The Cocktails You Can Count On, at Dive Bars or Upscale Lounges

March 10, 2016

A few years ago, shortly after my husband and I had moved to a small town in Minnesota, we decided to go out for a drink at a new bar in town. It was quiet, and we sat down right at the bar.

When the bartender asked “What can I get for you?” my husband started with, “Well, I think I’m in the mood for a whiskey cocktail…” The bartender gave him a look of confusion and replied, “I think Jack and Coke is the only one there is, isn’t it?”

Oops. We had misread the bar. (Actually, in this case I believe we had misread the bartender because I’m pretty sure I saw some vermouth behind the bar, and I personally believe that every bartender should know what a Manhattan and an Old Fashioned are, even if they don’t know how to execute them perfectly). Whatever the situation, this little drink-ordering adventure (my husband eventually managed to coax a whiskey with ginger beer and a lime wedge out of the bartender) was a pointed illustration of the fact that when it comes to cocktail ordering there's no 100% guarantee.

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These days, when you look at the bar scene, you find cutting-edge craft cocktail bars, neighborhood dives that haven’t changed in 25 years, and everything in between. And if you try ordering a “Captain and Coke” at a craft bar whose rail is filled with amari and housemade syrups, you’ll probably get a stare that is just as blank as if you try to order a Corpse Reviver #2 at a sports bar in a university town.

I wracked my brain to try to come up with a cocktail for which there would be no contingencies, and all I came up with was a vodka and soda. And then I thought, "No, there are probably whiskey or mezcal-focused bars out there now that have no vodka." So, perhaps there is no cocktail that you can order anywhere, but that doesn’t mean you have to be at a loss for an order when you walk up to a bar (and there isn’t a convenient menu of house cocktail specials from which to order).

There’s always beer, right? Just kidding. Sort of. But, when I’m set on a cocktail, what I try to do is have a little mental storehouse of drink recipes for different situations from which I can pull a cocktail based on my assessment of the bar.

Here’s how I think about it:

  • For dive bars, sports bars, and the local watering hole in a rather small town:

First assess whether vermouth and bitters are on the back bar and how dusty the bottles are. If it appears there is no vermouth or that it hasn’t been used in a couple years, stick with the category of drinks where the name of the drink is the recipe. I call these the “blank and blanks,” that is to say, rum and Coke, vodka and cranberry, gin and tonic, Scotch and soda, and so on. If you’re lucky they’ll have ginger beer; basically any spirit tastes good with ginger beer and several wedges of lime squeezed in. Do not expect anything more. In these bars, I usually just order a bourbon, neat.

If there appears to be vermouth and one or two bottles of bitters in regular rotation, then you should be able to order one of the simplest, two- or three-ingredient classic cocktails like a martini, an Old Fashioned, or a Manhattan. But, be prepared to explain your order to the bartender. Have your favorite proportions for a Manhattan or a martini memorized so if the bartender seems hesitant, you can swiftly follow up with, “Two ounces rye whiskey, an ounce of that sweet vermouth there, and a couple dashes of bitters, on the rocks."

I’ve had great success ordering negronis at bars where the bartender has no idea what a negroni is. In fact, that’s how I had a negroni last Saturday! If I notice there’s a bottle of Campari on the back bar, I just ask them to give me equal pours of gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth over ice, and give me a stir stick.

  • For somewhat fancier places:

The next category of bars are the ones where, after a little observation you can tell they actually use fresh citrus juice and they shake or stir the cocktails before serving them to you. In these places, the simple classic cocktails like a Manhattan, martini, or Old Fashioned are still always a good bet, and will probably be well executed.

You should also be able to order from the line-up of simple classics that have lime or lemon juice and liqueurs. A classic daiquiri is a good bet—feel free to tell the bartender what your favorite proportions of rum to lime to sugar are—as is a French 75 (this is one where I surprisingly often find they have the ingredients, but I still have to give the bartender a recipe: 1 ounces gin, 1/2 ounce each lemon and simple syrup, shaken, strained, and topped with Champagne); or order a Sidecar (2 ounces brandy and 1 ounce each lemon and Cointreau, shaken and strained).

If you see they have more obscure liqueurs and ingredients like Chartreuse, Maraschino, Lillet, Absinthe, and such, then things are getting serious, and you should be able to order virtually any classic cocktail from a Last Word to a Rob Roy. But, I’ve still found it never hurts to have the specs for the classic you want memorized, just in case.

  • For cocktail bars:

Finally, you have the bars that consider themselves cocktail bars, that is to say they specialize in making cocktails and have many types of bitters, house-made syrups, cocktails with egg whites, and specialized glasses for different types of cocktails. There is a definite chance that the bartenders will have lots of tattoos and be wearing dapper vests, and even if they aren’t, they’ve probably still put some serious study into cocktail history.

At these bars you should be able to order any classic or vintage cocktail from the cocktail canon. But, an even better bet, I think, is to go ahead and let the bartender take care of you. Tell them the types of things you like, and let them take it from there. Just don’t order a Captain and Coke.

What's your fall-back cocktail order? Share with us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Karin Byars
    Karin Byars
  • Amanda
  • M
  • Vivian | stayaliveandcooking
    Vivian | stayaliveandcooking
  • 702551
I like to say I'm a lazy iron chef (I just cook with what I have around), renegade nutritionist, food policy wonk, and inveterate butter and cream enthusiast! My husband and I own a craft distillery in Northern Minnesota called Vikre Distillery (, where I claimed the title, "arbiter of taste." I also have a doctorate in food policy, for which I studied the changes in diet and health of new immigrants after they come to the United States. I myself am a Norwegian-American dual citizen. So I have a lot of Scandinavian pride, which especially shines through in my cooking on special holidays. Beyond loving all facets of food, I'm a Renaissance woman (translation: bad at focusing), dabbling in a variety of artistic and scientific endeavors.


Karin B. April 1, 2017
In the late 60's in Columbus Georgia the county voted in liquor by the drink. My husband was in Viet Nam, I needed money to finance the landscaping around my new house so I took a job at the charming Opera House Saloon in the old Springer Opera House. People were ordering cocktails but nobody knew how to make them, I bought a Boston Bar Guide and presto, I was a bar tender. I made lots of money, had lots of fun and and even found a new (non-warrior) husband that lasted for 30 years.
Spring started last week so today I am chilling a nice Proseco for the Aperol and a little Pellegrino. Life is good at age 75.
Amanda March 10, 2016
Salty dog! Even if I have to explain it, it's impossible to screw up, and oh-so-tasty.
M March 10, 2016
Since we're talking about what you can count on in any bar, even dive bars and sports bars, visitors should also think about whether the liqueur could be watered down. I've encountered this problem any time I've gone to a casual/dive bar that serves to college students, and sometimes at watering holes that have daily local customers. They water down in an attempt to regulate drunkenness, and responsible drinkers end up with watery drinks. (Or they make spectacularly weak drinks that are a waste of time.)

I actually went to a college bar with a lightweight drinker once, and she barely had a buzz after ordering multiple doubles. So, if I'm at all concerned about that, I'll order bottled beer. Or test out the neat whisky. Sometimes it's nice to just go back to basics and have something straight to sip.
Vivian |. March 10, 2016
To be honest: there are so many names in this list that I didn't know. GASP! Yep. Maybe it's time for me to enjoy a cocktail more regularly!
702551 March 10, 2016
There are literally hundreds of cocktails officially recognized the American Bartenders Association. Go to the library and read a book on cocktails. Many of these drinks derive from cocktails invented in the 19th century.
702551 March 10, 2016
If a bartender hesitates when you ask for a Manhattan, get up and leave. You are not at a bar, you are at a circus being run by clowns.

I am not wasting my money ordering drinks at a place like this.

Over the past twenty years, I've run into a handful of places like this and in every single case without exception, they were out of business within six months.