Order up

How to get the right drink in a bar

At Coquille Fine Seafood, Shaun Layton has created a light, bright, classic-based bar list. Order accordingly. Dan Toulgoet photo

You’re thirsty. There’s a bar full of things to drink. You’d think nothing would be simpler than quenching your thirst, right? Not so fast.

We’ve all had those disappointing cocktails that left us wondering what went wrong. That’s because there’s an art to ordering a drink, a good drink at least, and it’s both simple and complex.

It starts by being aware of your surroundings.

“I’ll usually order according to where I am. It’s what I want, but also where I am,” says Shaun Layton, who has just created the bar program at the newly opened Coquille Fine Seafood. “If I’m at La Mezcaleria, I’ll order a Margarita. If I’m at a French restaurant, it’ll be a classic aperitif. And if it’s a place that’s known for the bar program, I’ll definitely order a cocktail,” he says. “I’ll get with the program at the place because it’s a part of the experience.”

The Upstairs at Campagnolo back bar suggests bittered whisky drinks are a good choice here. Lou Lou Childs photo

In other words, play to the establishment’s strengths and not its weaknesses. “If you’re going into a pub, don’t order a Manhattan,” says Sabrine Dhaliwal, bar manager of Uva Wine & Cocktail Bar. Adds Amber Bruce of The Keefer Bar, “Don’t go in with your preconceived notions and ask for something you’re not going to get.”

Sometimes, though, it’s not so easy to tell what kind of joint it is. A bar may look classy, but still shake its Manhattans and make its Margaritas with bottled sour mix. That’s when you have to look for other clues.

Check out the decor, the menu and especially the back bar. Is it filled with a jumble of dusty Sour Puss and Fireball bottles? Or a neatly arranged selection of gleaming mezcals and amaros?

Look at the menu, look at the back bar, look at the bartender. How are they presenting themselves? What’s the music like? What’s the atmosphere? Even if the drinks aren’t my style, I can find something I’d be happy with.

“Generally, if it’s lots of sweet liqueurs and vodkas, it’s for a less experienced palate. A back bar that has a lot of whiskies is for a more developed palate,” says Dhaliwal. “Look at the menu, look at the back bar, look at the bartender. How are they presenting themselves? What’s the music like? What’s the atmosphere? Even if the drinks aren’t my style, I can find something I’d be happy with.”

“If you see yellow and green Chartreuse, you know they have a good cocktail program,” says Max Borrowman, bar manager of Juniper Kitchen & Bar. “And if I look at the menu and they have nothing but Blue Hawaii and five different Mojitos, then I’ll order a beer.”

If you see yellow and green Chartreuse, you know they have a good cocktail program.

Little things like dirty cleaning rags left on the counter, withered lime wedges in the condiment tray or even the way the room smells are an indication that there will be as little care going into the drinks.

“If you walk in and you have that stale bar-mat smell, then I’d have a bottled beer,” Dhaliwal says.

At Hawksworth, high-end spirits are the order of the day. Lou Lou Childs photo

“If you see them shaking drinks that are supposed to be stirred, stay away from Martinis and Manhattans and stick with a highball,” Layton says. “If they’re not using fresh juice, stay away from anything that needs juice. If it’s a dirty bar, stay away from anything fresh.”

But your best information will come right from the source: the bartender.

“Talk to us. We’re a lot of fun,” says J-S Dupuis, beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality Group. “To me, anywhere in the world I go, I’d sit at the bar and order a beer, then look at the cocktail list and talk to the bartender. Go out to have a good time. Open your mind a little. And trust your bartender.”

Dhaliwal agrees: “Do talk to the bartender. Ask them what they do. Tell them what you like and what you don’t like. Be honest. The bartender should be able to help guide you.”

“Always give them something to work with,” Layton says. “And if it’s really busy and backed up, I might start with a sherry or a beer and say, ‘When you have a minute, I’ll have a cocktail.’”

Sometimes, though, it’s clear you’re not going to get the cocktail you want and you even have doubts about the draught beer. In that case, it’s best to turn to the bartenders’ backup: a bottle of beer and a shot of whisky, a.k.a., a Boilermaker.

“It’s easy drinking and a great conversation starter,” Dhaliwal says.

Bruce adds, “And hopefully the shot glass is clean.”

—by Joanne Sasvari

Make Shaun Layton’s version of Harry’s Bar French 75.

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