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A seasoned New York City mixologist reveals what to order, what to watch out for and how to talk to your bartender.

Elisabeth Sherman
March 09, 2018

Emily Arseneau has been bartending for more than ten years, working in bars in Louisiana and Texas. At the moment she works as a brand manager for Collectif 1806, a collective of former bartenders who champion cocktail history, and she's also a corporate mixologist and recipe tester for Cointreau. That means she’s spent ample time sipping drinks and sitting in bars. Arseneau has stored wisdom about how to navigate the mysterious but intriguing space of the dive bar—the type of place that stocks sour mix and opens at seven in the morning—and she’s ready to share it all with you.

Stick to this classic drink order

Arseneau’s go-to dive bar drink order is the classic beer and shot. Most of these places also have a decent bottle of Cognac like Remy Martin, and Cointreau on hand. A simple whiskey shot works, too.

She warns that the soda guns at your dive bar of choice might be “one hundred years old,” so she tends to avoid tonic water, which will taste dirty if the lines haven't been cleaned. A high ball—like a whiskey soda—is your best bet if you're not a beer drinker.

What to do if you're craving a cocktail

Often times when you walk into a dive bar, you’ll notice that there are no cocktails on the menu (if there's any kind of menu at all), and perhaps even more telling, no fresh juice. In fact, Arseneau says that one of the most obvious signs that a bar is at least trying to take its drink menu seriously is if there’s fresh juice behind the bar. Don’t lose hope if you see neither at your local dive; there are a couple simple ways to create a simplified cocktail on your own.

“If you’re really committed to trying to have the essence of a cocktail, I would get a base spirit,” she explains. “Ask your bartender for a cognac on the rocks, with a splash of Cointreau and three lemons. Then you squeeze the lemons in yourself, give it a swirl, and you’re kind of drinking a side car.”

You could do the same with a margarita—ask for your tequila of choice and four limes, then squeeze in the juice yourself. Messy, but effective.

If you can’t tell whether or not the bar you’re at will make you a traditional cocktail, Arseneau says to simply use your judgement.

“Don’t order a cocktail in a place where you’re getting a vibe that it’s not appropriate,” she advises.

Look for the ice scoop

Besides dirty soda guns that haven’t been cleaned in ages, you should make sure that your bartender uses an ice scoop. While Arseneau says it’s rare that you’ll ever encounter a bartender who doesn’t use one, he or she should never be touching your ice bare handed.

“It’s a huge pet peeve of mine when someone touches the ice cube in my drink—like if they try to knock the ice cube back into my drink with their finger. So gross,” she says.

By the way, it’s totally fine to touch, eat or squeeze the juice from bar fruit into your drinks. You won’t get sick. Arseneau explains that even the diviest of dive bars have to cut up fresh fruit in the morning before the bar opens or in between shifts. Rarely will you ever see lemons that have gone bad on a bar; at the very worst the lemons might be from the previous evening.

Manners matter

Arseneau says that you should make what she calls “meaningful eye contact” with your bartender, letting him or her know that you’re ready to order. Don’t wave or snap at your bartender, be pleasant and tip well. Above all, be succinct and decisive.

“Never say ‘um,’” she says. “If they get to you and you’re not ready, that’s a snafu.”

Pay attention to the energy

“Fanciness isn’t the point,” Arseneau concludes. “If whoever is working at the bar is making you feel awesome, then that’s where you should be. I would rather be at a totally gross bar with someone feeding me beer than drinking an amazing cocktail served by someone who isn’t interested in me having a good time.”