• Welcome to the eG Forums, a service of the eGullet Society for Culinary Arts & Letters. The Society is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of the culinary arts. These advertising-free forums are provided free of charge through donations from Society members. Anyone may read the forums, but to post you must create an account.

Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0
TAPrice

A Drink to Test a Bartender

47 posts in this topic

I'll preface this by saying that I'm new to cocktails. I only started seriously mixing drinks at home over the summer.

Recently I've been updating some nightlife listings for a guidebook. Wanting to get a better handle on the drinks served, I've tried to order a cocktail that will help me quickly judge the talent behind the bar.

My choice has been a Manhattan. Here's my thinking:

1) Every bar has the necessary ingredients. Yes, I love to see fresh juices and such, but I figure that a competent bartender could be working at a place too cheap to buy fruit.

2) It's a drink that people do order and every bartender knows. No need to explain the drink and it's ingredients.

3) It's not complicated. Only two ingredients (three if you add bitters, but that's asking for the moon). In my limited knowledge of mixology, it seems like balance is the mark of skill. This drink is about correctly balancing (or measuring) two elements.

4) The garnish is well-established and, again, something that every bar should have on hand.

5) I can see if they chill the drink properly and serve it in a cold cocktail glass.

6) Also, if the bartender asks for my Bourbon preference instead of grabbing the well brand, then I figure they have some concern for what they're making.

Most bartenders in New Orleans, it seems, can't mix a Manhattan. Too often I've gotten sweet vermouth and Bourbon on the rocks. Normally, there isn't even an attempt to mix the drink. It's not a highball, but too many bartenders are unaware of this.

So, is this drink a good test? Should I be ordering something different? What else should I be on the lookout for?


Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You need to circumscribe your expectations by first evaluating whether you are in a cocktail bar and whether it is a cocktailian bartender. There are plenty of bars that have lots of bottles on the back bar and the occasional V-glass, but aren't interested in being the place you go for that really great Manhattan. A Manhattan is a relatively foolproof drink to order if you're at a place that meets minimum requirements (e.g., no dust on the vermouth bottle), but I find that I still need to look at the back bar to choose my whiskey and then say something like "three to one [call brand] Manhattan, stirred, up with a twist and a short dash of bitters if you have any" at most bars around the country.

Unfortunately, you're in a bit of a bind down in New Orleans, which is somewhat notorious among the cocktailian set for mediocre mixology (for example, I recently told a bartender friend here I was going to NO for my upcoming honeymoon and he said, "you know you have to 'bring your own' when you go down there, right?") The impression I get is that there are two or three pretty good places, but the drop off is quite steep. Hopefully I'll discover otherwise in November. :smile:


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
You need to circumscribe your expectations by first evaluating whether you are in a cocktail bar and whether it is a cocktailian bartender.

Am I being unrealistic to expect a cocktail bar to mix a decent cocktail? I don't expect a dive or neighborhood bar to do this, sure. But I would expect a swanky lounge with high prices to mix a basic drink. (And no, I don't normally hang in swanky lounges, but this is for work.)

Unfortunately, you're in a bit of a bind down in New Orleans, which is somewhat notorious among the cocktailian set for mediocre mixology.

I'm learning that's true. Restaurants do a better job mixing drinks I find.


Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I have to agree that you need to assess the situation. I also agree that most bartenders in the the Big Easy are not taking the time mix quality drinks. There are exceptions of course (Lu at The Swizzlestick for one) but for the most part is "move 'm in and move 'm out" bar scene.

I have also found, not only in New Orleans, that there are many bars with great liquors on the back bar, but still do not know how to mix a drink.

All that being said, if the bar is not crazy busy, my test has always been an Old Fashioned. Again it is about balance, muddled fruit, the right amount of sweetness, and bitters. I can live with packet sugar if they do not have cubes, but if there is no fresh orange I will order something else. The big no no for me is if they try to top it off with soda or water. It is NOT a highball.

BTW, you may want to check out Robert Hess' (AKA Drinkboy) video on the Manhattan.


Edited by syoung68 (log)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
You need to circumscribe your expectations by first evaluating whether you are in a cocktail bar and whether it is a cocktailian bartender.

Am I being unrealistic to expect a cocktail bar to mix a decent cocktail? I don't expect a dive or neighborhood bar to do this, sure. But I would expect a swanky lounge with high prices to mix a basic drink. (And no, I don't normally hang in swanky lounges, but this is for work.)

There are lots of places that sell cocktails, but aren't really "cocktail bars." Practically every restaurant in NYC sells cocktails, but few of them are real cocktail spots. A lot of swanky places charging high prices are doing tons of business on superpremium vodka sodas, booze on the rocks and fruit bomb-style mixed drinks.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I would have to agree with the Old Fashioned as the litmus test for a bartender. But part of the test on the old fashioned doesn't have muddled fruit in it. wish it could be a Manhattan, but all too many bar's Vermouth has turned to Vinegar.


A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

When I saw the name of this thread, I immidiately thought "Manhattan." I disagree that one shouldn't expect good Manhattans at just about any place that stocks the ingredients (great Manhattans are a different matter). Never mind trying to get most bartenders to name 3 drinks that use bitters, see if they can name two drinks that use sweet vermouth! Really, most places that stock the stuff at all are essentially saying "You can get a Manhattan here," hence I think it's reasonable to expect the result of that request to be drinkable. I also think that it's a good test of a bartender's craft, for the reasons listed in the first post. Robert Hess uses the Old Fashioned for his litmus test, but I think a properly made Old Fashioned is really more of a test of 'cocktailian' ability/knowledge, whereas a drinkable Manhattan is, I think, a good test of basic compentency in mixing. A well made old-school drink is also a good indicator that the person behind the bar actually enjoys the taste of good liquor, something not to be taken for granted in most bars. Another advantage the Manhattan has over the OF as an indicator of competency is that there are more steps to making it, and hence more signs to look far re: attention to craft (eg stirring vs shaking, chilling glass, etc).

As someone who tends bar in a place known for wine more than cocktails (not that our cocktails are bad, the wine is just that good) it's always sort of a treat to have someone order something like a Manhattan, which I always take as a challenge as if they were trying to size up my abilities (also a great opportunity to introduce people to the beauty of Rye). But the sad truth is that "superpremium" vodka and soda/cranberry/orange, brand X on the rocks, and drinks sweet enough to give you diabetes by the bottom of the glass are good enough for 90% or more of the drinking public. And of course, if you truly are in a dive (or sports bar or whatever), none of the above applies and the place should be enjoyed for what it is. Bartending isn't all about the drinks. Some of the best bartenders I've ever met couldn't mix a Manhattan worthy of a clean glass if their lives depended on it. But they can put you right at ease, show you a great time, and take your mind off your troubles, if only for a little while. Sometimes you want to watch Schindler's List and sometimes you want to watch the Simpsons.

-Andy


Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Other decent tests of baseline mixology would be Cointreau-based sours.

The Margarita is a good test, because everyone knows it. Do you get a glass of frozen slush or a proper up drink? Is it overly sweet? Does the bartender reach for Cointreau or crappy triple sec? What kind of tequila is used? Is it made with (in decreasing order of preference) fresh lime juice, bottled lime juice, sour mix or Rose's?

An interesting test would also be the Sidecar. A lot of the questions as to brand of base spirit, Cointreau-versus-crap, fresh citrus, balance, etc. are the same as they are with the Margarita. The first question is whether the bartender even knows how to make one.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
When I saw the name of this thread, I immidiately thought "Manhattan." I disagree that one shouldn't expect good Manhattans at just about any place that stocks the ingredients (great Manhattans are a different matter).

I don't know, Andy. Plenty of bars have a few token bottles of vermouth gathering dust on the back bar. And if the bottle's been sitting out there post-opening (or, worse yet, with a speed pourer in the neck) for six months, there's pretty much no way you're getting a good Manhattan.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

For me, it's a martini. I can't find the exact quote, but Escoffier once said something to the effect that eggs are the most basic test of a chef's skill, and I think of the martini as the omelette of the cocktail world - only two ingredients (well, three, if you want a dash of orange bitters), not hard to get right if you know the basic technique, but also very easy to screw up.


"Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other." - W. Somerset Maugham

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
But part of the test on the old fashioned doesn't have muddled fruit in it.

I actually like my orange muddled. And yes I know that the original recipe did not have orange in it, but the modern recipe certainly does. You can skip the BS maraschino though.

Some of the best bartenders I've ever met couldn't mix a Manhattan worthy of a clean glass if their lives depended on it. But they can put you right at ease, show you a great time, and take your mind off your troubles, if only for a little while.

I do totally agree with this. Knowing your regulars, working the crowd, this all goes into being a good bartender.

The Margarita is a good test

The problem with a margarita, is that unless you are specific in your order, most bars are going to give you crappy tequila, triple sec (maybe) and sour mix with the requisite squeeze of lime. It is what the general public expects. If you order a margarita up, you might get lucky and get lime juice but you will still need to specify the liquor.

Now I have to say I do not mind specifying the main ingredient like the tequila, but I do not want to have to specify Cointreau over Triple sec if I order a higher end tequila - good bartender should know. And PLEASE no Grand Marnier, or ORANGE JUICE!!!!!

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
When I saw the name of this thread, I immidiately thought "Manhattan." I disagree that one shouldn't expect good Manhattans at just about any place that stocks the ingredients (great Manhattans are a different matter).

I don't know, Andy. Plenty of bars have a few token bottles of vermouth gathering dust on the back bar. And if the bottle's been sitting out there post-opening (or, worse yet, with a speed pourer in the neck) for six months, there's pretty much no way you're getting a good Manhattan.

No doubt. "Should" get a decent Manhattan and "will" get a decent Manhattan are not the same. In my opinion this is still something of a test for the bartender (though I guess a little more advanced). Perfectly acceptable vermouth can be had for $7/bottle. Why isn't the bartender notifying the manager that they need a new bottle if the old one is bad? You can make something like 30+ Manhattans with a $7 bottle of vermouth, and each one of those drinks will cost $7+ in a restaraunt or bar with pretenses towards cocktails. There's really no excuse.

-Andy

PS: I've seen vermouth bottles in bars that would otherwise qualify as dives. As dives, they are, in my mind, still exempt from having to make a Manhattan.


Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Some of the best bartenders I've ever met couldn't mix a Manhattan worthy of a clean glass if their lives depended on it. But they can put you right at ease, show you a great time, and take your mind off your troubles, if only for a little while.

I do totally agree with this. Knowing your regulars, working the crowd, this all goes into being a good bartender.

I think the OP was fairly clear in that the "test" is to evaluate a presumptively cocktailian bartender's skill at making cocktails. Obviously, there are different bartender skills that are appropriate to different settings. For example, whereas looking great in a halter top and miniskirt while dancing on the bar are necessary skills for certain bars where the ability to make a great Martinez are not, the opposite is also usually true.

The Margarita is a good test

The problem with a margarita, is that unless you are specific in your order, most bars are going to give you crappy tequila, triple sec (maybe) and sour mix with the requisite squeeze of lime. It is what the general public expects. If you order a margarita up, you might get lucky and get lime juice but you will still need to specify the liquor.

These are all reasons why the Margarita is a good test of a presumptively cocktailian bartender's bona fides. A good cocktailian bartender in a cocktail bar is not going to give any customer "crappy tequila, triple sec (maybe) and sour mix with the requisite squeeze of lime" without at least having a discussion with the customer.

Why isn't the bartender notifying the manager that they need a new bottle if the old one is bad?

Because they don't know, can't tell, don't care, hardly ever use any, or some combination of the three. Considering that the standard Martini you'll get most often these days contains barely a molecule of white vermouth (and many bartenders make, and customers expect, Manhattans on the same principle) it hardly makes any difference if the vermouth bottle was first opened 9 months ago.


Edited by slkinsey (log)

Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

You know, jmfangio is right. A martini a good test to see if a bartender is really knowledgeable. The two big signs for you to know there is a problem are; he/she automatically reaches for vodka, and he/she does NOT reach for vermouth.

If the bar actually has and the bartender reaches for the orange bitters, you have a winner.

You could always have a progressive test; 1. Martini, 2. Manhattan, 3. Old Fashioned, 4. Plan on calling a cab for your ride home because the night has just begun.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
For me, it's a martini.  I can't find the exact quote, but Escoffier once said something to the effect that eggs are the most basic test of a chef's skill, and I think of the martini as the omelette of the cocktail world - only two ingredients (well, three, if you want a dash of orange bitters), not hard to get right if you know the basic technique, but also very easy to screw up.

This should be true, but to paraphrase Dave Wondrich, Martinis are way too close to religion for most people who drink them. Every Martini drinker has his own One True Way that the drink should be made (I'm no exception; it's part of the fun), and again the vermouth question. I'd be much more willing to take chances on a dusty bottle of sweet vermouth, but dry? no thanks. Couple that with the fact that at least around here, most places stock Martini & Rossi dry, a marginal brand (imo) under the best circumstances, and you have a recipe for mediocrity. Now a sweet martini, that might be an interesting test, since it's something most bartenders have probbaly never even had requested, and yet they should be able to make it with a minimum of explanation. Sounds like fun, actually (plus, they're pretty good).


Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A good cocktailian bartender in a cocktail bar is not going to give any customer "crappy tequila, triple sec (maybe) and sour mix with the requisite squeeze of lime" without at least having a discussion with the customer.
Fair enough. My only caveat would be how busy the place is. But to your point a good bartender should still ask the basics.
As dives, they are, in my mind, still exempt from having to make a Manhattan.
While they may be exempt, I would not discount all dives. The right night, the right bartender, you never know.

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
As dives, they are, in my mind, still exempt from having to make a Manhattan.
While they may be exempt, I would not discount all dives. The right night, the right bartender, you never know.

Not saying it can't happen, I'm just saying I'm not expecting it the way I would elsewhere.


Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

In New Orleans, shouldn't the proper drink to order be a Sazerac?

Anyway, could you clarify your goals in, "evaluating the talent behind the bar"?

Are you purely looking for quality of cocktails?

I mean, as another poster says, there are many qualities that make a good bartender.

It would be great if all bartenders had all those qualities, good host, able to mix drinks well, smart with money, familiar with classic cocktails, able to listen to customers, etc.

But, sometimes you get one, sometimes the other, and sometimes none, and still have a good time.

It seems like we get stuck on being persnickety about the quality of cocktails and recipes, when in fact, to me, mastering the service aspect of being behind a bar is ultimately the most important skill a bartender can have.

If the bartender masters that, they will likely listen and be interested when a customer asks for a Manhattan, and find out what their preference is, same with Martinis, Old-Fashioneds, or whatever.


Edited by eje (log)

---

Erik Ellestad

If the ocean was whiskey and I was a duck...

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
I do not want to have to specify Cointreau over Triple sec if I order a higher end tequila - good bartender should know.

A good bartender should know that Cointreau IS a triple sec.

I prefer the Negroni as my litmus. If I get a beer ("you DID say Peroni, right?"), I move on. Bonus points for not looking it up in the rolodex. More points for reaching for the orange, not the lemon, for garnish.


Marcovaldo Dionysos

Cocktail Geek

cocktailgeek@yahoo.com

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
This should be true, but to paraphrase Dave Wondrich, Martinis are way too close to religion for most people who drink them. Every Martini drinker has his own One True Way that the drink should be made (I'm no exception; it's part of the fun), and again the vermouth question. I'd be much more willing to take chances on a dusty bottle of sweet vermouth, but dry? no than

Good point. You reminded me of an article that I saw last year on five drinks that bartenders hate to make. The martini makes the list because it's basically an invitation for the customer to tell you that you're doing it wrong, no matter how you make it.


"Martinis should always be stirred, not shaken, so that the molecules lie sensuously one on top of the other." - W. Somerset Maugham

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

One of the biggest problems faced when I am behind the bar is a problem of perception and what one person thinks is the proper way to do a classic isn't the same. PDT gets a pretty diverse crowd depending on the night.

We find that most of the time 60-70% of the people will order off the cocktail menu. 20% will order some beer or vodka based long drink (vodka/soda) and 10% of the people will start off with a drink off the menu that could be considered a classic that they either came straight out and ordered, or asked for a suggestion.

The problem is how people perceive their classic should be made.

Margarita -- our house recipe is 2 oz Azul Tequilla, 1 oz Cointreau, 3/4 oz fresh lime. And they are asked if they want it up or on the rocks, salt or no salt.

Personally, I like a 2-1-1 drink as I like it tarter that most. More than once I have made the 2-1-.75 and people have asked for it to be sweeter.

Manhattan -- If someone asks for a Manhattan my first word to them is would you like it Rye or Bourbon. Then they will get a 3 - 1.5 Manhattan with 1 angostura and 1 orange bitter, up with 3 brandied cherries.

Old Fashioned -- house recipe, no muddled fruit, 1 bar spoon demerra sugar, 2 oz rye or bourbon built in rocks glass garnished with a cherry and orange twist (slice upon request)

If someone asks for a "Martini, up, twist" I will automatically ask do they have a preference on their gin. 60% of the time they will make a face and ask for Grey Goose at which point I go into my spiel of the fact we dont have Grey Goose.

If they answer back picking a gin, I ask if they would like orange bitters in it. 1 out of 20 times someone says yes.

These our our house recipes -- granted I will make a drink however people want their classic made if they specifically request it.

Generally we will make a drink a way a person wants it -- with the exception of changing our house cocktails. We get people that say, I don't want grapefruit juice in your {insert name here} cocktail, can you make it with pineapple. Can you use vodka in place of rum in your {insert cocktail here}. Our response to that is a very polite no, and we try to redirect them to a drink that has their ingredient in it, as opposed to changing our house special drinks to something they are not.


John Deragon

foodblog 1 / 2

--

I feel sorry for people that don't drink. When they wake up in the morning, that's as good as they're going to feel all day -- Dean Martin

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A good bartender should know that Cointreau IS a triple sec.
We are splitting hairs. To be technical so is Grand Marnier, but I was really referring to well brand triple secs (Bols, DeKuyper, etc)

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
A good bartender should know that Cointreau IS a triple sec.
We are splitting hairs. To be technical so is Grand Marnier, but I was really referring to well brand triple secs (Bols, DeKuyper, etc)

Actually, Grand Marnier isn't a triple sec, it's an orange liqueur with a cognac base. Cointreau is a high-quality triple sec. I think what kills a margarita most of the time is the use of Rose's Lime and Sweet & Sour mix. If you use 100% agave tequila and fresh lime juice, Bols triple sec may be just fine.


Marcovaldo Dionysos

Cocktail Geek

cocktailgeek@yahoo.com

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites
Sign in to follow this  
Followers 0

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.