Behind the Bar
What to Ask When They Don't Know What to Order
It’s the thing that can make — or break — a perfect evening. Finding the right cocktail will either kick off a customer’s night on a high note, or leave a sour taste in their mouth. But what if you don’t know what they want? Maybe they’re usually a beer or wine person, but want to branch out into something a little more daring. Or maybe they’re tired of their typical bourbon and Coke or vodka tonic, but don’t know what it is they want instead.
Thankfully, it’s easier than it seems to find the perfect cocktail, even for novice drinkers. Below, seasoned bartenders weigh in on serving customers their ideal drink.
Ask what type of flavors they like
It really can be as simple as asking if they want fruity or sour, according to Sharon Groff, bartender at the Belvedere Inn in Lancaster, Pa.
“I ask the basic questions,” she says. ‘”Do you want something sweet? Do you like more along the lines of a Manhattan or something on the rocks? Do you want juice? Do you want soda?’ Get people to tell me what they like.”
Find out what drinks they typically drink
“A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I like this. Or 'I like everything',” adds Chris Visic from Nashville’s Pinewood Social. “If you tell me you like gin, I’m like, ‘Cool. How do you like your gin? If you were drinking a gin drink, what would you drink?’ If you say, ‘I typically drink a martini,’ I’ll say, ‘Okay, cool. Do you take that dirty? Do you take it dry? Do you like a little more vermouth?’”
Even if they don’t know the exact liquor they prefer, knowing their favorite cocktail can go a long way in deciding what to create.
“I ask what spirits they like to drink,” says Nick Campisano, from downtown Phoenix’s Clever Koi. “Do they like bitter? Do they like sweet? Do they like sour? Do they like it stirred and up? Do they like it on the rocks? The first question that I ask is what they drink, and then we can go from there.”
“With their wine or beer, I want to know what kind of wine or beer they drink,” he adds. “If they like fruity beers, then obviously the person would like a fruity cocktail. If they like dry, things like that, then you can go towards the stirred up kind of cocktail. There’s always ways around it.”
Know what they don’t like
Ask them to be honest and straightforward about what they don’t want. If the customer knows they hate the taste of whiskey, don’t try to talk them into something with Jack Daniels in it.
“I ask ‘Do you prefer maybe a margarita? Or, do you prefer something a little sweeter? Do you like fruit? What kind of fruit do you like?’ says Groff. “Maybe they don’t like peaches, or coconut. Knowing that will take you in one direction.”
“With foods, with mixers, with anything, there’s flavor profiles,” Campisano says. “So if somebody is like, I don’t like meat, I don’t like spicy, things like that, you can definitely build cocktails around it.”
Find out as much information as you can, and chances are, they will be pleasantly surprised, most likely with a new favorite drink by the night’s end.
“I need to pick your brain,” says VIsic. “If they come up to me, I don’t know them very well, but I know my bar very well, so I need you to communicate. I want you to have as much access to this as I do. “
Make what you know
Bartenders are handed the challenging task of keeping customers happy and making delicious cocktails. The key is to strike a balance between the two.
“I try to stay inside of the range of what I think this person will like, especially dealing with large body crowds,” Visic says. “I’ll try to think of ingredients that will be familiar, enjoyable, something light and fruity. And then something approachable, so I’m not cranking out the same thing, like a Cosmo they can get anywhere. I’m always going to want to make something approachable. I don’t ever want to go outside of the mold, unless someone comes up to me and says, ‘I like mezcal and I like spicy. I can try anything. Let’s see what you got.’ Then I’ll do something that’s maybe adventurous, or not appealing to every cocktail consumer.”