I conclude: Not every place needs a craft program, but every place should make balanced drinks, and have pride in what they do. It’s nice to see that here in the Coachella Valley, there is an honest desire on the part of the service industry to raise the quality level of the local cocktail scene.
In the upcoming months, I will be exploring two different approaches by two of the bigger players in town: Workshop’s new endeavor at Truss and Twine, and the Taco Maria-designed program at the Ace Hotel and Swim Club. I will also be checking out smaller bar programs around the valley that are taking pride in what they do, and I am always happy to hear suggestions of places that might not be on my radar.
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Seymour’s/Mr. Lyons and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.