Most bloggers are expert drinkers. Hey, we like our booze. If there’s a cocktail tasting, a new bartender and a new bar, you can bet the crowd will be overrun by bloggers armed with cameras and recording devices. Naturally, that means we drink. A lot. And consequently, we know what we like and what we look for in a potential new favorite watering hole and cocktail menu. So I asked a few of my drinking and blogging cronies for tips on how to drink like a pro, how do they approach the whole cocktail bar scene. What cocktail do they order to test a bartender’s skill, how much do they tip, etc.
1) What do you look for in a new favorite bar?
CoC (me!): A wide selection of spirits and if it’s a small selection, then at least a few bottles of small-batch booze in the mix. Also a variety of fresh herbs and fruits is always a good sign. Lots of places to sit (I like to sit and sip!), especially at the bar, and attentive and friendly bartenders.
EstarLA (Los Angeles food, cocktails, lifestyle & events blogger with penchants for music, snowboarding & MINI Coopers): I don’t want to put too much emphasis on ambiance, but it’s undeniable that the bar has to offer something in terms of feel that the others don’t – so if the bar has a unique feature that’s cool (absinthe taps, spirit-themed bar, great jukebox, etc.), I really like that. But all that is secondary if and when there’s a bartender or two that I trust behind the stick.
****Food GPS (dedicated to pinpointing the highest quality, best tasting food and drink, regardless of price or cuisine): When I first moved to Los Angeles, my goal was to find a bar with good atmosphere (for the time), and that led to places like Formosa Cafe and The Standard. These days, it’s more important to find a place that leads with flavor. The scene has become less important than what’s in the glass.
Lindsay of LAist (Los Angeles news, food, entertainment blog): For me one ingredient to a great drink is the atmosphere in which it’s served. Since there are precious few bars I pay repeat visits to, I want to feel welcome, so it’s got to be free of pretentiousness, be literally comfortable (great seats!), and have approachable folks behind the bar. I also tend to prefer bars who use real syrups, fruits, juices, and herbs.
LA/OC Foodventures (LA/OC food and drink blogger): A menu that’s a good mix of classics along with creative-seasonal spins, the bar not being stocked 50+ percent w vodkas, and a space that’s conducive to conversation.
Savory Hunter (Lover of delicious food and drink, especially cocktails): A good cocktail list. Bartenders who know their shit. Good customer service. Someplace I can hear the person next to me.
Shop Eat Sleep (Blogs about retail, dining, hotels, travel & pet friendly stuff): A combination of a quality cocktail program (fresh produce on the bar is a plus) and a laid-back vibe.
2) Do you judge a bar by its cocktail menu/spirits selection? If so, how?
CoC: Most def. Nowadays menus seem dominated by craft cocktails, housemade syrups and farmers market-fresh ingredients. And when the concoctions are done right and they’re well-balanced, well that’s the best thing. But if you read the menu and a lot of the flavors/ingredients clash then that’s a bad sign. Also it’s a bad sign if there are lots of Dekuypers, sweet & sour and flavored vodka cocktails. If there is one ‘tini on there then it’s all over. Regarding spirits: Red alert when there is a whole shelf dedicated to flavored vodkas.
EstarLA: Absolutely. If I see more than one or two vodka drinks on the menu, it might be a red flag depending on the crowd it caters to. If there are four, it’s almost a definite red flag. If the cocktail menu is too big, I may be skeptical about the consistency and quality control. If nothing on the signature menu looks very imaginative or piques my curiosity, I may revert to a classic and I’m much less likely to stay after that first drink.
Food GPS: It’s important that a bar doesn’t just stock the kind of mass market bottles that people can buy at a Ralphs or Costco, but even if they have craft spirits and make their own syrups, tinctures and bitters, the bar staff still has to be friendly and know what they’re pouring/mixing. I’ve kind of been known to ask a lot of questions, and hopefully the bartender has answers.
Lindsay of LAist: If the house drink is a Red Bull and Vodka, it’s not the bar for me.
LA/OC Foodventures: I generally shy away from bars whose menus are dominated by -tinis (or variations of mojitos & margaritas), likewise for bars whose shelves are stocked with a slew of flavored vodkas and rums.
Savory Hunter: Yes. Does the drink menu have too many vodka beverages on it? Do the drinks sound too sweet? Do they use flavored vodka? (all bad). Do they make their own house-made bitters or tinctures or shrub? (good) do they have a mix of beginner and adventurous beverages (good).
Shop Eat Sleep: A range of spirits in a range of prices is always good, but having accoutrements such as a variety of bitters, and less-common amaro spirits is appreciated.
3) What whiskey, gin, tequila, rum do you look for in your potential new favorite bar?
CoC: I won’t immediately judge a bar if they don’t have the following but I will sure as heck be impressed if they do — Whistle Pig Rye/Michter’s/Pappy Van Winkle, Plymouth Gin, Fortaleza Tequila, Matusalem Rum.
EstarLA: I’m a big fan of Whistle Pig Rye. Or No. 3 London Dry gin for martinis. And I like Ramazzotti shots. And, of course, Fernet shots. But I can’t really say I look for certain spirits unless I’m craving something neat, since I would like to leave the mixing up to the experts.
Food GPS: I’m not that much of a label whore. If a bar doesn’t have Pappy Van Winkle or Zacapa 23, for instance, I should still be able to get a good cocktail.
Lindsay of LAist: Honestly, I don’t seek out a bar based on spirits, but something beyond the bulk store brand is a good start. I tend to stick with clear spirits; I’m loving gin cocktails lately, like ones with Hendricks. But I love bars that include interesting spirits for their concoctions, like for example when I visited Pablo Moix at Black Market in Studio City and he introduced me to aguardiente, a Columbian spirit. Love bars that enjoy tossing in some accent spirits, like St. Germain, or Fernet.
LA/OC Foodventures: I have a soft spot for Michter’s, Sazerac or Bulleit Ryes & Right or Aviation Gins. But the ultimate eye-pleaser for me is seeing Bonded Applejack or Belle de Brillet.
Savory Hunter: I like to see Rittenhouse or Old Overholt Rye. Also if they have Plymouth or Beefeater Gin.
Shop Eat Sleep: I like whiskey, scotch and bourbon, so I look for Macallan 18, Lagavulin and good ol’ Maker’s Mark.
4) How much do you tip?
CoC: I generally tip 20 percent for cocktails and $1 or $2 for beer, unless the service and cocktails were subpar. If it’s a bartender that I know, a bit more.
EstarLA: $2 per drink, or more if I’m in love with the cocktail.
Food GPS: If a cocktail’s $10 or above, I normally leave a $2 tip per drink.
Lindsay of LAist: I’m old school, so in general I’m still of the $1 per drink. However, if I get to spend some time with the bartender, and they whip up something on the fly, or are doing some killer stuff then they are definitely going to get tipped more.
LA/OC Foodventures: Typically $2 a drink.
Savory Hunter: Depends on the cocktail and price – usually $2-3 per drink, more for a complicated drink
Shop Eat Sleep: $1 per drink generally; more if the drink is really good and well-crafted.
5) How many cocktails do you drink per bar and what’s the time span?
CoC: Contrary to popular belief, I’m a lightweight. At tastings, I restrict my intake to sips. But two cocktails in two hours/a bar is my rule of thumb if I want to be functional the next day.
EstarLA: Typically, I drink up to 3 cocktails per bar over 1.5 hours.
Food GPS: I normally have one or two cocktails per visit, two if the first cocktail is good, or if the bartender has something new and exciting they’d like to share. A lot of times, if they’re excited, it can inspire me to drink more than I planned.
Lindsay of LAist: If I’m with friends, we are sipping and sharing, so we can taste as much as possible. If it’s a one bar night, I’m probably a three-drink kind of gal.
LA/OC Foodventures: Usually 2-3 over a 1-2 hour period.
Savory Hunter: Typically 3 drinks over the course of 2-3 hours.
Shop Eat Sleep: About two in an hour or so.
6) What’s your secret to preventing a hangover?
CoC: Fortify the belly before drinking by eating and drink lots of water.
EstarLA: I always order water along with my cocktail and take sips throughout the night. If I haven’t eaten, then I’ll be sure to order some bar bites or grab something from a food truck. A glass of water before bed is also essential.
Food GPS: Drinking within moderation.
Lindsay of LAist: Pace with water all night, and have a huge glass of water next to your bed for overnight. If it’s been a wild night, and if I’ve been mixing rum and rye and the like in my belly, then I’ll probably knock back some ibuprofen before I nod off. I try to not drink on an empty stomach either–that’s just asking for pain.
LA/OC Foodventures: Drinking lots of water, possibly supplemented with a packet of Emergen-C if I imbibed too much. That being said, I very rarely get them (once a year, if that).
Savory Hunter: Drink a glass of water with each cocktail, shot or neat beverage.
Shop Eat Sleep: I make sure there’s enough food in my belly, and hydrating is a must.
7) What cocktail do you usually order to gauge a bartender’s skills?
CoC: A Manhattan. As soon as they shake it, I know that my next drink needs to be something simple like whiskey neat.
EstarLA: Usually a Manhattan or a gin martini. The problem is, though, I’m less apt to order a Manhattan for trial’s sake if I don’t at least somewhat trust the bartender, because I ultimately have to pay for it and drink it. If I feel totally sketchy about the bartender, I’m more likely to just order a shot of Fernet Branca.
Food GPS: I’m pretty promiscuous with my ordering, but a good baseline cocktail is an Old Fashioned. It’s the Margherita pizza of cocktails, seemingly straightforward, but all the little choices that bartenders have to make, from the base spirit to the garnish, can add up to a very different cocktail experience.
Lindsay of LAist: I like to try new things, so I don’t have a go-to drink, but I do like to see what they put into something like a Dark and Stormy; it’s so basic, but if they’re using Gingerale and not Ginger Beer, it’s going to change the whole drink, right? If I order a drink and it’s balanced and something I want to pass to my friend and say “YOU HAVE GOT TO TRY THIS!” then the bartender has it going on. Also, you have to know when to cut your losses. If it’s not on the menu and you need to explain how it’s made, you should probably be at home in your living room or at another bar. A great bartender will make you what you want without you having to educate them. Because if you feel you have to “educate” the bartender, you aren’t a pro; you’re a jerk
LA/OC Foodventures: Usually an Aviation if they have the ingredients for it; otherwise, a Manhattan or Gin Gin Mule – depending on occasion.
Savory Hunter: A Manhattan or Old Fashioned.
Shop Eat Sleep: Something simple where flaws would be more apparent. Also, if the bartender shakes a Manhattan, that will definitely not be my new favorite bar.