How and What to Order at a Bar.
By: Kyle P.
Updated March 16th.
I forget how intimidating it can be to approach the rail at a bar and order a drink. The struggle to get the bartender’s attention, pushy drunk people trying to get ahead of you, and so many choices. It can be stressful.
A friend once confided in me that he sometimes orders “a beer” not because he liked it, but because the stress of ordering was too much. This was pretty unexpected considering how nightlife savvy he was. I guess nobody is immune. This type of “stage fright” can happen to any one of us.
Why do this to ourselves? Why do we awkwardly sip drinks we don’t like? Or wonder if the bartender poured it correctly? This brief guide should help you before you order, help you make a choice, recommend some timeless classic cocktails, give you an idea of what to expect from your bartender, and complete the sale cycle. Let’s begin!
How to Get Your Bartender’s Attention
If you walk into a bar, the crowd is low and ordering is easy, you won’t need the tools in this section. But learning them can be invaluable. If it’s a weekend night, the club is banging, and everybody and their girlfriend are trying to get a drink; you will need to be prepared.
Before you go barreling into the mob that is between you and the bar, let’s talk strategy. First, stand back, and take a look at the crowd and the bartenders. Which bartender is hustling? Is there a not-so-obvious short line of people? Are there bar-flies in bar stools creating a barrier to entry? Look out for these things as you begin your approach.
Often bars and clubs staff 3 or more bartenders. Not all of them are made equal. Some are new, unfamiliar with their job, and as a result – slow. Then, there are the pros. The ones who know nearly every drink and can make them quickly. You will be able to tell the difference after a few moments of observation. Position yourself in their section of the bar.
Next, let them know you are ready. This can be tricky because you don’t want to be obnoxious. On the other hand, being too subtle can get you skipped. Try to make eye contact with the bartender. Once you make that connection a typical nod should seal the deal and get you on their radar. If that doesn’t work, hold a crisp 20 in your hand (over your bank card if you don’t plan to pay by cash). This is a telltale sign: “I’m ready to buy”. If that fails you may have to speak up.
If all that fails, you will have to get a bit more aggressive. Make clear eye contact and as loud as you can without yelling let the bartender know you are ready to order and you would like some attention as soon as possible. If this causes blowback, find a different bartender. Or even try a different bar. Many night clubs have several bars to choose from.
Time To Order
Be ready. Knowing what you want before you get to the front of the bar will make your new best friend, the bartender very happy. It’s important to know what you like. Vodka, tequila, rum or dark spirits? Red, white, or blush? Bottle or draft? IPA, pale ale, or domestic? Know what mood you are in. Is it a cocktail sorta night, beer, or wine? Whichever it is, now is the time to make a choice.
But what if you don’t know what to order?
In this scenario, we are going to imagine that a cocktail is the type of drink you want. You could order from the cocktail menu, but knowing some universal classics will help you if there’s no cocktail menu to have. We have curated a list of classics that every bar should be able to make for you.
A Few Basic Cocktails To Memorize
Remembering the endless library of cocktails is impossible. Here are a few timeless drinks to order and what to expect when drinking them. Put them in your back pocket and next time you step up to the bar.
This is your basic rum and cola with lime. A fancy name for a very simple drink. But the cola, rum, and sour from the lime make an amazing cocktail that is easy on the palate.
Gin and Tonic
The recipe is in the name in this one, but people are usually not ready for the flavors coming at them. This cocktail is going to be full of herbal flavor and the tonic water is sour from the quinine (and UV reactive 😎) Both flavors are often unexpected. If you are ready for it, this classic is an easy one to get into.
This popular drink is often ordered without knowing it contains egg. Many bartenders also make it not knowing it has egg. If not served with a nice frothy top, you can send it back. In addition to the foam, most are typically garnished with orange and cherry. You can expect this one to taste full on the tongue, high notes from the lemon, and the wood and oak flavors from aged bourbon. A great sipper. But please don’t throw this one at a slammed bartender at a club.
Long Island Iced Tea
Made popular by many TV shows and movies, but may make new bartenders sweat. They sweat because it’s not easy to remember and pour correctly. It contains 4 base spirits(vodka, gin, rum, tequila), a cordial(triplesec), a mix(lemon), and a float(cola). Get your drink on, this cocktail is strong. Talented bartenders will often pour all 4 bottles at the same time. Service should come in a nice tall glass with a splash of cola.
Before my tongue got used to the idea of alcohol, I ordered a martini to impress a girl. I was not ready for what came. Martinis are a powerful cocktail that is best sipped slowly. Traditionally made of vodka with a splash of vermouth, however, there are many ways to order them.
The amount of vermouth determines if it’s dry or wet. You can get it neat (without ice) or on the rocks. Shaken will add more water and ice chips. Stirred will give a stronger drink. Dirty one up with olive juice. You can use gin if you’d like, but be ready for the herbal flavor. Garnish can be olives, a twist (lemon peel), or maybe a cocktail onion.
But Wait, There’s More!
You did it! You ordered a cocktail!!
But wait, there’s more! The bartender may have questions. You may have to pick a spirit, pay, tip, and get out of there. Here is our advice for everything to consider after you order a drink.
What kind of Spirit?
Say you order a Whiskey Sour. What if the bartender asks what kind of whiskey you want? A good way to quickly get through this is to simply order the “well”. Well, Spirits are the house standard, typically the cheapest and lowest shelf. But some bars have very nice well brands, I personally remember those that do. Additionally, you can ask for their recommendation. Busy bartenders will find this annoying, so if they take the time to go the extra mile for you, go the extra mile for them, with a nice fat tip 🤑. Obviously, if you have a favorite whiskey, call for it with your order.
If you’re ordering shots, the bartender might ask if you want a back or a chaser. Typically this is a half beverage for the sole purpose of mellowing the taste of pure alcohol. A popular option is a “ginger back” where you get a bit of ginger ale to wash everything down. Ginger is a great way to settle your stomach. Other options: pickle juice, cola, pineapple juice, and Red Bull.
Most bartenders’ #1 gripe is customers who don’t tip. A good rule of thumb is 10-20%. Math isn’t a fun after-hours activity, so here is a trick I use. Move the decimal to the left, round up, and multiply by two. BOOM! 20%. You are now a tipping hero. *Exception: Poor service or bad attitude is not deserving of 20% or sometimes even 10%. I’ve made statement tips before – IE: Tipping $0.10 on the tab. I believe in good service too. Tipping is not mandatory.
Remember, bartenders live on tips. If they take care of you, take care of them. If you get bad service, find a new bar.
You should now know how to order some basic drinks at the bar and know what to expect. You should know how to order a proper chaser, answer those follow-up questions, and industry standards for tipping. Never again will you suffer sipping on a beer you didn’t want in the first place. Of course, you can always learn to make some drinks yourself at home.
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