We did posts in the past that mainly deal with what is behind the bar – but, today we’re looking at the bar from the guest’s perspective!

A few months ago, I went to a new restaurant I’d never been to before. As an occupational hazard, I scanned the bar to decide whether I wanted to order a beer or a cocktail. The moment I saw the bar I knew the beer was no longer an option – I could immediately tell they really knew their cocktails!

When do You Order a Cocktail vs. When do You Order a Beer?

As cocktail designers, bartenders and mixologists, we’ve invested a lot in educating ourselves and understanding our craft. A new customer to our bar may not know that. Here are some ways you can give guests visual indicators that your bar has a great cocktail program.

Visual Indicators of a Great Cocktail Program:

Check out our “Tools of the Trade” page for some of my favorite bar tools!

  • If I see any kind of mixing glass, that’s good information.  It tells me they stir their cocktails & cared enough to buy a mixing glass instead of just using a pint glass.
  • Julep strainers and good bar spoons (preferably without the red knob on top) are another good indicator. A bar can cut corners by not having these, so seeing them behind the bar shows they care.
  • Atomizers, spritzers and eyedroppers are another good sign. The dominant flavor of a cocktail won’t be changed by using an atomizer – these tools are used for really refining a cocktail experience.
  • Finally and maybe most importantly, I look at their glassware. I’m not looking for expensive stuff, I’m just looking to see if they have put thought into their selection. If all they have are the run-of-the-mill basics from the bottom shelf at the restaurant supply store, that shows that cocktails aren’t a top priority for them.

Liquor Selection:

  • Here’s a dead easy one. If you see a barrel, order a cocktail. Period.
  • Another great sign to look for are homemade products on display, like bitters, tinctures and syrups. I’m not picky about them being in fancy dispensers, just having them shows effort.
  • If I see vermouth on the back bar – I’m ordering a beer. Vermouth should always be refrigerated. The one exception is if I happen to know it’s a crazy high volume bar. But if there’s dust on it, no way.
  • Last but not least, I look for craft and cutting edge products behind the bar. Again, not necessarily expensive stuff, but things that are outside the standard spirits that you’ll find in any hotel bar. In San Francisco right now, I find mezcal is a good hint that a bar is paying attention to leading edge bar trends.

What do you look for in a cocktail bar? Are there any tips I missed?

Chris Tunstall

Co-Founder of A Bar Above and career bartender and mixologist. I love experimenting, creating cocktails, and drinking Green Chartreuse.