You have a lot to give. You can muddle, shake, stir, strain, infuse and improvise. You can pour classics and one-of-a-kinds, but not if no one orders them.

Maybe you’re at a humble dive where every drink ordered has an “and” in it, and I don’t mean Smith and Wesson or Dark and Stormy. If you have to pour another rum and coke or shot and a beer, you’re going to hide in the dishwasher.

How can you get your patrons to let you create something special?

You need to get the craft cocktail snowball rolling. Once people see interesting drinks on tables and trays, they’ll start asking: “What’s that?” They’ll get curious. Then they’ll get adventurous.

Then they’ll let you be you.

So how do you get the ball rolling?

1. Pounce on the “Pause”

When you ask guests what they want to drink and they hesitate, be ready to step in. Ask leading questions.

“What kind of spirits are you into?”

“What’s your favorite fruit?”

“Are you looking for something up or on the rocks?”

“Are you more into sweet or sour?”

“Have you ever had a (your favorite cocktail)?”

This is your chance to take them a little out of their comfort zone. Absolutely do not say: “Well, let me know when you decide.” Help them decide.

If you hesitate when they hesitate, they’ll probably order the same old vodka and cran.

2. Be Ready to Comp

You’re taking some risks here. If they don’t dig what you’re shovelling, swiftly take it off the bill. No one pays for a drink they don’t like, especially if it was your idea.

Do you tell your manager you’re going to pour some experimental stuff that may not get paid for? That depends on how willing they are to help you expand.

You might want to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

But don’t fear. You’ll make a lot of people pleasantly surprised and glad to pay for something unique.

3. Shots

You have a great opportunity to be creative when someone wants a round of shots. Take what they want and offer to put a little spin on it for no extra charge.

If they want tequila, muddle a little lime and add a liqueur to make a margarita variant.

If they want vodka, offer a flavor. Smash some fruit and add a splash of something fizzy.

Make sure it’s colorful. A tray of something bright and fun will produce that “Wudzat?” factor you’re looking for.

And if they don’t like your shot, it will be down the hatch and forgotten shortly.

4. Get a Mint Plant

Fresh herbs are great when they’re great. But a few days later they look like hell. You throw them away and your manager doesn’t want to waste money on the foo-foo crap anymore.

But get a mint plant and the product is always waiting at peak freshness. No waste if you don’t use it.

However, you’ll certainly use it once you stick a plant on top of the beer cooler. People will ask about it and you’ll be ready to respond. And it’s an easy plant to grow indoors.

Can you get a whiskey drinker to enjoy a Mint Julep? Damn right.

Can you convert a rum and coke drinker to Mojitos? Simón.

Mint goes nice with gin, hot tea drinks and many more. And it smells great. People will notice.

5. Create with Regulars

This is chemistry. This is an experimental experience. Build memories and recipes at the same time.

When crafting something custom for someone, start simple. Put two things together, have them taste then ask: “What does this need?” Perhaps something sweet or tart. Perhaps something to cut the bite of the liquor. Maybe more punch.

Step by step, you’ll find the perfect balance and make fans.

Don’t give a menu to your customers. Build one with them. When you make something special a guest likes, name it after them. Write the recipe down. It will become their new go-to drink. And they can only get it from you.

Compile a half dozen of these and you have a seasonal menu. How cool is it to show up at a bar and a drink you helped create is on the fresh sheet? That’s a “Norm!” moment they’ll always remember.

6. Wing It

I often joke that I only make one drink but it’s different every time. I call it the “Wing It” and I vary it infinitely depending on the consumer.

I believe everything is a Lemon Drop. Vodka, muddled lemon and sugar. Simple and eternally variable.

Determine their tastes then twist any element from this recipe to make something new.

  • Flavored vodka with complementing fruit
  • Another spirit instead of vodka
  • A sweet liqueur or house-made syrup instead of sugar
  • On the rocks or as a shot instead of up
  • Tall with a fizzy mixer for less strength

Whiskey, peach schnapps, muddled orange and OJ is a favorite of mine. Yeah, it’s still basically a Lemon Drop.

With this formula I can easily build something for any palate, sweet tooth and tolerance. And yes, feel free to steal it.

7. Be Grateful

Too many bartenders roll their eyes at picking up the muddler or making anything more complex than a Screwdriver. This has made people bashful to order anything creative.

They’ll add a timid “if you don’t mind” to any requests for creativity.

Assure them that you are ecstatic to be asked to express yourself. Making a craft cocktail is much more enjoyable than another whiskey and seven on the conveyor belt.

Be sure to thank them for giving you the opportunity so they’ll do it again and again, tomorrow and next week.

8. Be Patient

Your bar won’t go from dive to cutting edge cocktail lab overnight. It will probably only change a little. Many patrons will never change and that’s okay.

You need them all: the blue collar liquor-and-mixer drinkers and the open-minded craft consumers. All of their money is green. A great bar is a stew pot of many different people.

Never make anyone feel like their drink is inferior because it’s not fancy. You can easily become that cocktail jerk who is too good to poor basic drinks.

Little by little, what you pour will change. Regulars will ask for “that grapefruit thing you made me last time.” New customers will drop in once, try something new and bring some friends next week. Even patrons who are locked into their usual will recognize you can pour anything.

You can change expectations. You were hired at a place known for a relaxed atmosphere, cold beer and stiff shots. With some patience, initiative and creativity you might just morph it into a spot also known for personalized cocktails with soul.

Keep what’s good, but add a new twist.

Good luck craftifying your dive.

Eighty Six

Eighty Six, also known as David Klenda, has worked the front of the house since George Bush's dad was president and OJ was famous for being a football player. He's been writing poetry and fiction longer than that. He'll write freelance about anything for a buck, but is so glad to be writing about something he knows and loves. Currently he is making a Spokane neighborhood dive a little more crafty.