If you’ve ordered a drink in the past decade you’ve probably noticed: Bartending has entered a golden age. And while there’s still room in our hearts for the kind of surly, whiskey-slinging bruisers that have tended dive bars for generations, we’re happy to see the art of mixing and serving drinks get its due.
Just as bartenders have evolved to become more knowledgeable and engaged with their craft, so too have bar patrons. We can sip cocktails compounded with bitters dispensed from eyedroppers and spindly Japanese trident barspoons. We can choose our pour of whiskey from massive lists of international brown spirits deep cuts. We can order beer brewed with moon dust or microbes from Etruscan tombs. And we can chat up our bartender with the kind of rigorous curiosity usually reserved for lecture halls.
But not every bar—nor every barkeep—can keep up. Pay attention and you might spot a few surefire signs: If your bartender mixes a classic daiquiri with bottled sour mix, or shakes a Manhattan (a drink that should invariably be stirred) it’s an indication you ought to stick to the basics. We talked to a few cocktail industry vets to suss out other harbingers of doom behind the bar.
1. Slapdash technique. Glinting rows of jiggers, cut crystal mixing glasses and ice mallets worthy of a Norse god of thunder are the eye-catching tools of the booming craft cocktail trade—and a common sight behind bars these days. But just because a bartender can stock the prettiest toys doesn’t mean he or she knows how to use them. “It drives me crazy when bartenders don’t use jiggers properly. What the hell is the point of using jiggers to measure if you aren’t going to take the time to fill them correctly?” asks Erick Castro of Polite Provisions in San Diego. “You might as well just free-pour,” he adds, referring to the practice of decanting a spirit directly from the bottle into a mixing glass. “There is no shame in that. Better to drop the theatrics.”
2. Sloppy bars. Mitigating chaos is part and parcel of tending bar, and it’s easy to lose track of the details when you’re dealing with a full house. A dirty bar may indicate that your host doesn’t have a strong system in place to deal with the volume of patrons. “Cleanliness, tidiness and organization are huge for me,” says Thomas Waugh of ZZ’s Clam Bar and Carbone in New York City. “If I see that you have an organized back bar and you return things to their designated spot after you are done using them, it [implies a very high level of control].” He also takes notice when the bar top itself is unkempt. “Keeping the bar top clean of soggy napkins and wiping it dry after each customer goes a long way. Wet bar tops are a big no-no.”
3. Spoiled vermouth. Although most spirits keep just fine behind the bar, vermouth requires more attentive storage. It’s fortified with higher-proof alcohol, but vermouth is still fundamentally a wine, so it oxidizes and spoils quickly. “A good bar needs to take care of its vermouth,” says Abigail Deirdre Gullo of SoBou in New Orleans. “If you spot a dusty bottle of vermouth on the back bar, that’s Dark Ages stuff. Ideally, it should be refrigerated and used often to keep it fresh.”
4. Faulty glassware. “Long” icy drinks ought to be served in tall collins glasses, while stirred and strained drinks are often best enjoyed in a shallow coupe. If your martini arrives in a fish bowl, there’s a good chance the drink isn’t the balanced thing of beauty it ought to be. Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, advises keeping an eye on the beer glasses. “You can tell a lot about a bar by what they serve their beer in,” he says. “Whenever I order a beer and it comes in one of those 12- or 14-ounce ‘cheater’ pints, I usually just pack up and leave. The bar is intentionally ripping off its guests.”
5. A sour attitude. Even a truly terribly drink can be a pardonable offense if it’s delivered with grace—just stick to shots on the second round. But in this age of haute hospitality, a scowling bartender is just unforgivable. “I am wary if the bartender doesn’t greet me with a smile as soon as possible,” says Gullo. “I can get a shot of whiskey neat and be happy at any bar as long as they are hospitable.” Waugh agrees. “Bad service is the worst thing that can go wrong in a bar,” he says. “If I can’t get a drink, I’m out!”