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Wonder what your drink will tell the bartender? Here’s a list

Whether you order a negroni or an Old Fashioned, the cocktail declares something about you.

Updated: Nov 04, 2018, 10.55 AM IST
One of the ways you can get the best out of a bar on a busy evening is by befriending the bartender.
This festive season, even as you order a millennial ginto (gin and tonic) or a whisky sour, or the longest Long Island Iced Tea, the drink might be saying something about you. You could, of course, enjoy your drink without quite worrying about the message of the margarita or the murmuring of the mimosa. Bartenders, though, do tend to peg customers based on their choice of drinks. It’s not that they are necessarily judgmental. It is part of their training to gauge customer expectations, and long hours spent observing humankind at its most unguarded possibly allows them to make these assessments. In fact, many of them claim they can look at you and predict the kind of drink you like.

“As young bartenders, two of my colleagues and I would always be asked by our manager at Ricks at the Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi, to predict the drink a customer walking in would order. The server would take the order and we would eagerly wait to see if we were right in our assessment,” says Nitin Tiwari, one of the top mixologists in the country, who uses a similar technique during his workshops to train bar teams. He shows them pictures of various types of people and asks them to suggest what kinds of drinks they are likely to order. “This is part of learning how to anticipate customer expectations and bettering the experience,” he says.

This kind of customer profiling is often the basis of high-end, bespoke experiences being created by bars in Taiwan, Singapore and Japan, where there are no menus and no prices on display. Customers walk into small intimate bars — just 18-20 — and engage in a conversation with bartender, which could begin with the and go on to the kind of work the person does besides taste preferences. A drink is finally created on the basis of the bartender’s impression of you.

“In India, we don’t have a culture of people sitting at the bar talking to the bartender. The interaction of customers is mostly with the service staff,” says Vaibhav Singh, coowner, Perch, who has managed some of the best known bars in the country for two decades. “However, modern bars are changing this and are being designed to improve interaction, which always helps in upping a guest’s experience. An experienced bartender who knows the city’s subcultures is able to guess the kind of drink you prefer from the way you dress and speak,” he says.

One of the ways you can get the best out of a bar on a busy evening is by befriending the bartender. “Befriending does not mean calling bartenders by their name every few minutes for a top-up or a refill,” says mixologist Pankaj Balachandran. “That breaks our chain of thought when we are planning how to make 10 drinks in the shortest possible time.” Instead, asking for an unusual drink or the way you place your order will make bartenders notice you and tell them you know your spirits. It will earn you respect, a quick pour, even a free drink or a taste of some elusive acquisition that a passionate bartender is proud of and wants to show off.

Here’s a list, gleaned from conversations with some of the top mixologists in the country:

The iconic Italian cocktail has become fairly fashionable in India. Typically, one part gin, one part vermouth rosso and one part campari, it is a simple cocktail to assemble but has a complex flavour profile with herbaceous, sweet and bitter notes that only sophisticated drinkers appreciate. “Negroni tells a bartender that you are a serious drinker with an evolved palate — and grabs his attention,” says Balachandran. Aged negroni, where the cocktail is left to rest in barrels, is a big trend internationally, and some top Indian bars are doing it. “If a customer asks us about barrel ageing and what kind of wood is being used, we immediately realise she is a fellow nerd or a professional,” points out Tiwari.

Vodka Soda/Old Fashioned
Vodka soda used to feature in American pop culture in the late 1990s and early 2000s almost as much as the colourful and “high maintenance” Cosmopolitan. But unlike the Sex and the City cocktail, vodka sodas were thought of as boring. In India, however, it has a different connotation. “Men and women who order vodka soda are usually in their mid-30s or early 40s, are affluent, like expensive things and are likely to spend money,” says Vaibhav Singh. “They possibly studied in the US in the early 2000s and were among the first of their lot to get the benefits of foreign exposure and travel. They haven’t moved on from that time though,” adds Singh, tongue-in-cheek. That may be slowly changing. Old Fashioned — muddling sugar with whisky and bitters — is the new vodka soda. As non-serious, nonaged whisky makes a splash at bars, Old Fashioned is trending with these sophisticates.

Gin and Tonic
The most fashionable drink of the moment, “ginto” in millennial speak, suggests that you are keeping with the trends. “Those who order ginto now are the catch-a-trend people, who wear the latest Adidas shoes and talk about the newest artisanal gin,” says Singh. The kind of gin and tonic you order speaks volumes about you. “Affluent consumers who are more mature and less flashy - typically the Good Earth people, as I call them — are usually particular about their Hendricks with cucumber and a splash of tonic,” Singh adds. India does not have too many options when it comes to quality tonic water but if a customer asks “which tonic and is particular about it, a bartender is immediately going to pay more attention,” Tiwari points out. However, as Balachandran says, he often gets requests for “a pretty ginto with flowers,served in a wine glass”. This immediately makes him categorise the consumer as a wannabe Insta influencer. “Those flowers and fruit are there for a reason (to enhance the botanicals of a gin) and not just to be pretty!” he fumes.

Long Island Iced Tea
Before you order the longest or the strongest LIIT, know that it drink most bartenders think lowly of. “It signifies that the person has not been exposed to cocktail culture, does not appreciate fine flavours, and has not travelled much,” says Balachandran. No bartender likes to fix this drink, says Tiwari, call it the bachi khuchi drink — assembled from leftovers (referring to the various spirits that go into it) — and requires very little art or skill to make,” he adds. In fact, it tells bartenders that you are just looking to get drunk that evening. “We often tell the service staff to keep eye on that customer lest there be trouble,” Tiwari adds.

Dry Martini
Martini cannotes to a bartender you have money and an evolved taste but that you may be a bit of snob as well. "When people ask for very dry martini, we always know they are going to complain about it not being dry enough!" says Singh.

Surprise Me
Bartenders are generally exasperated with customers who sidle up to the bar and tell them, “Surprise me.” “I always feel like telling the person, go look at the menu,” says Balachandran, “considering so much effort has gone into designing it and it showcases the bar’s best.” Often, when such orders come, bartenders just pour out a regular cocktail from a shadow list that most of them have, which is classics that have not been put on the menu but which every bartender knows very well. They put this in a pretty glass, top it with champagne, and serve it to you as a special, Balachandran says. “Even if I gave you a drink from the menu, you wouldn’t know it,” he adds.

They may keep the bar in business and require the least amount of work but don’t assume that throwing money on a round of Jagermeister or tequila is going to win you brownie points. “Shots are when someone is making a show to friends. But these are boring unless they have ordered something very unusual. There is so much more that tequila can do,” says Balachandran. “When people get to shots, we think the party is over. It is time to wind up the bar,” chuckles Tiwari.

The Way You Order Your Whisky
“In our bar parlance, some people are dubbed the ‘2 ice, ½ soda, ½ water consumer’,” says Tiwari, referring to the way a lot of north Indian men like their whisky. “When that order comes, we quietly make the drink and hand it out. There is no point engaging with this customer: you can’t educate him or upsell anything to him. He is a creature of habit,” says Tiwari. Singh says the older lot of drinkers who says, “Glen pila de (Give me Glenfiddich, usually an 18-year-old)”, tends to splurge but goes out only once in a while. While more evolved, affluent, older consumers asked for rare Japanese whiskies till two-three years ago, “many of them are now collecting small-batch gins,” Singh says. These customers follow trends rather than their palate. A woman ordering a single malt at the bar, bartenders say, always gets the right attention. Though gender stereotypes around the drink have always labelled it as an older man’s poison, women are increasingly taking to sophisticated single malts and trendy bourbons, and bartenders look at them as discerning drinkers.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of
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