Playing it safe

A discussion on the food & drink forum eGullet got me thinking about safe orders at bars. I am not talking about craft bars here, obviously. By a safe order, I mean the type of drink you’d be comfortable ordering at any bar, regardless of how well it is stocked and the skill level of the staff. This could be your neighborhood bar where you are meeting friends, when you don’t feel like ordering a beer. Another typical scenario is some type of party/event where it’s clear the bartenders are not Tales of the Cocktail Superstars, and the drink options are limited.

The Artesian bar

The Above & Beyond at the Artesian in London, a cocktail with balloon garnish filled with eucalyptus aroma. Maybe not the best idea for a safe order…

Any type of sour is automatically out because you wouldn’t want to order a citrus-based drink in a bar where the juice isn’t squeezed fresh (maybe not a la minute, but at least from that day). We don’t want to use anything that might have shelf-life issues, so this leaves us with spirit-forward cocktails (of the all-booze variety).

In the past, I used to guide bartenders into making 2:1 Manhattans.

2 ounces of rye – this is already a challenge because in 99% of cases they automatically reach for Canadian Club (I would bite my tongue because Canadian Club actually isn’t a rye whiskey by American standards, but I am rarely in the mood for a long explanation). Rye whiskey is only rarely available so unless you spot a bottle on the shelves, bourbon it is, Maker’s Mark being the default quite often, not my preferred choice but nothing terribly bad either.

1 ounce of sweet vermouth – another challenge. The freshness of the vermouth can be questionable (if the bottle has been open for a while and is being kept at room temperature). The default brand seems to be Martini Rosso, not my favorite option either (but you can’t expect to find Dolin rouge, Punt e Mes, Cocchi vermouth di Torino, Vya, etc everywhere you go).

Blue Ribbon Rustic Kitchen

The dreaded neon-red maraschino cherry garnish in an otherwise decent Manhattan

A few drops of Angostura, although the bottle of bitters is often missing in action and that final touch has to be skipped. For the garnish, maraschino cherries tend to be of the fluorescent kind in non-craft bars, and therefore are best avoided…

After providing all these instructions, I would start to relax, thinking that my drink wouldn’t be perfect but would be decent at a minimum, and I would then watch with horror as the bartender would proceed to shake the drink in front of my eyes, and pour the foamy concoction into a cocktail glass… Spirit-forward drinks are almost always stirred, and that point isn’t always understood.


Cocktails at Bo beau: Vieux Carre and The Professor

An example of shaken monstrosity in a very large cocktail glass, complete with glass shards

I tried the same thing with Negronis too, equal parts gin / sweet vermouth / Campari. The proportions make it even easier to explain, but the sweet vermouth is again problematic, and the shaking seems unavoidable…

So a spirit-forward drink with no vermouth seems like a better option. An Old Fashioned would seem like a logical option, but unless you are a fan of fruit salad (the questionable mixture obtained by mashing orange wedges, neon red maraschino cherries, and a ton of sugar) I would avoid it by all means. Whiskey on ice seems simple enough, but the quality of the ice being questionable, maybe a simple shot of whiskey is an even better bet…

So whiskey it is. But sometimes I am in the mood for something more refreshing. A simple option is a Gin & Tonic. Most likely the tonic will be overly sweet and delivered for a gun, but with a good squeeze of hopefully not overly dessicated lime wedge, the drink generally manages to be at least decent. Basic well gins such as Gordon’s tend to be nicely juniper-forward and make a very pleasant G&T. The G & T also happens to be my default order on a plane.

The flight attendants usually give you a mini bottle of gin (the rather insipid Bombay Sapphire tends to be omnipresent, but British Airways has two great options with Gordon’s and Tanqueray), a can of tonic (sometimes bitter lemon), and a glass filled with ice; make sure to ask for lime wedges (lemon might be all they have), and you will be able to make the drink with your preferred ratio (mine is 1:2, one part gin for two parts tonic water [unless the gin is overproof, which is never a problem on planes, but at home I add more tonic (up to 1:3) to adjust for the higher alcohol content]).

Swiss Airlines Gin & Tonic

Swiss Airlines Gin & Tonic

The Campari and Soda has also been suggested as a “safe” drink and I would agree. The Aperol Spritz which is very popular in Europe is another good one. What is yours and why?


Aperol Spritz in Zofingen

Aperol spritz on the go – notice how the rose vase is actually a repurposed Campari soda mini bottle!

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