Don't panic when you hear the words "bartender's choice."
Despite the thoughtfulness of today’s cocktail lists, ordering a bespoke drink is always a good way to go, making for a special and memorable bar experience. Whether you’re visiting a speakeasy where dealer’s choice is the norm, or just in the mood for something specific flavor-wise, most cocktail bartenders—myself included!—are happy to oblige any request. (Editor’s note: the writer bartends at Middle Branch in New York City).
But how do you order a “bartender’s choice” drink and get exactly what you’re in the mood for, while also endowing the bartender with enough room to flex his or her creativity?
Word to the wise: Saying “not-too-sweet” isn't just unhelpful; it implies that your bartender would make anything less than balanced, which they wouldn’t!
To help you navigate the bartender's choice option, I’ve broken down some simple pointers, along with some examples of what your bartender might come up with based on your prompts.
Be prepared to answer: “Spirits-forward, refreshing, or sweet?”
The bartender or server taking your order might lead with this question, which aims to capture the overall vibe you’re going for. Spirits-forward drinks typically refers to those that comprise only spirits and liqueurs, and therefore often have a higher alcohol content. Think an old-fashioned or a martini. These are usually stirred cocktails, but can be served with or without ice.
Meanwhile, refreshing drinks are those that are shaken with fresh juice, or maybe have a low-ABV base and a fizzy component. These could range from more tart, like a daiquiri, to sparkling, like an Aperol spritz. Lastly, sweet drinks are dessert cocktails, sometimes involving egg white and heavy cream—think a Bee’s Kiss, made with dark rum, cream, and honey.
Narrow things down with flavor profiles.
Now that you’ve got a general category of drink, narrow things down further with specific flavors and qualities: “tart,” “bitter,” “citrusy,” “spicy,” “creamy,” and “smoky” are some helpful ways to describe the drink you have in mind.
A request for a bitter, spirits-forward drink might inspire your bartender to try something like the African Flower, an old-fashioned variation that offsets bourbon with crème de Cacao and CioCiaro (an herbaceous Italian amaro). Meanwhile, “something refreshing, citrusy, and spicy” might lead them to the Torchlight, combining your spirit of choice with Cholula sauce, lime, cayenne pepper, and honey. A note for spicy cocktails: Be sure to specify whether you mean spicy as in hot sauce, or spicy as in ginger.
Tell the bartender what ingredients you like, and, which ones don’t.
If you’ve got a few preferred spirits in-mind, tell the bartender—but try to give them options. (Vodka-only drinkers, we’re looking at you). Also be sure to note what ingredients you love, such as ginger, cucumber, mint, pomegranate, strawberry, pineapple, and various citrus fruits.
Equally as, if not more, important: note what ingredients you don’t like or are allergic to. It’s extremely important that you inform your bartender of fruit, egg, or nut allergies, so they can take special precautions with the barware they use to make your drink. And often, knowing what ingredient not to include helps the bartender finalize their decision on what to make.
Don't stop at the booze: Consider what your drink will look like, ice and glassware included.
Though this is not essential, you can get even more specific by suggesting you want a drink that’s served on the rocks (with a big ice cube), up (in a coupe glass), or tall (with soda). Swizzles and other crushed ice drinks are also fun—if you’re in the mood, you can also suggest them as an option.
When all else fails, fall back on something you already know. Tell your bartender, “I want something like a [insert name of drink here]” and they’ll whip up something similar, but with a twist. For example, a request for something like a Negroni, but drier, might yield a Negroni Bianco, fusing gin with Cocchi Americano and dry vermouth in place of Campari and sweet vermouth.
Armed with this basic set of guidelines, you should end up with a drink you like, every time.