You walk into a bar on a quiet evening and find the bartender looking like he needs something to do. This is a cocktail bar, mind you, not a dive bar where the top and bottom shelf are one in the same. It’s also not a sports bar where the focus is more on the big screen than what’s in the glasses. You’ll know this joint is a genuine cocktail bar from its menu – it will boast classic cocktails, and possibly some proprietary ones with seasonal, and sometimes strange ingredients.
You’ve stumbled upon the ideal setting for ordering a bartender’s choice. The bartender has time and resources on his hands to help you find your perfect cocktail, whether it’s on the menu or not.
“We’re crazy busy, but we do bartender’s choice all night long,” says co-owner at Denver’s Williams & Graham Sean Kenyon. “I think any bartender worth their salt should be able to make a bartender’s choice when they’re slammed,” he adds. The key to ordering a specially-made cocktail, he says, is sitting at the bar, instead of a table, so that you can communicate to the bartender what you like. “The heart, the core, of a bartender’s choice is the interaction between the bartender and the guest.”
So do you want a drink that is sweet or savory? Fruity or spicy? Citrusy? Herbal? Dry? What kind of spirits do you typically drink? Matthew Seiter, the bartender at Sanctuaria in St. Louis, takes a formulaic approach to asking customers what they would like in a bartender’s choice cocktail. “We train all our staff, servers included, to properly assist guests with what it is they want. When anyone asks for bartender’s choice, our staff asks a series of questions. First is ‘bitter, tart, sweet, boozy, or sour?’ Next is ‘brown or white spirit?’”
From there, Seiter says there are usually some follow up questions. “Candy sweet or natural sweetness? Herbal and savory or herbal and bitter? Things like that.”
Kenyon’s approach is much more instinctual. He says he has a library of cocktails stored in his head, and upon receiving a bartender’s choice order, he will ask guests a series of random questions, a practice that he compares to a game of Plinko on The Price is Right. “That ball goes all in one direction, and then it hits one stick and goes all in the other direction. When I’m doing a bartender’s choice, it’s like that little ball is going in my head and falling toward one box. They say something else, and it goes to another box,” he says with a grin. “Hopefully it ends up in that $1,000 box and not in that zero, lose-all-your-money box.”
Truthfully, though, you might lose some money on a bartender’s choice. Even if the bartender asks all the right qualifying questions for your cocktail and you tell him exactly the flavors that you like, you still might end up with a concoction you’re less than crazy about. It’s proper bartender’s choice etiquette, still, to pay full price – and tip – for the drink you ordered. “I personally hate to make anybody pay for something they don’t like, but in a bartender’s choice situation, I think a lot of people would expect you to pay for it even if you don’t like it,” says Kenyon.
If you’re ordering a bartender’s choice cocktail, accept the risk you’re taking. You might not love it, but at least you’ll be trying something new. Refer to our 10 Ways to Order Bartender’s Choice to help determine your palate before you approach the bar.