How to Order a Drink at a Bar

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An updated version of this advice is now available on the cocktail blog Bibulo.us which I write with Joe Gratz. Enjoy!

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With the approach of another New Year’s Eve, I face my annual debate: should I go out to a public venue? And as ever, I conclude it’s just not worth it.

New Year’s Eve brings out the newbies, the folks who never visit clubs any other time of year and who have no clue about how they work.

In the hope that education might be the answer, I offer the following information. Perhaps we can get some kind of public communication project going next year to promote these principles on colorful posters with cartoon mascots named "Bobby Booze" and "Cindy Cocktail".

How to Drink in Public:

– Have your ID out when you get to the front of the club. They will almost certainly check it. Don’t make a big deal out of it.

– If you don’t like cover charges, don’t go to the places that have them. There are plenty of alternatives including, in many cases, coming in earlier. New Year’s Eve can be an exception; the club spends a bunch on decorations and bringing on extra staff, so do a little homework first and go somewhere you can afford.

– Decide what you will order before you approach the bar. Don’t ask the bartender to recite the beer list – look at the goddamn taps or the bigass menu behind the bar. Don’t shout back to your idiot friends at your table asking what they want.

– Know that you can only order and carry two drinks. If four friends want drinks, two of them should go to the bar. The bartender needs to see an appropriate number of drinking age patrons to go with the drinks.

– It’s really easy to see what’s happening at a bar and gauge when the bartender will get to you. Don’t wave your hands at him or shout. Just stand there with your money in your hand, chin slightly raised and watch him until he makes eye contact. Raise and lower your face quickly while smiling slightly (the same gesture you make when passing a co-worker again in the hall and asking a rhetorical "hey, how’s it going?"). The bartender will acknowledge this with a similar gesture or a wave. You should now stop staring at his every move, relax and enjoy the ambiance of the bar. Stay attuned to things so that when the bartender approaches you are immediately ready to order. It might take a little while, but a patient and friendly patron brightens the bartender’s day and tends to get very good service.

– When the bartender says "What will you have?" state your answer clearly and if you are ordering more than two drinks, gesture at the person(s) with you as you order the third and fifth drinks. Good patrons who like the same drinks will order them in rounds so that the bartender can mix them together. For example:

"A Guinness, two Sam Adams, and three Lemon Drops, please."

– If you care about the alcohol in your drink, name it in your order. Otherwise you will receive the "well" or "house" version of that alcohol. For example:

"Sapphire and tonic, and a Grey Goose Martini, please."

– If you want to order something obscure, have an easy fallback order in mind. Do not order difficult drinks when a bar is very busy. Always look for the bottles for the ingredients to your drink; you shouldn’t ever need to ask "Do you have Campari?". A scan of the bottles and of the drinks being served will usually tell you how complex your order can be. It is best to work up to a complex drink by ordering a simpler one in the same family first. For example:

Round 1: "A Manhattan, please."

Round 2: (noting the bottle of Pernod and being satisfied with the mixing of the first drink) "How about a Sazerac?" If the bartender unfortunately says "What’s in it?", respond with "Actually, another of your good Manhattans would be fine. Thanks."

– Order appropriately for the bar you are in. Don’t have a martini in a poolhall in a Texas college town; you might think that no one could screw up a martini, but you’d be wrong. Get a beer or a Jack & Coke.

– If the bartender asks to see ID, show it without comment or rolling your eyes. They can lose weeks of pay when a bar gets closed for serving someone underage; don’t endanger someone’s rent payment for your drink.

– When the bartender comes back with the drinks, have your payment ready. Do not start a tab on a credit card unless you will be ordering more than two rounds. ATMs are plentiful, just bring cash for god’s sake.

– Tip your bartender. If you can’t just hand over the right amount for drinks and tips, after you get your change, set the money on the counter nearer to the bartender’s side than yours. A dollar for a couple beers is fine, but mixed drinks call for a bit more. Complex drinks such as Mojitos or Bloody Marys deserve an extra dollar beyond that.

– Always make room for barbacks to move through the crowd bearing their heavy loads of ice, bottles, or glassware. They have a hard job; treat them kindly.

– If you need to leave your drink momentarily (e.g. to go to the bathroom or step outside for a cigarette), set a coaster on top of your glass. The bartender and barbacks will know it’s not abandoned and will leave it for you. Do not abuse this courtesy by leaving it for more than 15 minutes.

Bartenders and barflys, what have I left out? Belly up to the bar in the comments!

Published by

dinahsanders

Author. Discardian. Defender of life, liberty, & the pursuit of happiness. she/her

24 thoughts on “How to Order a Drink at a Bar”

  1. Can’t say I’ve ever gone out to bars on New Year’s Eve — it’s all about the house parties or street parties for me. This is all good common bar etiquette, with the possible exception of carrying drinks. Usually my friends and I drink at dive bars, where we carry back 4 or 5 glasses or bottles to our friends at a time. That’s what getting a round is all about — that or a pitcher, which is much preferred at a busy bar (like Zeitgeist always is). I guess it could be different on a night like New Year’s, when they have to be more strict about serving alcohol, but if they’re carding everyone at the door, then it shouldn’t be a big deal. The basic rule of thumb is when you see a full bar, you can count on the bartenders being busy trying to fill everyone’s orders, and you should do your best to be unobtrusive and keep the booze flowing quickly and happily.
    Posters in the bathrooms would be good, yes, or maybe flyering people the day before or early in the night before they’ve had any drinks.

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  2. Actually, I have a better idea — give bartenders and bouncers the ability to put people under house arrest for the night, preferably with a magic wand to send them back there instantly. That’s where they belong anyway.

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  3. I went to a bar once where my friend ordered a Kir Royale. The bartender said, “What’s that?” “It’s a champagne cocktail.” “I don’t know how to make that.”
    And then the bartender, I kid you not, went to the other end of the bar and retrieved her copy of “Bartending for Dummies” and brought it over to us to demonstrate that the Kir Royale was not mentioned in the index.

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  4. Clearly an appropriately purchased book.
    For the record, according to Paul Harrington’s Cocktail book, the Kir Royal is a flute of sparkling wine with a barspoon of crème de cassis added and the Champagne Cocktail is a sugar cube soaked with Angostura bitters, placed in the bottom of a chilled champagne flute which is then filled with the eponymous libation.

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  5. …and never …ever ..ever .. snap your fingers to get the bartender’s attention. (Unless you like to be ignored … or worse.)

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  6. *sigh* I wish you had written this earlier. It would have saved me from a bad drink. I should have known better than to order a mojito at that pseudo bar in Lexington.

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  7. has anyone heard the term “over” when asking for a drink on the rocks? i’ve heard it and used it for many years but was in new jersey and the bartender asked me, “over what? over easy? what’s over? he said he’d never heard that term. anyone else ever hear that term?

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  8. A wise man once said, “Take a pitcher, it will last longer.” Even if you’re only drinking with one other person. You can carry four pitchers just as easily as you can carry four bottles of beer. The less you have to revisit the bar the the better.
    ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS TIP.

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  9. Great post! Wanted to add: if you’re ordering a not so popular shot, or anything that you feel the need to first ask “do you know how to make?”, instead of wasting time, when the bartender asks what you’d like, say : “I’d like x number of shots made with ingredient1 ingredient2 ingredient3, please.” And if the bartender feels the need to call it by its name, because they have actually heard of it, simply say “cool, thanks”. And keep on movin!
    And a little advice to bartenders: because its probably a little rude to ask people to get their money ready while your making their drinks, even after you’ve told them the price, and they still havent budged, I like to ask “what’s the name on your tab?”. It usually gets them to finally reach into their pocket.
    *Its funny how the same people complaining about waiting are the same people that have no clue what they want (or their friends) and dont have their money ready.

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  10. I would like to say that I own 39 bars in NYC and everyone of them I make sur ethe bartenders do the job at hand. I only hire hot girls with killer bodies and I sleep with a bunch of them. So stop coming into my bar and asking for a job if you are a guy or an ugly girl

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  11. “has anyone heard the term “over” when asking for a drink on the rocks? i’ve heard it and used it for many years but was in new jersey and the bartender asked me, “over what? over easy? what’s over? he said he’d never heard that term. anyone else ever hear that term?”
    Kinda like asking for it in a bucket. The bars around here seem pretty baffled by it.. but it’s a more common thing in other areas.

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  12. It’s helpful to know what a coaster over a bar glass means, that’s true, but better advice for one’s own personal safety would be to never leave your glass unattended at all – and if you do, don’t return to it. Order a new one. Better to pay a few extra bucks than to be taken advantage of.

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  13. A bucket is a larger glass (hold more ice & beverage). At least that’s how they referred to a larger glass in bartender school. It looked similar to a rocks glass in shape but was equally tall as a pounder glass.

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  14. how can you own 39 bars when your only allowed 1 liquor license in NYS. also, you can be sued for discrimination against men and “ugly” women. lamo.

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