Roll up to a bar these days and you’re likely to see “bartender’s choice” listed on the menu. First introduced by the influential (and now, sadly, defunct) New York cocktail bar Milk & Honey, “bartender’s choice” puts the drinker’s cocktail fate in the bartender’s hands, allowing the mixologist to craft a cocktail around the customer’s tastes and mood. Now, bars are taking “bartender’s choice” even further, offering drinkers the chance to let a bartender design for them not just one, but an entire night’s worth of drinks. It’s omakase for cocktails.
Designing a cocktail tasting menu is no easy feat. Bartenders who take on the task agonize over every minute detail of a cocktail progression from what cocktail to open with, to how much time to leave been “courses.” While not everyone can drop into a bar for a liquid tasting menu, everyone can benefit from these bartenders’ thorough research and experimentation. Here, a few key lessons learned from pro cocktail omakase architects on how to smartly drink your way through a night out on the town.
Sother Teague of Amor y Amargo in New York runs a program called Two Weeks Notice, a reservation-based seating that includes three cocktails with food pairings. A former chef, Teague compares the way he prepares for a night out at a bar to the way he prepares for a meal at a restaurant, scanning the menu ahead of time and plotting his attack. “It’s important to set yourself with a bit of a plan,” he says, “because one drink may not follow another as well.” Devon Tarby of The Walker Inn in Los Angeles agrees, saying she always decides on a course of several drinks before she orders her first.
Start Right (and Light)
Don’t kick you night off with a dark, stirred, booze-bomb of a cocktail. Opt instead for something light and refreshing. Long drinks with carbonation from mixers like Champagne or ginger beer are especially good choices because they prep your palate and get you salivating for the cocktails to come. Cocktails packed with acidity or salty flavors are also great opening options. “Both whet your appetite,” says Mark Guillaudeu, who serves a five-course cocktail omakase at Roka Bar in San Francisco (above). His favorite first drink is the Fitzgerald, a riff on a Gin Sour with aromatic bitters.
Don't Save the Best for Last
While you may be tempted to save a particularly tempting cocktail for the end of the night, your palate might be too exhausted at that point to appreciate such complexity. “If you’re at a cocktail bar where the most expensive drink on the menu takes 15 minutes to make and involves a bartender doing something insanely complicated like reciting an incantation in ancient Turkish—you should probably have that drink at the beginning of the night, not the end,” Guillaudeu says.
Mix Things Up
When embarking on a cocktail marathon, it’s important to avoid fatigue—that applies both to cocktail type and location. If you plan to hit multiple venues in a single night, Teague suggests three drinks as a good litmus test for a bar.
Watch Your ABV
While many bartenders are trained to spot patrons who have had a little too much, cocktail omakase designers are particularly attuned to the threat of over-boozing. “If we were to serve five regular strength drinks to people in the span of 90 minutes, we would be calling everyone cabs,” says Guillaudeu. “Varying the strength of your drinks is important. Make sure to alternate stirred drinks like Old Fashioneds with long drinks like Tom Collinses.”
Take a Booze-Free Break
During the omakase at Roka Bar, Guillaudeu includes two traditional Chinese tea services, served after the second and fourth cocktails. “The tea is coordinated with the flavors of the cocktails directly before and after, and of course, it offers hydration,” he says. “But the tea service is also a pause, allowing the cocktails already consumed to take effect before any more drinks are consumed.” While Chinese tea service might be out of the question at most bars, there are alternatives. One option is to opt for lighter proof drinks with an amaro or vermouth base, like an Americano or Aperol Spritz. Or you could order a mocktail version of a classic, like a virgin Paloma.
At The Aviary in Chicago, Micah Melton serves tasting menus of three, five and seven drinks. The intimidatingly long five- and seven-course menus consist of half-sized cocktails. If you’re uncomfortable asking for a half-sized drink, Melton suggests splitting a drink with a friend.
You Don't Have to Finish Every Drink
“People have this impulse to finish drinks. Frankly, a lot of places serve drinks that are bigger than they need to be,” Teague points out. “I don’t start out trying to get wasted, just as I don’t try to get overfed. If there’s something else on the menu that I want to try, I won’t finish my current drink. The bartender won’t be offended. He or she is probably just happy I want to try more drinks.”
Remember to Eat (but Don't Gorge)
“When you’re drinking cocktails, you have to consider how many calories you’re consuming,” Tarby says. “And I don’t mean that in the L.A. diet sort of way. Literally you don’t enjoy drinks as much if you already told your belly you’re full.” A few small bites can sustain a bar crawl better than one gigantic meal at the beginning, which can bog you down.
Your final drink of the night is your last chance to quench your cravings. During the summer, finish with something cold, sweet and creamy like a White Russian. When it’s freezing, opt instead for something toasty and strong, like a Hot Toddy. The last drink is also the time for all things extra-bitter. Sip some amaro straight and call it a night.