The Discerning Drinker: What to look for in a bar
So, for those that have read my recent glowing writeup of Little Branch, as well as my comparison of Passenger and Gibson and my review of El Centro, I thought I should clarify what I look for in a drinking establishment that you too ought to consider. Don’t spend money and waste time at crappy bars (or anything else, for that matter), use this handy guide.
In order of appearance (but not necessarily importance)
- Easygoing atmosphere as set by the establishment. DC, New York, London, and really any big city are full of places that try too hard and take themselves too seriously. Hallmarks of this attitude can include slavish attention to stark cutting edge decor, snotty doormen or bartenders, bar areas that seem more about design than function (design is important, but it should never be the only factor) or even pretentious descriptions on a menu. Most of these elements can be ascertained quickly upon arrival.
- Conviviality. If a place is full of people out only to see and be seen, stay away. If people seem to be having fun and generally enjoying themselves, that’s a good sign. If strangers or unconnected groups interact with each other in a natural way, that’s an extremely good sign.
- Quality of craft. It could be anything: a beer hall, a wine bar, or a mansion of mixology. If the place doesn’t get their main profit-earner right, you shouldn’t go back. Things to look for:
- Beer: a good selection from the main brewing regions of the world: The US, UK, Belgium, Germany, and Czech Republic should be the mainstays. A big selection is fine, but places that have monstrously thick, encyclopedic beer menus tend to be a bit on the snotty side, as well as have a tendency to run out of a lot of items. A list of a page to a few pages is probably a good bet.
- Wine: this is a bit tougher, because wine in general is bound in pretension. A place that has numerous options by the glass is a good bet, as are places that offer even smaller tasting-size servings. Avoid anywhere where the staff can’t make a few reasonable recommendations (e.g. not telling you to go for the 1985 Château Latour by default).
- Cocktails/mixology/spirits: this is probably the trickiest. Several things to look out for:
- The menu. With the exception of the Passenger, which hasn’t got one, a good cocktail bar can often be identified just by the menu. Do you see a good grounding in the classics, such as the martini (with GIN, damn it), the Manhattan, the old-fashioned, and the like? Good. Do you see unusual things that you’ve never heard of featuring interesting ingredients such as weird bitters or liqueurs such as Chartreuse, Bénédictine, and St-Germain? Also good. Any drinks made with tequila or mezcal that aren’t shots, a margarita, or a tequila sunrise? Very good! On the other hand, if stuff is laden with peach schnapps, green apple liqueur, Bailey’s, and other artificial and sweet stuff, stay away.
- Off-beat brands. Most of the brands you see advertised are mediocre at best. Bacardi sucks, Grey Goose and the like are a waste of money (vodka is meant to be tasteless and flavorless!), and it’s unlikely you can tell the difference between Hennessey and Courvoisier. Many of the best values are more off-the-radar, non-advertising brands.
- Presence of quality mixers, etc. Do you see containers of fresh juices, or is the place using a spray gun for that? If you ask what kind of bitters they have, do they have bitters at all? Many places don’t (bad!). Do you see a bottle of Luxardo Maraschino? Excellent.
- Bartender’s skill. Probably the hardest to judge without tasting a drink or if you don’t already know what to look for. If you see a bartender shaking a martini, adding soda water to an old-fashioned, serving a Manhattan on the rocks, or if he asks you “what kind” of daiquiri you want, run away. If you ask the bartender to make you a Sazerac and he proceeds without hesitation, great, and if he asks “what kind of rye do you want?” you have a winner. If a drink is shaken, the longer he shakes, the better (within reason), so a quick 3-second shake is a no-no.
- Multi-purpose places: For places that operate across the spectrum, you really want just a combination of the above. Expect a shorter beer list and wine menu, and maybe not the same devotion to the craft of mixing, but if most of the above elements are there, you probably have a good place.
- Dives: Yes, they can be fun. Cheap and cheerful should be the bywords here. Forget about wine, but a decent beer and spirits selection should be on hand, by which I mean a small array of basic but quality goods. The crowd should be very chill – you don’t want to get caught in a fight. Loud rock music is a huge plus.
It’s worth saying that there are of course many places I enjoy that don’t necessarily fall under the above criteria. Proper English pubs (or German or Czech beer halls) are one example, as are outdoor bars that may have a very nice setting but very limited selection. So by no means is the above list all-inclusive and rigid, but really, to quote Captain Barbossa, “it’s more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”
Drink smart and enjoy!