The Art of Ordering The Cocktail You Deserve - Straight From A New York Bartender


Words, Tyler Zielinski

Photography, Tyler Zielinski

Over the last twenty years, cocktails have seen a resurgence in the best way possible. No longer are the days where artificial mixers and ingredients reign supreme, but rather fresh ingredients are used to incorporate organic, natural flavors which appease the modern imbiber’s palate.

Early in the 2000’s, while the contemporary cocktail renaissance was picking up steam (thanks to pioneering bars like Milk & Honey), craft cocktail bartenders didn’t expect much from their guests when it came to education around booze and cocktails. Now, in 2019, guests have a plethora of credible sources to learn from about spirits, cocktails, history, and trends and walk into bars with some sort of know-how and what’s what. Even with that being the case, ordering a cocktail on a whim, even if you’re the most educated cocktail connoisseur, can prove to be a difficult task. Telling a bartender that you want a “vodka drink,” or “something with whiskey in it,” won’t cut it at your proper cocktail bar. So, to help give you the tools to ensure you receive the expertly crafted cocktail you deserve, we have put together a fool-proof guide to assist you in navigating the art of ordering cocktails.

  • Be prepared to answer which base spirit you prefer, and whether you want something shaken, stirred, or built.

Honestly, if you’re able to, at the bare minimum, answer this two-parted question then your skilled bartender should be able to mix you up something of quality. When thinking about cocktails, you can think of the structure as a pyramid starting with your base spirit and building the structure of your cocktail from there - with the goal of striking balance in flavors and proportions. Shaken will let them know that some sort of juice, citrus, or shrub (a mixture of water, fruit, sugar, and vinegar) will be included/is preferred; stirred will typically mean spirit-forward (a.k.a bad and boozy); and built will usually include some sort of lengthening ingredient like soda, tonic water, or bubbles.

  • Make sure to let your bartender know which flavors you like vs. don’t like.

The worst mistake to make is to assume that your bartender knows everything about what you like and don’t like. If you return a custom drink that your bartender makes for you (assuming it’s well-made and balanced) just because they included a flavor you didn’t like that you didn’t disclose to them prior, then that’s on you. Communicating your flavor preferences is key and can be instrumental in your bartender crafting a memorable drink vs. and average one. You don’t like coconut? That’s important information to provide them. Being clear with what your palate desires in a cocktail at that moment in time will help both your bartender in serving you something delicious, and you indulging in something that you genuinely enjoy.

Pro tip: stating that you want “something that’s not too sweet” isn’t constructive. If your bartender is doing their job well, your cocktail should always be in balance. But, for drinks that may typically be made more on the tart side - like a Daiquiri - then saying you’d like it to be less tart could be helpful.

  • Saying that you want something like (insert popular cocktail) can give your bartender a great place to start.

If you know your favorite cocktail is a Boulevardier (a Negroni variant with bourbon instead of gin as the base - for those of you who may not be familiar) then saying you want something like that, along with providing some interesting flavors you may be interested in will guide your bartender in a clear direction. More often than not, your bartender will take this and run with it. (On a personal note, I find that having a few cocktails that I’d like to drink in mind before I go out for the evening is always helpful - just my two-cents!)

  • And lastly, don’t be afraid to give them the details.

Meaning, if your gin of preference for your Gibson is Plymouth Gin, let them know. You’re a bit obscure and like your Manhattan on the rocks? Tell them how you like it. You want that lemon twist as a garnish instead of an orange twist? You know the deal. Getting particular about what brand you like, the type of glassware, ice, and garnish are all details that will help the bartender craft your cocktail into exactly what you imagined it would be.