6 signs you’re not in a good cocktail bar

Our bartender helps you separate the wheat from the chaff.

Originally Published 1/3/12

For better or worse, the craft cocktail movement seems to have reached the tipping point—Rachel Maddow can be found mixing Bijou’s with Jimmy Fallon and you can (though you probably shouldn’t) order a Caipirinha at the Cheesecake Factory.  But with the proliferation of bars with ambitions beyond the bottom line there are perils.

Just because a place presents itself as a craft cocktail bar doesn’t mean they actually know how to make a good cocktail—and $12 for a drink can be a steep fee to find out.  Not so many years ago, decent cocktail bars could only be found in big cities, and even then they were hard to find.  Nowadays, there are countless bars, both in big cities and beyond, that serve top-notch cocktails.  Unfortunately there are as many or more bars that hope to cash in on the trend without the commitment, knowledge, or passion to pull it off.  So, how to tell the difference without blowing money on a round of sub-par libations?  These signs should help you know when to save your money and find a good dive bar instead:

#1 Vodka features prominently.

There is nothing in particular wrong with vodka, but it sure is boring.  Vodkas just aren’t very different from one another and every bottle in excess of two or three is just taking away space that could be allotted for more interesting spirits.

#2 Every drink has a dozen ingredients and you don’t know what any of them are.

These places are more interested in impressing you than in making good drinks.  It is no accident that some of the finest drinks in the canon contain no more the three or four ingredients. Often nothing more is required.

#3 There are –tinis and –ritas other than martinis and margaritas.

Chain restaurants, skeezy night clubs, magazines targeted at middle aged women, ironic 90s-themed parties—these are places where you can expect the syllables rita and tini to be appropriated as suffixes—not at serious cocktail bars.

#4 Anything is made with a commercial mix.

It’s no better than a restaurant serving you soup from a can.  If they can’t be bothered to squeeze their own citrus or build their own Bloody Mary’s there is no reason to expect them to expend anything greater than the least amount of effort required to please the lowest common denominator.

#5 There are bitters in every drink.

Years ago there was a phrase in the craft cocktail community that some people took a little too seriously—“Bitters makes everything better.”  Sure, they make a lot of drinks a heck of a lot better, but there is a time and place for them.  Bitters in cocktails are sort of like knit neckties—properly deployed they are a subtle way to make a strong impression, but use them with everything and you’ll seem like you’re more interested in appearances than taste.

#6 Nobody appears to be having much fun.

Some places just take themselves too seriously.  There is a difference between taking seriously the quality of ingredients, or the precision of measuring, or the size and shape of ice, and taking oneself seriously.  The former ensures great drinks; the latter ensures self-important service, and—though the drinks might be delicious—a bar is more than its beverages.

About our Bartender – Michael Bowers is the Head Bartender at the Modern Hotel and Bar in Boise, Idaho.  His patrons know him for the uncanny precision with which he tends his bar.  Michael’s cocktails have been noted by, among others, Food and Wine, Sunset Magazine, and the New York Times.  See more in The Drink archive Top photo credit: elvissa

Not Michael, and not his bar.