Building a cocktail is a lot like cooking. When done well, ingredients and flavors come together to create something greater than its parts. Like your favorite foods, cocktails come in all flavors. Some are fruity, some are bitter. Some are spirit-forward sippers, while others are icy and refreshing. When out at a bar, it can be hard to know what you’re getting into. Names and descriptions help but they’re only part of the puzzle. Here are five tips from local bartenders on the best ways to order a cocktail you’ll love.
One: Know what you like to drink (not just what’s most popular)
Experienced bartenders are happy to make recommendations, but asking for their favorite drink or a restaurant’s top seller can be misleading. Good cocktail menus are designed to reach a wide audience, so be confident in trusting your palate.
“You’ve got to ask yourself what you like,” says Gina Chersevani, owner of Buffalo & Bergen and Last Call in Union Market District. “If you’re somebody who likes fruit, don’t be convinced to get a bitter cocktail.”
Even if the ingredients don’t exactly match up, this information can help bartenders better guide you toward a decision. For example, Chersevani says fans of tropical flavors might also enjoy a drink that uses coriander or hibiscus tea.
Two: Find context clues in familiar ingredients + flavor descriptions
Once you know what you like, give the menu a scan. Most cocktail descriptions list the base spirit first, as it’s often the most dominant flavor. The rest of the components are usually highlighted from most-to-least prominent.
“Reading through the order of the ingredients will give you a good idea what to expect flavorwise,” says Felix Meija, bar manager at TTT in Clarendon. He also recommends paying attention to specific descriptors that can help paint the picture.
“If the syrup is spiced, you should expect a different flavor — maybe cinnamon, clove or star anise — rather than just sweetness. If the fruit is charred or burnt, you can expect some toastier notes.”
Three: Look for a new take on a favorite
Most modern cocktails descend from an existing recipe, like a margarita, a martini or an old fashioned. If you find something you’re into, there’s almost certain to be a fresh twist out there waiting to be discovered.
“Starting with what you know you like is the easiest way to find something else you’re going to like,” says David Strauss, owner of O.K.P.B. in D.C.’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood. “It is one of the first things I ask guests who are having trouble deciding what to get.”
Even before you get to the bar, reading up on common cocktails or experimenting with them at home can make you more comfortable the next time you’re out with friends.
“Master the classics like a good gin martini, a whiskey sour with egg whites, or a simple 1:1:1 negroni, then start experimenting with different styles of spirit, vermouths and syrups,” advises Philip Keath, service manager and bartender at The Duck & The Peach in Capitol Hill. “My favorite is a mezcal negroni.”
Four: Recognize that not all cocktails pack the same punch
A standard cocktail contains between two ounces and three ounces of liquor — about the size of a large shot glass. Some drinks are made with more than one alcohol or liqueur, which can lead to a stronger bite.
“If you’re seeing three liquors in a drink, it’s 100% not for the timid,” Chersevani says. “And if you’re seeing five liquors in a drink, like in a Long Island iced tea, get ready because that’s real.”
A descriptive menu will offer guidance on which drinks are more intense than others.
“If you’re looking at a cocktail and you’re not seeing a lot of words that say cordial or syrup or sugar or juice, then you’re looking at a drink that’s strong,” says Jon Schott, beverage director of The People’s Drug and King’s Ransom in Old Town Alexandria.
Another tip for finding lighter drinks is to stick with cocktails that use sherry, vermouth, wine or beer as a base, as these have a lower alcohol content.
Five: When in doubt, start a conversation
Google is a helpful tool for decoding ingredients but it’s no substitute for face-to-face conversation. Professional bartenders welcome questions, no matter how beginner — especially if it helps you order a cocktail you love.
“What’s the point of getting a vodka soda because you’re too afraid to interact with the barkeep?” Schott asks. “At the end of the day, no matter what, we want to get you a cocktail that makes you the happiest.”