We’re experiencing something of a golden age for craft cocktails — there’s perhaps never been a better time to be a cocktail-lover. As more and more worthy tippling houses pop up, the long-standing bars and restaurants of the old guard are being forced to up their game to keep pace.
But even though there are more opportunities than ever to enjoy a craft cocktail, there’s a steep learning curve to entering into the wide world of mixed drinks. The vocabulary can be confusing, the menus daunting, and the bars themselves can be intimidating places for the uninitiated.
To all that I say: Fear not! Yes, craft cocktails can be confusing — to rookies and even veterans alike. But with a few tips, even a complete novice can head out on the town and confidently order and enjoy them. Here’s how you too can learn to speak cocktail.
Know your bar
Perhaps the first rule when looking for a good cocktail is choosing a good bar. Not all drinks are created equal, after all, and a drink is typically only as good as the bartender — and, by extension, the bar itself.
So the vast majority of the time, if you want a good cocktail, you have to go to a good cocktail bar. Now, admittedly, that’s not always an easy task, so begin by identifying a place where you should not try to order a fancy cocktail: If you’re at a party bar, a dive bar, or a chain restaurant, it’s probably safer to order a gin and tonic. If there’s no cocktail menu, don’t order a Manhattan. And if the bartender has to ask you how to make the drink you just ordered, go ahead and order something else.
Want to find a good cocktail bar? Honestly, hop on the Google. Typically a “best cocktail bar” search will get you a few local top-five or 10 lists from the likes of Eater, Thrillist, and Yelp. Even better sources include a local critic published on a media outlet in your area. And pay special attention to which bars are praised for the actual cocktails they craft, as opposed to the “ambiance” or their loyal following, which can be misleading. Sometimes, however, the best approach is just to ask a local, whether it’s someone you know who works in the industry or just a friendly bartender at your favorite dive bar.
Glossary of terms
Cocktail: A mixed drink.
Craft cocktail: A mixed drink often consisting of a higher-level set of ingredients, including high-end liquor, fresh fruits, homemade syrups, et al.
Manhattan: A martini-style drink popularized in NYC made with two parts whiskey to one part sweet vermouth, plus a couple dashes of bitters.
Not all cocktails are for everyone
Next, once you’ve found a good bar, I would not necessarily recommend just picking any old random drink on the menu, as many excellent cocktails can be fairly unpalatable to an undiscerning tongue.
For instance, once upon a time, I was working at a restaurant that served the best old fashioned in town. So when a young woman came in and asked me what she should order to drink, that’s what I enthusiastically told her.
You can imagine what happened next. About 20 minutes later, the bartender approached me and kindly asked me never to blindly suggest a cocktail to a guest without having any idea what he or she likes or typically drinks. As it happened, this young lady took one sip of her old fashioned and just about spat it out — and my guy the bartender was compelled to make her a new, different one.
Moral of the story: if you don’t already know you that you like bourbon (or similar overproof spirits), I would not recommend ordering an old fashioned or a Manhattan as your first foray into craft cocktails. Even if you want to try such spirits, ask the bartender what would be a good “starter” cocktail, if you will. Better yet, tell your barkeep straight up that you don’t really know where to start, and typically he or she will do the rest.
Glossary of terms
Spirit: A hard liquor. Must be at least 40% ABV (alcohol by volume), which would translate to 80-proof.
Bourbon: An aged whiskey from Bourbon County, Kentucky made from corn and aged in new American oak barrels.
Overproof: A spirit with more than 40% ABV (these are typically 50% ABV or more).
Old fashioned: A drink that includes 2-3 oz. whiskey plus a small amount of sugar syrup and a few dashes of bitters.
How to parse a menu
Every once in a while, however, you’re going to be on your own when it comes to choosing a drink. If you’re ordering from a table, for instance, you’re not going to be able to speak directly to the bartender. But that still doesn’t mean you need to blindly throw darts at the cocktail menu.
I’ve come up with a few different prompts to ask a server to help decipher a mysterious cocktail menu. Two major categories to keep in mind is if you like drinks that highlight the flavor of the base liquors, or other ingredients.
If you like the taste of whiskey or gin or what-have-you, you might be looking for a “spirit-forward” cocktail — that’s code for a drink that highlights the distinctive flavors of the liquors in it. A Manhattan or old fashioned would fall in that category, as would a martini.
If you prefer a drink that doesn’t necessarily taste like it has a ton of alcohol in it, ask for something “refreshing,” “crushable,” or “easy to drink.”
If that doesn’t help, I’ll resort to asking how a drink on the menu is served. If it’s served “up,” that means it won’t have any ice in it; if it’s served “on the rocks” or “on a rock,” that means it’s served on ice (many cubes or one big cube). Typically, these kinds of drinks will be more spirit-forward. If it’s served on crushed ice or in a tall “cooler-style” glass, that typically means it’s less boozy or at least less booze-forward.
(Fun fact: interestingly, “spirit-forward” doesn’t necessarily mean there is any more alcohol in a drink, only that the drink is intended to taste more obviously boozy. Some drinks can be plenty boozy but the alcohol is more hidden thanks to other ingredients, namely sugar, citrus, or even just water. A drink that has plenty of booze but doesn’t immediately seem like it might be termed a “balanced” drink.)
Glossary of terms
Up: Serving a drink without ice, typically “up” in a stemmed glass.
On the rocks: Serving a drink with ice, typically in a tumbler or whiskey glass.
Spirit-forward: A drink characterized by an obvious booziness, typically executed by a restrained dilution or overproof liquor.
Crushable: A drink you can consume quickly and easily.
Beware of ambiguous terms
Which brings me to what’s most responsible for the frustration and confusion around ordering cocktails: ambiguous terms. Many entry-level cocktail drinkers associate certain terms or types of drinks with the lowest-common-denominator examples they’ve experienced (often from a party bar, a dive bar, or a chain).
For instance, the old fashioned you’d get at any random supper club in rural Wisconsin (complete with muddled fruit and soda water) is not the same old fashioned you’d get at a serious cocktail bar in Minneapolis.
Some drinkers swear that they don’t like “sweet drinks” when they’ve never had a drink that properly balanced its sweetness with the other ingredients. Same with citrus drinks: many people will dismiss them as either too sweet or too sour, but in my experience, that’s only because they’ve never had the opportunity to taste a good one.
Perhaps the best (worst?) example, however, is how the term “martini” has been used and abused. A classic martini consists of only gin, dry vermouth, and bitters. But many, many bars have mixed seemingly randomly flavored vodkas with who-knows-what-else, and simply added “-tini” to the end of something that sounds catchy. That’s how we have such bastardizations as the “apple-tini.”
Suffice it to say, if you see an abundance of flavored vodkas on a cocktail menu, beware.
Glossary of terms
Martini: A style of drink with two parts liquor to one part vermouth. A “classic” martini is a particular drink in this style made with gin and dry vermouth. A “dirty” martini includes a splash of olive juice. A Manhattan (see above) is actually a martini-style drink.
Muddle: Smashing fruit, mint, et al. to smithereens before adding it to a drink. (I personally don’t ever want my garnishes muddled, but to each his own…)
Vermouth: A fortified wine, classically made with a bit of wormwood (vermut in German); typically split between sweet (red) and dry (white).
Get out there!
The craft cocktail world can be a weird place, even for grizzled vets. But that’s part of the fun. After all, cocktail making is more of an art than a science, and cocktails are more fun to make and enjoy when the bartender has some creative license at his or her disposal.
The surest way to a good cocktail experience is to simply find a good bar, sit right down in front of where the bartender is doing his or her thing, and take it all in. Often they’re happy to talk all about what they’re doing because they often love what they’re doing — or at least are happy to be distracted in the process.
And if the bartender notices that you actually take this sh*t seriously (or are at least trying to learn), they’re often quick to let you in on their processes, try the ingredients, or even make you free drinks or shots, just because they like you.
Finally, don’t forget to take care of your bartenders! Tip at a minimum of 20% off the entire check (including tax) — and even more if they went out of their way.