In this time of cocktail bar proliferation, bar menus come in varying degrees of density—both actual and figurative. Some can fit on an index card, some require a Trapper Keeper. Some read like a “For Dummies” book, some like poetry and some like a seemingly random word cloud of edible items. If you don’t walk into a bar knowing precisely what you want, looking at the menu is your first step to figuring that out. But because menus are not always the most consistent documents—a given bar can change its menu seasonally, monthly or even weekly—and because they’re not always the clearest, it’s easy to be led astray. To help us figure out how to navigate fluctuating drink menus we called up Christopher Longoria, beverage director from Che Fico in San Francisco, whose own menu seems designed to provoke the imagination of his customers. “Your mind is tasting as you’re reading,” he says.
Here are some pitfalls to avoid the next time you’re perusing a menu at a cocktail bar:
You’re Reading the Drink Descriptions as They’re Written
Typically, says Longoria, descriptions on cocktail menus are all written the same way: They always start with the base spirit. Some menus are even divided up by spirit category—whiskey drinks, gin drinks, rum drinks. But many people have very strong associations with specific spirits. They love gin, or, more commonly, they drank too much of it in college and think it’s devil juice. But a complex, well-crafted drink probably isn’t going to taste like a glass of gin. It’s going to be a harmonious melding of a variety of flavors that all complement each other. Longoria constructs his menus so people can see all the flavors in a drink without being turned off by the spirit. The description of his Cafe, for example, is: cold brewed coffee, Montenegro, sweet vermouth, absinthe, rum. The spirit always comes last, with the first few ingredients signifying the most prominent flavors in the drink. But since most bars don’t do that, Longoria says you may actually want read a cocktail description from right to left, ending with the main spirit.
You Start by Ordering Something You Think You’ll Like
Yes, we know, the reason you’re out ordering a drink is to enjoy it. But, especially if it’s a bar you haven’t been to before, Longoria says it’s important to get an idea of the parameters in which the bartenders are working. When he visits somewhere new, he always picks the drink he thinks he’ll like least and then follows that with the drink he thinks he’ll like most. The drinks may convince you that you were right all along, but it may also surprise you. A bartender could be turning traditional flavor combinations on their heads.
You Aren’t Ordering Something Seasonal
Longoria usually has a constantly changing “market” cocktail on his menu that he creates after a trip to the farmer’s market with Che Fico’s chef. He says getting something made with particularly fresh ingredients is “a good way to wake up your palate.” Drinkers shouldn’t treat special seasonal cocktails the same way the way they do everything else on the menu. They should give them extra consideration. If you’re on the fence about what to order, go with whatever’s freshest.
You Tell the Bartender What You Like
“I instruct my staff not to ask customers what they like. I tell them to ask what they don’t like,” says Longoria. If you say you like sweet drinks or you like fruity drinks, it leaves some real guesswork on the part of the bartender. Being upfront with what you don’t like allows the bartender to help you pick something through a clear process of elimination.