It's daunting, I'll give it that. Finding the perfect bar for your tastes is no easy task. So, as an ambassador to fine drink (or not so fine drink, depending on your mood), I've decided to help you come up with a list of ways to analyze bars to see if they fit you. I'll be breaking them down into three categories: cocktail bars, dive bars, and normal bars. So, stick with me here.
Presenting...The In With Bacchus Guide to Picking YOUR Bar!
Cocktail bars are, to me, the easiest to define. Where I am...there aren't many so it's not hard to choose from but the advice I'll give stands for any good cocktail bar.
- Find your "ratio" cocktail - To judge a cocktail bar, I first order what I prefer to call my "ratio" cocktail. For me, it's a Negroni. A three ingredient cocktail that seems simple on its surface but can easily be screwed up. Why? Because it's all about balance. Some cocktail bars measure for specific cocktails. GOOD cocktail bars measure for ALL cocktails. Bear in mind, making a cocktail is part art...and part science. The human taste buds can perceive chemical reactions within a drink that only occur at proper ratios. For some, their cornerstone drink is a martini. Deceptively simple...but without the correct ratio of gin to vermouth...it can be a disaster. For me, the Negroni is my cornerstone cocktail. At every new cocktail bar I go to, I order a Negroni. It's a 1:1:1 ratio of gin, vermouth, and Campari, with an orange peel garnish (flamed or not, their choice). It NEEDS to be measured; eyeballing it makes the cocktail undrinkable. If there's too much gin, the piney notes come through too much and the alcohol is overwhelming. Too much Campari leaves the drink too bitter. Too much vermouth makes it too sweet and waters down the gin to mask its botanicals. If measured with a jigger/pony, its a good cocktail. Without it...its not. The attention to detail is important. And don't think that you need to order a fancy cocktail to get this job done. A simple gin and tonic is equally fitting. Poor ratios of gin to tonic lead to either a weak drink or a drink akin to Pine-Sol. So find a "ratio" cocktail you like and order it.
- Sit at the bar, if you can - Its important to WATCH them make cocktails. For many in the shaker slingin' part of the booze business...they ENJOY making cocktails. Watch them make cocktails and check out their technique. Check out how they shake cocktails. Vim and vigor is good; it aerates the cocktail and partially dilutes it for a smoother, rounder taste. A lackluster shake makes for a lackluster cocktail. Yet again, pay attention to the measurements. Also...see if they're tasting your cocktail. The common move is to take one of those tiny cocktail straws, dip it into the cocktail, and put a finger on the end. This locks some of the cocktail into the straw by vacuum and allows the maker to taste the drink without actually having to drink it. This is important too. No bartender can get a drink perfect every time during the night. The process of checking cocktails to ascertain balance, flavor, and viscosity means you're dealing with a serious cocktail bar worthy of attention.
- Go during an off time and order a drink - And by "order a drink" I don't mean "I'll have an X." I mean custom build a drink. Chat with the bartenders, ask them about stuff. Ask them to make you a cocktail. Start with a base spirit and then give descriptors of what you're hankerin' for: sweet, tart, bitter, herbal, minty...whatever. Let the bartender stretch his imagination and come up with a drink for you. It'll give you a feel for the creativity of the staff and their knowledge of the back bar. But ONLY do this when it's not busy. Not even remotely busy. Because if you do it when its busy...I will punch you because my drinks come out slow.
Dive bars are difficult, depending on your definition of a dive bar. For some, a dive bar is a relatively sedate little run-down bar that serves cheap drinks. The atmosphere is relaxed, its filled with haggard locals that occupy the same barstool every night, and the decor is usually neon beer signs, Christmas lights, and pin-up girls. For me...it's an all-out shitshow bar. Potential fights are always a plus. Scurvy bathroom an added bonus. Obvious joints being rolled on the bar and no one cares. THAT'S a dive bar to me. So here's some tips to pick out your Port Royale of a dive bar.
- What's Their Cheap Beer? - What you're looking for here is a cheap, American style light adjunct lager. And you want it as blue collar as it comes. The eponymous blue collar beer is PBR which, while highly maligned by many as a "hipster" beer, is an awesome beer when its cold. PBR in cans is a must but regional blue collar beers are always a plus. Iron City, Lone Star, Genessee Cream Ale, Narragansett. Be wary of bars whose cheap adjunct beers are Keystone or Budweiser. Keystone is a sign that you may be facing a significant "bro" crowd at any given point and Budweiser means you may face a sports rush during the year. These are all good in cans (tallboys preferable) with tap being a bonus.
- What's the Music Like? - Check out the jukebox. Does it jive with your tastes? How many pages does it have? And how much is it per play? All important things to monitor and note. See if the bar rotates the selection as well. If there's no jukebox, see if they do live music. Check to see how much the cover is for bands and if they're in your genre(s) of choice. If there's no live music and its just someone with an iPod and speakers...ask for a request for a song you like. If they don't have it...not a great sign but no one has everything. If they've never HEARD of it...might be time to move on.
- Room to Breathe...And Smoke - Smoker or non, check out the people standing outside smoking. It gives a good idea of the clientele at the bar. My bar's patrons generally have chain wallets, lots of tattoos barely hidden under white Ts or jean jackets, and slicked back hair. I frequent a rockabilly bar. And it's awesome. But the people outside will give you a decent overview on who to expect inside. Not all-encompassing...but a fair glimpse into the bar's lifestyle.
- The Head - Check out the bathroom. It should be skeevy...but moderately clean. Skeevy in this situation refers to the amount of shit on the walls. Not LITERAL shit...but figurative shit. Band stickers, graffiti, witty bathroom stall banter...all important.
- Drink Specials - You want to find out how much a beer and a shot will run you. The acceptable way to get drunk at all bars, a cheap can/mug of cold beer and a shot of well whiskey is what you should price out. See what the well whiskey is. If they serve Old Granddad, opt for that instead of well if you're feeling spendy. Also check for happy hour or post happy-hour deals. Here's one from my local:
Check that out. It's important.
Normal bars is a broad stroke but this will help to narrow it down. Stick with these and you'll be able to find one lickety split.
- Order A Draft Beer - But not one of the popular ones. If they've got standard beers with a couple craft beers, get a craft beer. The purpose of this isn't just to buck the trend...it's to check out their beer lines. A good bar (and by that I mean a legal bar) has to clean their beer lines often and thoroughly. By getting a beer that might not sell as fast, you can tell how well they keep their lines. If the beer tastes off (sour, extremely bitter, funky), that means that the lines haven't been cleaned. If it tastes kinda like soap or has a very slick mouthfeel, this means that they probably cleaned the lines but didn't flush it well enough with water, then beer. Poor tap management is a sign of a bad bar. It doesn't take much to clean beer lines.
- Order A Glass of Wine - Much like the beer, order a glass of wine in your preference. Taste it. Does it taste slightly raisiny or heavily of dark fruit for a red wine? Does a white wine taste flat and bland? This probably means that they're keeping the wine around long enough to let it oxidize. Yet another sign of a bad bar.
- Face Time - Yet again, sit at the bar and chat with the bartenders. Get to know them. Are they personable? Friendly? Helpful? As long as you don't make your demands outlandish, are they accommodating? Its important to find staff that you're comfortable with and are comfortable with you.
There you have it. Not exactly exhaustive, nor even remotely complete in my eyes. I'll probably add to it as I go. If you have any suggestions, comments, or concerns, let me know by contacting me. I'd love to hear your opinions.