I’m sure almost everyone has suffered from more than a few bartending mistakes. You sit down at the bar and order your favorite drink, hoping to just relax and enjoy a libation. Perhaps you want to chat with friends or family, or catch a game on TV. Then your drink comes and you pick it up and you know you’re in trouble right from the beginning. Wrong glass, wrong garnish, and you have to wonder, what the heck does this thing taste like? If you’re brave, daring, or feel like giving the bartender the benefit of the doubt, you might give it a try and, odds are, immediately regret it. Perhaps you feel a bit like the lady in the picture.
If you’ve spent much time in bars, you come to appreciate the true professionals, and dread the trainees and incompetents, the dipsos and druggies, the lazy and distracted. It takes all kinds of folks to make the world go ’round, but many of them should never be let behind a bar. What follows are some of the problems you can run into.
Mixing the drink
Shaking the shaker
There are three main types of cocktail shakers today: the Cobbler, the Boston, and the French. They are made of glass, metal, plastic, or some combination thereof. Never shake it toward the patrons, as the top can come off and spray the customers.
Shaken vs. stirred
One sign of a knowledgeable bartender is that s/he knows the difference between cocktails that are stirred and those that are shaken. A general rule of thumb is that drinks with viscous liquids, such as tomato or pineapple juice need shaking, as stirring will not be vigorous enough to truly mix the ingredients. That means despite 007 James Bond’s order of a vodka Martini being shaken, not stirred (and that’s without even considering whether a vodka-based cocktail can really be considered a Martini), Manhattans and Martinis should be stirred, not shaken.
Know the recipe and make it right. Don’t substitute dry vermouth for sweet, or vodka for gin. Show some knowledge and pride by using the right ingredients in the correct portions.
These orders are simple. So why do I see them screwed-up once or twice a year? In one restaurant a few months ago, my order of a “Manhattan, Up” came Neat. Who orders a Manhattan Neat? Nobody I’ve ever run into. “Neat” means no water, no ice, room temperature straight alcohol. “Up” or “Straight-up” means the cocktail is mixed in a cup or shaker with ice, and then strained-out into a glass. This keeps melting ice from watering down the drink. “On the rocks” means ice in the drink.
Challenging the customer
If the customer asks for ice in his wine or scotch or she asks for a shaken Martini, don’t fuss at them. Don’t give them the side-eye and raised eyebrow. Just make it as requested. If they ask for your suggestions, fine, then give them. But you’re there to serve them, not educate or belittle them.
One of the most common bartending mistakes is to serve a drink in the wrong glass. There is a flute for champagne, a cocktail glass for martinis and Manhattans, a snifter for brandies, a cordial glass for liqueurs, and so forth. Of course, if the bar doesn’t have the appropriate inventory, the bartender should try to find the closest match to the appropriate glass. Then, of course, there are those places that serve everything in the same glass. I was in a bar not long ago where everything — water, wine, and cocktails, was served in a Mason jar — which certainly removes any skill (or guesswork) from the equation. Click here for a guide to glassware for drinks.
- Bartenders, please don’t pick-up the glass by the rim. It’s unsanitary.
- A chilled drink in a stemmed glass should only be handled by the stem. You can put a couple of fingers around the stem and a few more under the base if you need more stability. Cupping it under the bowl of the glass not only warms the drink, but makes your hands slippery, and therefore more likely to mishandle the glass.
- Bartenders should never use a glass to get ice out of the ice box. It can make for one of the most dangerous bartending mistakes of all: broken glass in the ice reservoir. I’ve seen it happen, and it means they have to get all of the ice out and clean the whole thing, to be sure they’re not serving shards of glass in their drinks. It’s a great waste of time, and ticks off the management and the customers, too, because of the delays in getting their drinks.
Learn what are the correct garnishes. Yes, a martini gets an olive, but not a black olive (I got one of those in an Indian restaurant a while back). A Martini may also get a twist (a curled sliver of lemon peel) or a cocktail onion, but those are usually special requests. If a bar offers something other than the standard green olive, they should let the customer know ahead of time, either in the menu or by the server.
One of the more disgusting bartending mistakes I’ve experienced on several occasions: a Manhattan with fruit flies. You see, the problem is, fruit flies like the sweet liquid of the maraschino cherries. If the bar isn’t careful about how they store the cherries, then the flies get into it. This is unappetizing to say the least.
Note: This is not to be confused with the classic Italian drink Sambuca con tres mosche, or Sambuca with three flies. It is an anise-flavored drink served with three coffee beans (the three flies), representing health, happiness, and prosperity.
The first round of drinks should come before the appetizers or at least with them, but never after them. Worse still: when the first round of drinks is delivered after the appetizers and the entrées.
Bartending mistakes conclusion
Yes, these problems can happen to any of us. My suggestion is to try and find a watering hole that does a good job and stick with it. If you’re lucky, you may be able to find more than one. Even in an established place, you’ll need to watch out for new trainees or vacation substitutes. Bartending mistakes can happen any place. But if the establishment acknowledges a problem and makes a good faith effort to fix it, great. Watch out for repeated mistakes to avoid them in the future. ♦