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TAPrice

A Drink to Test a Bartender

47 posts in this topic

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?

Sazeracs often annoy bartenders. So many steps. Most good restaurants can do a nice version.

I'm not looking for a pass or fail test. Some of my favorite bars are mainly places to get a shot and a beer. I agree that there are many types of great bartenders.

What I was looking for was a single drink that would let me know if a bar might produce decent cocktails. If a place served a Manhattan as an unmixed highball on the rocks, then it's probably safer to get beer there. If the first drink was good, then it might be worth investigating further and ordering some more drinks.

One place who served me a miserable Manhattan last night (although at least it wasn't on the rocks, but it was in a short, highball style glass) proclaims itself "the evolution of the cocktail." I hope not.


Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

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

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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.

It's not quite that simple, Marco (see this thread), although I think we all agree that GM isn't a great product to use in a Margarita.

IMO, Cointreau or another triple sec of similarly high quality (by which I mean better than Brizard and definitely better than Bols) is necessary for a good Margarita.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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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.

It's not quite that simple, Marco (see this thread), although I think we all agree that GM isn't a great product to use in a Margarita.

IMO, Cointreau or another triple sec of similarly high quality (by which I mean better than Brizard and definitely better than Bols) is necessary for a good Margarita.

I really did not mean to start a triple sec war. My whole point was that If I am willing to pay for a better tequila, I hope my bartender goes for the Cointreau or at least asks me.

And IMO GM does not belong in a margarita, and neither does OJ but I have seen both.

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My whole point was that If I am willing to pay for a better tequila, I hope my bartender goes for the Cointreau or at least asks me.

Yea, that's more or less my point as well, with respect to evaluating a bartender on cocktilian chops. Cointreau should be the defeult, unless there is some specific reason to use another (quality) brand. The bartender uses Hiram Walker, and I'm sticking with "something on the rocks."


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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If I may quote from myself, as I said in Esquire Drinks, "If the bartender can’t make a decent Manhattan, that 'house

special' will probably suck, too." The Manhattan has always been my test drink, unless circumstances suggest something more appropriate.


aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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Sidecar.

The Old Fashioned isn't a good test for obvious reasons...people who otherwise know their drinks expect muddled fruits while other people will rule out a perfectly good bartender for including a muddled orange.

A Martini doesn't work because even if the bartender knows better (and they usually do if they have any cocktail pretensions at all)....they're still going to assume that you want vodka and you want it dirty or even if you specify gin they'll still assume you want it dirty (even if they know better). so it's not fair to the bartender.

As for the Manhattan, actually, they rarely flunk that. I don't ask for it in dive bars or clubs and in lounges or hotels or restaurants any bartender will usually give you Maker's in a 3-1. they'll shake it and there won't be bitters (sometimes they'll surprise with Angostura) but it'll be credible.

so the Sidecar is the test. (usually high-end restaurants or hotel bars pass...other places are iffy...but you can be pleasantly surprised).

plus it's a great test of balance.

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As for the Manhattan, actually, they rarely flunk that.  I don't ask for it in dive bars or clubs and in lounges or hotels or restaurants any bartender will usually give you Maker's in a 3-1.  they'll shake it and there won't be bitters (sometimes they'll surprise with Angostura) but it'll be credible.

Actually, I've found that they do flunk it distressingly often. A great many of the OJT-type bartenders I encounter (outside of New York, anyway) construct it on the analogy of the Martini, wherein the vermouth is some sort of toxic waste whose role is to be minimized, while its smoothing function is assumed by the wholesome and pure maraschino cherry juice. Jesus wept.


aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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Yeah, what is up with the whole marachino juice in a manhattan? For the love of all things holy!!!


A DUSTY SHAKER LEADS TO A THIRSTY LIFE

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Yeah, what is up with the whole marachino juice in a manhattan?  For the love of all things holy!!!

I think it's there because the drink is so seriously out of balance if you cut the vermouth back to a vestigial amount that it's needed to make it palatable--or rather, "palatable." It serves as the sugar in an old-fashioned cocktail--a smoothing agent. Given the same 5- or 6- (or 10-) 1 Mixture of Maker's and red vermouth, one with maraschino juice and one without, I think most casual drinkers will percieve the cherry juice one as smoother.

That still doesn't make it right, though, does it?


aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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I know there is this tendency to say that, woo!, we here in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and other cities have it better than the rest of the country...

But, really, some of the best old-fashioneds I've had have been at small supper clubs in central Wisconsin. You've got bartenders, really good bartenders, slinging volumes of classic drinks of a higher quality and more reliably in some of those taverns than I get here in San Francisco.

Or old guys in hotels in New Orleans or young tatooed hipsters in dives here in San Francisco.

There's really no rhyme or reason to which people care and which don't.


---

Erik Ellestad

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

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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There's really no rhyme or reason to which people care and which don't.

Could it be that anyone who actually drinks cocktails knows what a difference a little care can make? Maybe it has a lot to do with the personal drinking habits of a bartender?


Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

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

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I think the general public is partially to blame for the continuation of bad drinks. For example, take the martini: gin, vermouth and nice orange bitters sound good to me, but I've had MAYBE 2 people (that I've ever waited on) even know what that is. It's vodka, vodka, vodka, shaken to death and nothing else. The aversion to vermouth is so ingrained here that I've had to relocate my vermouth to the far end of the bar away from the gins and vodkas so I can "prove" I didn't add any.

The manhattan hass a better track record. It's one of the few cocktails that I can make the correct way and not have it sent back.

I'm finding the "classic" cocktails are beginning to suffer around these parts are well, which is particularly distressing seeing how they are so new here. Vodka is finding its way into things it has no business being in, so the general public's first experience with a classic cocktail is wrong. So when I do happen to get a customer who recognizes a drink on my menu and orders it, I suddenly become the bartender who doens't know how to make a drink because they had a crappy version they liked at the local "tini" bar.

That said, the cocktail I'd love to order but can't is a sidecar. I can get a good one in Boston, but not a chance locally. So many good drinks out there and I have to drink beer. Lots of beer.

Sean

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First off, Hello, my name is Nat and I am new to eGullet.

That being said, I don't think that blind testing a bartender is necessarily the right approach. I do think that there are a couple of better approaches. If you want to know if someone is at least serious about cocktails you can ask a couple of feeler questions, like if they use fresh juice, what kind of vermouth they have, ask if they have orange bitters. If they are serious about cocktails they would probably glean that you are too, rather than the usual clientele who ask what kind of vodka they have.

Another thing to try is to ask their name, then no matter what they say, tell them that you heard that they make a great manhattan. This is lible to get their best effort, and when they go astray, instead of just chalking it up to a bad bar experience, tell them it was good, but next time...

To me, it seems that this kind of engagement with a bartender might turn on a so-so tender to want to become good, and instead of having only a few high end cocktail bars in your city, you can start getting a few around at other places, instead of just deciding to order beer there.

-Nat

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A great many of the OJT-type bartenders...

What's an OJT-type bartender?

OJT = "On the Job Training"


aka David Wondrich

There are, according to recent statistics, 147 female bartenders in the United States. In the United Kingdom the barmaid is a feature of the wayside inn, and is a young woman of intelligence and rare sagacity. --The Syracuse Standard, 1895

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I've been retired from the bartending biz for about five years, and admittedly, the cities I worked in weren't exactly glitzy... but I can tell you that there are different strokes for different folks. I drink martinis when I'm out & about, and the *best* of them I get are the ones where the bartender takes fifteen seconds while getting my order to ask how I like mine... which is what I always did when my customers ordered cocktails. I mean, seriously... do you know how many martini recipes there are floating around out there (in many in-house recipe guides!) that call for so much vermouth in martinis that it really does NOT matter what kind of gin or vodka you use? Granted, in the markets where I worked, classic cocktails were not the majority of what I made... so when I had someone order one, I took a bit of time to see how my guests preferred to have them fixed. An attentive, guest service-oriented bartender will always be my preference over a by-the-book, "This. Is. How. It's. Done." type.

I did once get hired on to a much better job on the merits of my margaritas, after serving the manager of another bar, but I'll still say that watching how a bartender reads his/her guests and noticing if he/she takes some time to care about those guests is a much better way to tell if you're going to be happy shelling out your hard-earned cash for drinks in that bar than any one-drink litmus test. I've no illusions that the joke about my being lured away from a long-term gig on the basis of one drink wasn't just a great in-house story; I firmly believe that guest service was what made the difference in moving to a bar where my clientele was far better and my pay exceedingly more conducive to raising my five kids. :)

For the record, I am one of those Snowy is dead just complained about... I like uber-dry martnis. I can drink them otherwise, but I do NOT want 1/4 ounce of vermouth. In my experience, tastes for martinis vary widely, so... if I did have to pick a litmus test drink for a bartender... yeah, it would be a Manhattan. :)

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I mean, seriously... do you know how many martini recipes there are floating around out there (in many in-house recipe guides!) that call for so much vermouth in martinis that it really does NOT matter what kind of gin or vodka you use?

I've had Martinis made with equal parts gin and (fresh) Noilly Prat probably at least 50 times. I don't know how much vermouth would overwhelm a Martini to the extent that differences between gin bottlings were largely obscured, but experience tells me that the drink would have to be at least 50% vermouth. There's no way something like a 3:1 Martini, which would be considered extremely wet by many people, subjugates the gin to the vermouth. There's also the question, of course, as to whether the Martini is supposed to be a cocktail in which the gin dominates, or rather one in which the gin and vermouth play with one another to create an impression that is neither gin nor vermouth, but something more. Assuming a non-crowded bar (in which event you always take your chances with a highly individualized cocktail like the Martini), these are the discussions that would give me confidence in a bartender's cocktailian chops.


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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I drink martinis when I'm out & about, and the *best* of them I get are the ones where the bartender takes fifteen seconds while getting my order to ask how I like mine... which is what I always did when my customers ordered cocktails.

Nail. On. Head. :wink:

If you're making someone a cup of tea or coffee in your home, you'd go to the bother of asking how they like it, so why wouldn't you do the same with a cocktail that someone is paying for?!? The vast majority of drinks have ingredients where the slightest tweak makes for a completely different drink.

I've always asked guests how they like their drinks, and always train bartenders to try and make drinks that are suited to the palate of their guest.

I appreciate that some bars just don't have the time to ask for every drink, but common sense prevails methinks. I've more respect for bartenders that take the time to ask if I'd like brown or white sugar in my Mojito, salt on my Margarita, or which rum I'd like in my Daiquiri. Even simple things like asking if I'd like a lime with my Dos Equis instead of just jamming it in there.

As for a litmus test drink, I'd suggest a 'sour' drink (e.g Whiskey Sour, Tom Collins). This will give you an idea of whether or not the bartender has a good understanding of balance, which is key every drink!

Something as simple as a Cuba Libre would also be good because the bartender, IMO, should ask how much coke and lime you'd like in it, again catering to personal taste. If they respond with, "a Cuba what?!?" you know you should find yourself another bar to drink at. :biggrin:

Failing that, just ask the bartender to make you what they think is their 'speciality' cocktail (the drink they think they make the best). :smile:


Edited by evo-lution (log)

Evo-lution - Consultancy, Training and Events

Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters - Bitters

The Jerry Thomas Project - Tipplings and musings

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All of these things, I would thing, presuppose that it isn't three-deep at the bar. No bartender who is busting ass to serve 4 customers every minute is going to be able to have a conversation with you about how you'd like your Martini other than to glean the basics (brand, stirred versus shaken, garnish, proportion of vermouth if you're lucky).


Samuel Lloyd Kinsey

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Yeah, so circumstances at the bar are definitely one thing.

The other thing to remember, if you're ordering a drink at a restaurant or indirectly from a waiter or waitress, is, you're not just testing the bartender.

You're testing whether your server has been properly trained and is conversant in cocktails. Did he/she properly enter your drink into the POS system, and is the POS system flexible enough to allow comments. If it is a busy restaurant bar, has the bar staff set in place proper systems, inventory, and been trained well. Is there a good communication system in place so your server knows when to pick up the drinks when they are completed. etc. etc.

The bartender may be the ass-kickingest bartender in the world; but, if the management has decreed that the restaurant or bar will use crap sour mix, you're not going to get a good Margarita or Sidecar. You may order a 3-1 Martini, Plymouth, stirred, up, with a twist; but, if your server knows nothing about cocktails, and just enters the code for "Gin Martini", it has nothing to do with the bartender when it comes back shaken with a splash of vermouth.


---

Erik Ellestad

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

Bernal Heights, SF, CA

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All of these things, I would thing, presuppose that it isn't three-deep at the bar.  No bartender who is busting ass to serve 4 customers every minute is going to be able to have a conversation with you about how you'd like your Martini other than to glean the basics (brand, stirred versus shaken, garnish, proportion of vermouth if you're lucky).

Hence why I wrote this :wink: :-

I appreciate that some bars just don't have the time to ask for every drink, but common sense prevails methinks. I've more respect for bartenders that take the time to ask if I'd like brown or white sugar in my Mojito, salt on my Margarita, or which rum I'd like in my Daiquiri. Even simple things like asking if I'd like a lime with my Dos Equis instead of just jamming it in there.

It absolutely depends on the type of bar.

The other thing I forgot to add was that service is a two-way thing, if you don't specify to the bartender/server exactly what it is you're after then you can have no complaints if your drink isn't made to your requirements.


Evo-lution - Consultancy, Training and Events

Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters - Bitters

The Jerry Thomas Project - Tipplings and musings

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Yeah, so circumstances at the bar are definitely one thing.

The other thing to remember, if you're ordering a drink at a restaurant or indirectly from a waiter or waitress, is, you're not just testing the bartender.

You're testing whether your server has been properly trained and is conversant in cocktails.  Did he/she properly enter your drink into the POS system, and is the POS system flexible enough to allow comments.  If it is a busy restaurant bar, has the bar staff set in place proper systems, inventory, and been trained well.  Is there a good communication system in place so your server knows when to pick up the drinks when they are completed.  etc. etc.

you know, this is really spot on, too.

Sometimes, I think this may be a stumbling block to getting a good cocktail at a place where you otherwise could have. I've ordered Negronis several times this way and frequently have been met with the confused look on the waiter's face. Happened to me on Saturday night a local Italian restaurant. Really, such a shame..


Jeff Meeker, aka "jsmeeker"
jmeeker@eGullet.org

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