If you’re to read the majority of bar reviews, drink ‘critics’ seem a much more generous bunch than their food brethren. Whether it’s a lack of knowledge or a lack of pretension, when it comes to bars and drinks, writers tend to hold back. Or there might be something else at play. Perhaps it’s because we can actually see and interact with the bartender and our resulting comments are not so much whispered behind the backs of chefs, but in clear earshot of an offending bartender.
Whatever the reason, we know there are certain things to look for and their inclusion or absence dictates how courteous we are with the comments about the aspects that dictate the experience outside of the flavour of the drink.
As such, we’ve put together a list of these constituents. While by no means exhaustive, it gives you, the common customer, an idea of what to look for next time you’re perched at the bar.
Ice: For those serious about their drinks, it’s becoming more and more obvious that ice is an important factor. Hand-cut ice, massive cubes and lots of it. Start with a gin and tonic. If the ice is floating in the top, it’s a fair chance that the bartender has no idea about the science of thermodynamics and how a small amount of ice not only leads to a warmer drink but encourages faster dilution. If they can’t get the G&T right, don’t order a Manhattan.
Dilution: If you do happen to order a Manhattan and it tastes too strong, then it’s not. You’re probably drinking at Eau de Vie and that’s how it tastes. Big, strong and boozy. If you can’t handle it, order a Whiskey Sour. Your drink shouldn’t taste like water, but it also shouldn’t taste like a shot of room temperature booze.
Time: When you take a seat, make an assessment as to how many patrons there are and how many bartenders are actually working to make drinks (exclude those working the floor or polishing glassware). Good drinks take time. But, there is an unacceptable amount of time to wait. Twenty minutes should be your maximum from ordering to receiving your drink. Anything more, the bar is understaffed, the tenders have no hustle or the bar has been designed by architects to look pretty (but functions like a garden hose in a firestorm). Next time you’re upstairs at The Baxter Inn on a Friday, perch at the bar and see how many drinks get made at one time. This will give you a great example of a bartender at near terminal velocity.
Bar Top: If you can’t see the bartender making the drink on the bar top, order a G&T. Pray the ice doesn’t float. All good bars make drinks on the bar top with full transparency of their process and ingredients. This includes restaurant bars that only dispense drinks. Sticky bar tops are also a fantastic metric for ascertaining the level of the bar and its tender.
Banter: This is what separates chefs from bartenders. In reality, it’s a similar job – we’re under pressure, we balance flavours and live to serve. The difference is, we take and prepare the order. We’re floor staff and kitchen staff rolled into one. We’re two for the price of one. So any bartender skilled in the craft of the cocktail is equally skilled in the craft of banter or ‘chat’. It’s not uncommon for a tender to be hired on his chat alone; the craft of the cocktail can be taught, but banter is practically innate. Consistently bad chat is fair sign that your drink will be rubbish. And even if the chat assassin does put up a good drink, he’s done little to enhance the experience and, really, that’s what it’s all about.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that you drink at a bar in order to experience what you can’t at home. To this end, the bar should be better equipped and better able to make you a drink superior to what you can knock out in the kitchen. Observing these simple but revealing intricacies can only serve to give you the power to decide if a bar is worth its salt.