Still ordering a vodka tonic at the local cocktail hotspot? No judgment if that’s really what you want every time, but if confidence is an issue, here’s some pro advice for bellying up to the bar… more courageously.
Photo: Getty Images
| Credit: Getty Images

We’re deep in the craft cocktail era, and maybe it seems like your friends all have their fancy orders down pat: “Bulleit bourbon sour, up, with egg white and a flag of cherries.” (That is, embarrassingly, how I request my go-to drink at the local.) But not everyone is so snobby seasoned in the ways of “mixology.” So here are a few smart tips if you want to expand your horizons—even if it’s just upgrading your vodka tonic the tiniest bit.

I reached out to three very talented New York City bartenders—Meaghan Dorman, bar director of Dear Irving, Raines Law Room, and The Bennett, Dan Greenbaum of Attaboy and Diamond Reef, and my pal David Moo, owner of Brooklyn’s Quarter Bar. Here’s what they suggest.

1. If you’re expanding your drink horizons, pick your moment wisely.

“People walk in and they order what they think they know, and it’s hard to get them to order outside their comfort zone, which is annoying for the bartender,” says Moo, “but once they do start ordering outside their comfort zone they don’t know what to order.” That’s fine most nights, but if you want to figure out your new fancy drink order, pick a moment when the bartender is not in the weeds—say, on a Saturday night when the bar is three-customers deep.

2. First, order off the cocktail menu.

Though it might seem obvious, its menu will showcase what the bar thinks it executes best, says Moo. You can see if “they’re nailing the things they offer themselves.”

3. Next, order a classic you’re curious about.

Maybe that pineapple daiquiri with molé bitters wasn’t your jam. So order an off-menu drink next, but make sure it’s a classic: an old fashioned, a margarita, a Manhattan, or a daiquiri (which really showcases whether a bartender can balance sweet, sour, and boozy).

4. Think about what spirits and flavors you love before you get to the bar.

Greenbaum suggests that guests know “what types of spirits and flavors they generally gravitate toward” before they arrive. It gives him a starting point, even if it’s just “vodka and lime” or “bourbon and cherries.” He’ll then generally ask “whether they want something shaken and refreshing with citrus, or something stirred and boozier to sip on.”

5. If you can’t think of what you want, say what you don’t want.

Dorman notes that if someone is stuck—particularly if they’re overwhelmed by a giant book of cocktails—she’ll suggest that you “give me one or two things that you don’t want.” If you say “absinthe” or “maraschino,” two polarizing elements, she will use her expert understanding of the flavor wheel to head towards the other end of it, tailoring her questions and decisions from there.

6. It’s totally OK to order something “boring.”

Are you a vodka soda or whiskey-and-ginger person? No problem. Either you can just request one, straight-up, or you can let a bartender help fox them up for you. Since “a lot of vodka-soda drinkers have an issue with sugar,” says Dorman, she might suggest a splash of verjus (a semisweet grape juice) or tell you what fresh fruits she has in-house, whether they’re blood oranges or cherries. You get to try something slightly new and take that trick home with you.

7. Tell the bartender where you are in your night.

If a customer simply doesn’t know where to start, Dorman will ask “where you’re at in the night: Is it your first drink of the night, or do you want one drink before dinner, or have you had dinner and want one more for the way home?” She attends to the weather, too; perhaps you want warming bourbon if it’s raining, or something floral if it’s gorgeous out. You can use words like that, too, to communicate an idea to your barkeep.

8. Here are the martini questions you’re about to get if you order one.

Maybe you’ve seen James Bond sipping his and want to give it a whirl, but there are a lot of things at play if you order a martini. First, gin is the preferred, classic variation, so if you want a vodka martini, you should order it as such. Otherwise, says Moo, he’s going to say to you, “Great, gin of my choice?” Most bartenders will stir the martini, not shake it, and you typically don’t have to specify the ratio of gin to vermouth, although you could. (In fact, as you get more hooked on martinis, you can try any number of riffs on it.)

You’re going to want to know if you want olives, a twist, or onions (in which case, you want a Gibson, and you should order it as such.) If you order a “dirty” martini, you’ll get a splash of olive juice. “Very dirty” and you’re getting up to ounce of juice—which will, FYI, mean less gin for you. If you suspect a briny drink isn't your jam, keep it clean and order a martini in its purest form: “A martini with a lemon twist, please.”

9. You will rarely get a drink that’s too sweet at a good cocktail bar.

The most common fear folks have when ordering cocktails is that they’ll be too sweet or too strong, says Moo. Both he and Dorman agree that if a drink is truly too sweet, it’s out of balance, and that’s a poor reflection on the barkeep. “We try so hard to make everything perfectly balanced,” says Dorman. “Even the things that are dessert-y are rich in style.”

Moo adds that “If someone says a drink is ‘too sweet’—that’s a blow to a cocktail bartender.” Or, he adds, the bartender “will know full-well that that drink is not too sweet, and you have a really, really dry” palate. Greenbaum writes, “The order of ‘not too sweet’ isn't really helpful, because a good bartender should be able to make a balanced drink, but if you want something that's very tart and sour I'd order that way specifically.” (A bourbon sour, which features lemon juice, is an excellent choice.)

10. If you don’t like it, ask for a replacement.

That said, don’t be embarrassed to return a cocktail if it doesn’t float your boat. “Even a grumpy bartender wants a customer to be happy,” says Moo. If he or she is busy, it might take them a moment to fix your drink or make you a new one, but they shouldn’t be—no pun intended—bitter.

11. Fake it till you make it.

“As in all things, my advice to the novice cocktail orderer is to fake it until they make it,” says Moo. “They should think of a drink that they’re curious about and order it confidently.”

More often than not, at a good watering hole, a bartender will want to make you happy, might have some nerdy details to share about a drink’s history, and will want to make your first time trying something wonderful. It’s worth remembering—if you’re feeling nervous while bellying up to the bar—that your bartender wants you to be happy.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.