How to order cocktails at the bar like a pro

It can be daunting when you step up to your first bar and don’t know how to order. Do you want beer, wine, or a cocktail? Straight up or on the rocks? What’s your choice of spirit? It’s enough to make your head spin (and you haven’t even had a drink)! But not to worry, once distilled, the art of bar etiquette isn’t all that complex. In this blog post, I’ll teach you how to order a delicious cocktail like a pro.

Bartending Terminology

Before we get into the specifics of ordering cocktails, let’s cover some basic bartending terminology. Familiarizing yourself with these terms will make it much easier to communicate with the bartender.

Neat – Neat means that your choice of liquor is served without ice and right out of the bottle, usually into an old-fashioned glass. You’re getting the liquor in its natural state, unchilled and without any dilution or additional ingredients.

Up – A drink that is chilled, either by being shaken or stirred with ice and then strained into a cocktail glass. Don’t confuse this with “Straight Up”, which has become a muddled term that sometimes means “neat” or “up” depending on who you’re talking to.

On the Rocks – On the rocks means that a drink is served over ice.

Short vs. Long Drink – Short drinks have a high alcohol content, compared to long drinks that are “lengthened” with some sort of mixer. This is a good concept to know when asking for recommendations. If you’re looking to moderate your drinking, ask for a longer drink.

The Well – This is the bottom shelf of the bar where the cheaper staple liquors are kept. You’ll commonly see “well drinks” a.k.a “house drinks” at happy hour, which just means a well liquor mixed with juice or soda. When ordering a cocktail, you’ll usually get a well liquor if you don’t specify the brand you want.

Bar Etiquette

Now that you know the basics of bartending terminology, let’s talk about bar etiquette. When you’re at the bar, there are a few things you should keep in mind if you’d like to :

Make eye contact – This is really just a basic rule of communication, but even more important in a hectic bar where distraction is in ample supply. When ordering your drinks, make eye contact with the bartender and speak loud and clear. They need your full attention and need to hear you over an often bustling crowd of the imbibed.

Have your drink order ready – Bars are understandably busy places and bartenders have a lot of people counting on them. Check the drink menu and make sure to figure out what you want before you step up to the bar so that you don’t end up capitalizing on their time and holding up other customers.

Be cognizant of time – Some drinks take much longer to make than others, for instance, hot drinks and anything mixed with egg whites. If the bar is really busy then you should probably opt for something easier to make with fewer ingredients. Otherwise, you might be waiting a while for your specialty cocktail.

Tip well – Tipping is essential and is especially important if you’re going to be a regular. It doesn’t matter whether they’re crafting you a complex work of art or simply pouring you something from draft. 20% is standard. If you’re tipping as you go, try to tip every drink, or at least every other drink. If the bartender gives you something for free, don’t tip on that, but you should treat them extra special on the next drink.

Classic Go-To Drink Orders

If you’re not sure what to order, there are a few classic cocktails that are always a safe bet. There’s a mix of sweet drinks and boozier cocktails, but all of these classics are well-balanced and delicious. Here are a few of my favorites that stretch that gambit of liquor preference:

Old Fashioned – If you’re into the sweet and woody realm of whiskey like myself, then an old-fashioned is a simple and classic way to go. It’s just three ingredients – whiskey, a sweetener, and bitters. Specify the type of whiskey you want and whether you’d like it “neat” or “on the rocks”.

Martini – “a martini. Shaken, not stirred.” said a man that knew how he liked his martini. James bond specifies how he’d like this classic since it is typically stirred. Typically made with gin and dry vermouth, there is plenty of room to dive into a whole world of Martini options. I recommend reading this short interview with [Allen Katz, the director of Mixology and Spirits Education for Southern Wine & Spirits of New York](https://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-expertly-order-a-martini-2013-11#:~:text=Gin vs.-,Vodka,experience%2C give gin a try.&text=”Different brands of gin are,order a vodka martini instead.). Especially if you’re someone that likes olive juice.

Manhattan – Another classic cocktail, the Manhattan is essentially a whiskey variant of the martini. Both are just a combination of their liquor and vermouth, with the Manhattan finding balance from a peppery rye whiskey and sweet vermouth.

Margarita – A classic margarita is made with tequila, fresh lime juice, triple sec, and simple syrup. It can be served frozen or on the rocks. If you’re looking to minimize a subsequent hangover, ditch the house margaritas and specify a top shelf tequila.

Mai Tai – The Mai Tai is a tart, citrusy, sweet drink made with aged rum, orange liqueur, lime juice, and orgeat syrup. While the whole cocktail industry is incredibly fascinating in my opinion, tiki culture takes the cake. Not only is rum underrated (great rums are half the cost of great whiskeys), but tiki drinks also take quality and complexity to another level through their use of multiple spirits and higher attention paid to fresh ingredients.

Moscow Mule – Also known as a type of “buck”, it’s made with vodka, spicy ginger beer, and lime juice and served in a distinctive copper mug. If you’d prefer rum, you could order a dark n’ stormy, a popular variation on the Moscow mule.

Negroni – If you like bitter then the Negroni is a good go-to, made with equal parts gin, vermouth, and Campari. Not only delicious, but the deep crimson color always feels like an elegant accessory to evening outings.

Tom Collins – This is my go-to long drink, made with gin, lemon juice, sugar, and carbonated water and garnished with a lemon twist.

Know the bar you’re in, and order accordingly

Before you order a drink, think about the context of where you are drinking. Are you at a fancy bar, a typical restaurant, somewhere that’s known for its extensive craft beer or wine list?

At a beach bar, a piña colada or mudslide is perfect, but not so much for an evening in an intimate cocktail lounge. Time of day matters too – A bloody mary or mimosa is great at brunch, but wouldn’t pair well with dinner.

Craft cocktail bars are a place to trust professionals. It’s safe to assume they’re using fresh ingredients and have put care into creating their drinks menu. Your bartender’s recommendation is a solid option, or you could opt for one of their signature cocktails.

In contrast, a dive bar is cheaper any mixed drink is going to be made with speed as a priority. They’re probably using sour mix instead of fresh juice, so maybe avoid ordering whiskey sours, margaritas, or anything else with citrus, unless you’re looking for a great way to get a hangover.

My favorite cocktail to order at a dive bar, or any place I’m skeptical of the cocktail bartender, is cranberry juice and gin. It’s a very simple highball that actually has a fair amount of complexity and character, thanks to the sweetness and sour from the cranberry juice and botanicals in the gin.

Ultimately, you should let the type of bar you’re at, time of day, and occasion guide your choice for the best experience. But if you’re truly lost and don’t know what to do, ordering a beer is a safe bet.

A guide to ingredients

If it’s your first time going to a bar, you’ll definitely want to familiarize yourself with some of the most common cocktail ingredients.

Sweet Vermouth – A type of fortified wine that is used in many cocktails, like the Manhattan. Dry vermouth is similar, but less sweet and more commonly used in martinis.

Campari – A type of apéritif, Campari is a bitter liqueur made from infusing herbs and fruit in liquor. It is commonly used in Negronis and other cocktails.

Simple syrup – A sweetener that is made by combining sugar and water. It is often used in cocktails in place of granulated sugar.

This is usually preferred because it’s easier to make a consistent quality cocktail with syrup than undissolved sugar. So don’t be stuck up if this is used for your old-fashioned as opposed to a sugar cube (you know who I’m talking to).

Bitters – Think of these as a bartender’s spice cabinet. They’re a type of liquor that is used in small amounts to add flavor to cocktails. There are a TON of different types of bitters, but Angostura bitters is the most common.

Liqueurs – **A type of liquor that is made with added flavors and sugars. Some common liqueurs include triple sec, amaretto, and Frangelico.

Tonic Water – A type of carbonated water that is typically used in cocktails with gin. It has a quinine-based bitter flavor that helps to balance out the sweetness of other ingredients.

Enjoy Yourself!

I hope I’ve set you up for the best experience possible the next time you hit the bars. Follow these tips and not only will avoid any possible embarrassment, but you’ll also ensure you get the best possible drinks and have a great time doing so. Cheers!

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