Bartenders are not mindreaders.

Bartenders are not mindreaders. Photo: Steve Lunam

How to order a drink? At first glance this might seem like quite a simple premise, but years behind the bar have taught me it’s anything but. It can be a minefield for guest and server both.

Unlike the humble pub where a well-poured schooner or pot will suffice, the modern cocktail bar offers myriad choices which seem to bewilder guests and frustrate bartenders. Most customers being served in these sorts of venues have no idea what will be handed to them over the bar or delivered to their table until they order.

I’ve seen bartenders almost want to scream at queries and demands from perplexed punters like; ‘what’s good?’, ‘what’s your favourite drink?’ and ‘just make me something good – anything’. 

Bartenders aren’t some kind of boozy oracle able to divine the perfect drink for you – at least, not until you’ve given them more information. There are three key steps and considerations you should be aware of before ordering; your palate, the location and the occasion. With any luck you’ll be rewarded with your perfect drink.

Your palate

First up, you need to understand your own palate. Everyone’s personal tastes differ dramatically. I certainly wouldn’t recommend asking for the bartender’s favourite – you could well end up with a shot of Hungarian stomach bitters and an insanely hoppy IPA. Whilst that sounds superb to me, it might not be your idea of a tasty beverage.    

We bartenders learn a set of descriptive questions used to help lead customers to the right drink choice. When it comes to cocktails it normally starts with ‘white or dark spirit?’, ‘short or long?’, ‘easy-drinking or boozy?’ and finally ‘sweet, sour, bitter or dry?’ From your answer to each of these questions and potential further follow-up inquiries, a skilled cocktail bartender should be able to offer you a couple of tailored choices to choose from.

If you have an understanding of what sort of drinks are to your taste you can save some time at as busy bar by describing what you like. For example if you said; ‘I’ll take something with gin please – short, boozy and bitter’, you might well end up with a classic cocktail called a Negroni – a mix of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth.

And when you get a drink you like, try to remember the name of it and find out if it is a classic cocktail or one created by the venue. Classic cocktails may be able to be ordered in another bar with some success.

The location

I love a good cocktail. I mix them at home and often order one in many of my favourite bars. But not all bars I frequent can mix a good cocktail, and nor would I expect them to. The style and tone of a venue can tell you a lot about what you might want to drink there. 

A characterful pub that pulls a good pint of locally brewed beer and sells a decent pork pie never fails to bring a contented smile. Shelves dominated by one spirit like scotch, rum or tequila might get you ordering something neat. If you can’t see any shakers or cocktail equipment in sight, the likelihood is that they can’t make a cocktail to save themselves - so rethink your choice.  

The best way to judge a venue is on how well it achieves what it’s set out to do - not on your own pre-conceived notions of what they should be offering you. Expecting a first growth Bordeaux in a Mexican bar is an absurd proposition.

Adjust your order to the location and bartender skill level of the venue.

The occasion

This is about appropriateness and etiquette. You should always order a drink appropriate to the occasion.

At an important business lunch it could be considered bad form to throw down a cocktail or two before the entrees are served. Similarly, a first date might not be impressed by you having a giant tumbler of scotch as your first drink of the evening.

A celebration might call for champagne. Sombre occasions probably call for something stiff – a bright pink cocktail with a sparkler sticking out of it could likely be taken the wrong way. The occasion brings meaning to your imbibing.

Should you balance your palate and the offering of the venue with the occasion, you might well end up with the perfect drink.  

What’s your most memorable drinking moment?