How To (Properly) Drink at a Bar

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How To (Properly) Drink at a Bar

We bartenders can be a surly bunch. We’re on the front lines of the hospitality industry. We see people at their best and (more often) worst. Through it all, we are expected to be affable, witty, and knowledgeable in all things — especially, what you like to drink. We also have to feign interest in matters we usually care nothing about; an exercise as soul crushing as it is maddening. OK, maybe I’m being a little flip. Not all of you are that bad. And most of the time, bartending can be pretty fun. While I can’t change every aspect of how people behave when they’re out drinking, I can help you become slightly better at it. What follows are some handy dos and don’ts to remember the next time you head out to the bar.

DO Wait Your Turn
This is something we all should have learned in kindergarten, but apparently some of us were too busy demanding another juice box to be bothered with developing important life skills like self-awareness and common human decency. When at the bar, take notice of the direction in which I’m working, respect it, and be patient. Unless you’ve positioned yourself in a blind spot, I see you, and I will get to you as soon as I can. If you shout at me, wave your money, or — god help you — snap your fingers, I will serve you last. A special note to shot drinkers: don’t assume the relative simplicity of your order justifies you cutting in line. You’ll get your Fireball when I get to you, bro.

DO Know What You Want
In a busy bar, there is little time for hesitation or indecision. I usually give about a three count before I (politely) move on to the next person. Clarifying questions are fine, but an utter lack of preparation will cost you a turn. Also, if you’re ordering multiple drinks, order them all at once, not one at a time — that really pisses us off.

DON’T Get Upset When I Ask For ID
I don’t care if you are over 21; I’m just covering my ass. Understand that some bars are very strict about this. Try to take it as a compliment. If you don’t have an ID, sorry, but you’re likely not getting served. And don’t have your friend vouch for you. Unless he/she has an established relationship with me, it probably won’t work, and even then my hands might be tied depending on how strict my boss is. Come prepared: it’s literally the least you can do.

DON’T Ask Me To Surprise You
While some bars specialize in bespoke cocktails, most don’t. A request like this is especially frustrating when it’s busy. And don’t shove your phone in my face and ask for some obscure cocktail you just googled. That said, I have no problem taking time to make a drink for someone who knows what he/she is talking about. Can you describe what you’re looking for quickly and knowledgably? Have an interesting variation on an old favorite? Cool. Let’s talk.

DO Know What’s In Your Cocktail
This one is more a bartenders’ adage than a hard and fast rule, but there is some philosophical truth to it: if you don’t know what’s in your drink, you shouldn’t order it. It’s not asking too much to know a little bit about what it is you’re consuming. The practical application of this goes back to the bespoke rule: if you call out something that I don’t know how to make and you know nothing about, then I can’t help you. I’m not going to take the time to learn it if you haven’t done so yourself. (Ditto for shots.)

DON’T Order a Long Island Iced Tea
This is a huge red flag. It tells me you don’t know how to drink, and you’re looking to get drunk fast. You’re trouble. As a rule, I limit people to two Long Islands per night because I don’t need that noise. Having that third one may seem like a good idea at the time, but you’ll thank me tomorrow.

DON’T Be a Tourist
Ordering something new every round is a surefire way to get sick. Like Long Islands, this tells me you don’t know what the hell you’re doing. It’s a safe bet I’ll be cutting you off, kicking you out, and/or cleaning up your mess. Experimentation is fun — it’s how we discover new things — but do so in moderation.

DO Have a Go-To Cocktail
Picking a basic cocktail that most bartenders can make without a fuss is essential. And knowing how to order it confidently is equally important. Mine is a vodka soda. It’s simple and universal. Remember, not all bars are stocked the same. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you can’t get an amaretto sour. Having a simple cocktail at the ready is the sign of a sophisticated drinker.

DO Be Aware Of Your Surroundings
You should adapt your order to fit your environment. For example, don’t order a martini at a dive bar. (I did this once when I was younger. Trust me, it’s embarrassing.) You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. That jar of olives has been there since Connery played Bond. Even if they have the right glass, I promise you it’s going to be dustier than that bottle of vermouth at the dark end of the well. Besides, you’ll be that guy at the dive bar drinking a martini. Nobody wants to be that guy.

DON’T Bury The Booze
There’s a reason why we pay a premium price for premium liquor: it (usually) tastes better. But paying extra for Ketel One only to drown it in cranberry juice is a waste of money and booze. Some will argue that the purity of top-shelf spirits will prevent hangovers. The logic here is somewhat specious, but if that’s your worry, call out Smirnoff or Absolut instead. Save the top shelf for the grownup drinks like martinis and Manhattans where you can actually taste it.

DON’T Pout Because We Don’t Have Your Shitty Domestic Beer
Order another brand. They all taste the same, bub.

DON’T Get Pissy About The Pour
We know what we are doing. We are not trying to rip you off — at least we shouldn’t be. Believe it or not, more booze does not make for a better cocktail.

DON’T Expect Free Drinks
Sometimes a good customer will get a free round. This is entirely at the discretion of the house, and should never be expected — and certainly not demanded. Just because you drop a lot of money doesn’t mean you’re entitled to anything more than any other customer. The guy who spends $200, but is a dickbag all night can pound sand. But the guy who spends $30, and is incredibly chill and respectful may be rewarded.

DON’T Demand Special Treatment
If you have an arrangement with another bartender, don’t expect me to know what it is. If it’s a special order, tell me and I’ll probably do it. If it’s a special price, keep it to yourself. That’s between you and that bartender. Asking me to honor it is rude and incredibly tacky. Depending on the bar, you might even be getting that bartender into trouble. Some places have strict policies on free drinks, and you’ve just put all of us in a very uncomfortable position.

DON’T Make Me Run Your Credit Card Every Time You Order a Round
People who do this are the worst. The. Goddamn. Worst. It’s an irritating and unnecessary time suck that only makes me like you less and less with each swipe. Be cool, and either open a tab or pay cash.

DO Tip
This one is obvious, but let’s dig a little deeper. It’s customary to tip $1 per drink — to a point. Once the tab starts climbing and multiple rounds are involved, tipping at least 20 percent is perfectly acceptable. In addition, I work a lot of private parties where I’ll put out a tip jar. If you’re going to give me a big cash tip early on, make sure I see you do it. I’ll take care of you for the rest of the night, and I won’t think you’re being cheap when I don’t see you tip later on. Also, just because it’s an open bar doesn’t necessarily mean I’m receiving a big tip from it. While bartenders usually are tipped out when the tab is added up, it’s still customary for you to tip when you order.

DON’T Say, “I’m not driving.”
Good for you, but this does not make it acceptable for you to get totally blasted. Believe it or not, I’m not here to get you drunk. I’m here to serve drinks and help you have a good time.

DO Show Empathy
If I’m busy or getting hassled by a difficult customer and you do something to convey that you get it, that goes a long way to me liking you and giving you better service. This is actually a pretty good rule for how you should behave as a human being in general.

All that being said, you do you. Order what you like, and have fun. Our job is to serve you. All we ask is that you do your part to be a polite, respectful, and generous guest.

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