As with any movement, there will always be imitators just trying to make a quick buck off of the gullible or easily fooled. The craft cocktail movement that's currently booming here in the USA and around the globe is no exception. Here, I set out to give you some tell-tale signs that maybe you're not in the bar you thought you were...
It looks like a movie set
Are there dimly lit Edison bulbs everywhere? How about pressed tin ceilings/bar-face/tabletops? Is Prohibition-era music playing softly on a gramophone in the corner? Was there no sign outside the clandestine entrance? Is the vested bartender using copper-plated jiggers and a hand-blown Japanese mixing glass? If there's too much emphasis on decor and not enough thought behind the drinks, then you're in the wrong bar. This is not to say you can't still have a great time, just don't expect to have a perfect Old Fashioned or a cutting-edge cocktail here. Too gimmicky.
To establish a sense of trust with your 'tender, first casually ask for a classic cocktail while you decide on another from the list. Pay close attention to his mannerisms. Does he look confused by your request, like he isn't sure what a Negroni even is? This test is all about the fundamentals -- if he has to refer to his phone to get a recipe for a classic, he's just not that skilled at his job. Did he stir it well (God forbid he shook it) to both chill and dilute? Did he ask if you'd prefer it up or on the rocks? Was the glassware choice appropriate for the cocktail? If not, maybe stick to straight spirits here and have cocktails elsewhere.
Too many ingredients on the back bar
Are there more infusions and syrups listed on the menu than there are spirits? This means that the so-called "craftsman" behind the pine is just trying to mask the flavor of booze to get you to imbibe more, and do it more quickly. A true bartender can do the same without the crutch of overly sugary or fruit-laden drinks. Spirits are elegant and nuanced and shouldn't be hidden away behind a candy coating. Sure, sugar and fruit are also integral parts of many classic cocktails, but know when to spot the pretender, and you'll be well on your way to better drinking.
Too many ingredients in the drinks themselves
Next, take a second and count how many ingredients are in each drink. Do any have less than five? If not, the place falls into the same column I already mentioned. The "mixologist" is too eager and lacks focus. Blending too many ingredients into one glass is a clear and shining sign that the drinks here are fake.
While perusing the bill of fare, do you notice any of those little trademark symbols next to the brand-name spirits in the cocktail? If so, they likely paid to be featured. This practice usually leads to poor decision-making by the bar staff, who try and force a round peg into a square hole, concocting all manner of ill-formulated drinks and unleashing them on an unsuspecting patron. No thank you.
Fishing for praise
How invested in your experience is the bartender? Is he as interested in your enjoyment of the time you're spending at the bar as he is in how you're enjoying his creation? I find that the more a bartender needs to be told how great his drink is (whether it is or not), the less likely he's good at the actual, overarching job of bartending. If your man behind the stick is happy to serve you and be unobtrusive while doing so, you're finally starting to win.
Lopsided menu offerings
Unless it's part of the ethos of the bar in question, the menu should offer a varied range of styles and flavors. If it's all martinis, they aren't trying to reach a broad audience. Likely because they aren't filled enough to do so.
Watch their reaction to your reaction
So, you made a leap of faith and chose a drink you thought sounded delicious. But then it turns out that, although it was made the way it should've been, it simply doesn't suit your taste. If the barman makes you feel inferior or even stupid rather than removing the drink and offering you something else, it's time to leave. It should never be a problem to make you something you'll enjoy.
Keep an eye on price vs. value
This sword cuts both ways. Was the drink perfect, yet served in a plastic cup by a muscle shirt-clad bartender and only cost $5? Hey, if it's amazing, don't balk! Or, was the $23 beverage mediocre, but served at a beautiful rooftop bar? That place is fooling you! When the price doesn't reflect the value, the emphasis is less on the drinks and more on volume or revenue.
"Craft cocktail bars" dictate a higher level of service combined with cordial atmosphere and a staff of professionals. And they have to do all of that without taking themselves too seriously. Basically, all the pieces should fit together seamlessly to ensure you're having a great time and a delicious drink and all without having to worry what's going on behind the scenes. You're there to relax, not work. Leave that to me.
Sother Teague is the beverage director of New York's Amor y Amargo, and would love to show you exactly what he's talking about if you stop in. Follow him at @CreativeDrunk.