Really good, expertly made cocktails can cost a pretty penny, and I'm OK with that. What I'm not OK with, however, is paying $20 for an over-shaken beverage garnished with sad, dried-out fruit. Any bar can claim to make "craft" cocktails, but how can you be sure you're getting what you pay for?
Photo by Katie Weltner.
Of course, the easiest way to see if a bar makes good cocktails is to taste the cocktails, but that can be one expensive taste test. GQ recently published an article in which bartenders share their favourite tells. (On such recommendation is "look for dust" and though that can indicate an attention to detail, I have been in some very clean Cheesecake Factories, and I wouldn't put their cocktails at the "craft" level.)
As someone who drinks many drinks at many bars, I have developed a few strategies for determining if I'll be springing for the fancy gin beverage or sticking to a simple something-and-soda. These are the questions I ask myself; feel free to use them:
- Can the staff make recommendations? I'm not suggesting you ask the bartender what "drinks they enjoy making", because that is the worst, but if you're having a hard time deciding between two beverages, they should be able to guide you with descriptions of the drinks on their menu.
- How do they make a martini? It's one thing to ask if you would like your martini "shaken or stirred" — though really, they should always be stirred — but it is quite another to default to shaking. A watery martini is unacceptable and a good cocktail bar won't serve you one.
- Are they straining drinks onto new ice? Though there may be ice in the shaker, your chilled and diluted beverage should always be poured over fresh ice. Shook ice will not only look sad in the glass, but it's already half melted which means it won't keep your drink chilled as long, and it will dilute it too quickly.
- What's the garnish and juice situation like? If you're shelling out the big bucks for a juicy drink, that juice had better be real and — in my opinion — fresh. Same goes for the garnishes. Though it's OK to prep wedges, rounds and strips of zest a few hours before they will be used, nothing should look dried out and your cherry-containing cocktails better come with those good, dark cherries.
- Were you greeted? As my favourite bartender likes to say: "You're hosting a party" and you should feel like you're a welcome guest, not a burden. Good bar staff will greet you as quick as they can, get you a menu and if they can't get to you right away, at least give you a friendly "I'll be right with you!"
Finally, I always look out for the overuse of St. Germain. Though it is a delicious elixir, I find it can sometimes be used to try and hide a multitude of cocktail sins. (They don't call it "bartender's ketchup" for nothing.) Is this a very snobby attitude to have? Absolutely, but $20 for a beverage calls for a certain amount of snobbery.