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I’ve got a bone to pick with a lot of good b...

I’ve got a bone to pick with a lot of good bartenders

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Hey bartenders! You know many of you number among my favorite professionals in the world. Ofttimes, I will value some of your opinions above my own. (Well, sometimes….) But there is a current complaint about customers going the rounds among a lot of even the elite among you that you all need to realize is a bad conceit.

I was triggered to write this little rant by an otherwise excellent post at Spirits & Motors by Robby Nelson named I’m a Bartender. He has seven enumerated points that are each funny, true, and ought to be required reading for any number of idiot customers out there. Read the post. It’s good.

But in the final wrap-up, he throws out this:

For your part, trust that I know what I’m doing. When you tell me that you want a drink that’s “not too sweet,” all I hear is that you don’t want me mess up your drink, which makes me think that you think that I’m a hack, which makes me sad. Do you ask the chef to make your food “not too undercooked?” I recommend abolishing that “not too sweet” phrase from your vocabulary.

Um, no. Robby, here’s the thing: I am a very experienced bar customer. I know what I like, and more importantly, how my tastes differ from other people. I probably have one of two very good reasons for asking you to, yes, not mess up my drink.

One, I may have drunk at your establishment in the past. I therefor know how your house recipes are balanced. I may have even ordered this particular selection before. And I judge that your house profile is too sweet for my taste.

Two, I my know that my own taste in drinks runs to the very dry. You may well have had your Cosmopolitan recipe handed down to you by Dale DeGroff himself, inscribed on a stone tablet. But I know I want mine less sweet than that.

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See? Like Dale always says, he didn’t come up with the recipe himself.

I am, in fact, trusting you to either punch up the lime, or use a drier orange liqueur, or whatever you, in your professional opinion, believe will produce a less-sweet drink with the same underlying flavor profile. If you know that you make that drink a lot less sweet already than most, feel free to do your regular thing. Sophisticated palates can and do disagree about the amount of sweet they need to make any given drink perfect. It is frankly insulting to the customer to grump about how you know better than them about their desires. It’s a bit like a server who says the chef recommends the duck be medium rare, then gets all huffy when the customer says he’ll have it medium anyway.

Here’s the point. I am giving you valuable information about me (and my desires) when I say I want my drink “not too sweet”. I am going to be, without doubt, one of two guys. I could be, well, me: a customer who has long experience with cocktails, who understands the market, who is making an educated judgement that your drinks may well run sweeter than he really wants, and who knows that you (like him) could fix a drink with too little sugar, but you’d have to dump one that is too sweet and start over. I could also be the cocktail version of the wine poseur who asks for “any Loire red from the north bank, nice and tannic, maybe with a hint of plums or elderberries.” All I know is that I’ve read on the blogs that most cocktails are designed overly sweet to appeal to inexperienced drinkers, and since I fancy myself to be sophisticated, I signal my elite status by asking for my Lemon Drop to be “not so sweet”.

If I am the Idiot pole of this Boolean gate, you could make that Lemon Drop with 50-50 vodka and lemon juice, or 50-50 sugar and Citron, or just back off the sugar in your regular recipe a bit. As long as you slide it over the bar to me with a conspiratorial smile that will say to them, “Lots of my better customers agree with you about Lemon Drops being too sweet. I think you’ll find this to your liking,” they will guzzle it down and run off to Yelp to bugle about how they’ve finally found a bartender who “gets it”. But if I am the other possibility, and you choose anything other than the last option, I’m going to think you are a hack, or a douchebag, or possibly both.

I singled out Nelson here only because he was unfortunate enough to have me read his post right when I had time to rant about it. I’ve been hearing this increasingly lately and it has got to stop. Let’s not put another row of bricks in the Craft Bartenders Are Rude, Douchey Snobs wall, shall we? Save your (well-hidden) scorn for Tanqueray Martinis with no vermouth, or Piña Coladas, or guys who order friggin’ Grey Goose on a first date while she’s knocking back Knob Creek neat. It’ll be a helluva lot more profitable for everybody. Trust me.


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  1. Dagreb

    11 November

    Makes cents!

    As you usually do!

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  2. Frederic

    11 November

    “Not too sweet” is rather meaningless since the guest’s version of sweet can vary drastically from the bar’s view on what is “balanced.” However, “Sweeter / drier than that last drink” is useful. And for every one of the “can you add more citrus juice” requests I get, I have 20 to add more syrup.

    It also can come across as either the guest is too finicky (like the ones that don’t want a sweet wine, but when you give them a relatively dry one, they’re asking for something sweeter) or that they don’t think your program is up to snuff. This can come across as a bit demeaning without giving the drinks a taste (most guests aren’t that educated and are triggered by words like “syrup” in a calorie conscious way).

    For me, I go with how the bar makes drinks and if I don’t trust their technique (like horrible free pouring) or their palate, I just stick to beer. And when I hear a “not too sweet” request, I make it the way I make it. If I hear a make it sweet, I add an extra 1/4 oz of simple. I have only had a few requests for drinks without sugar at all. The first one I made (a Southside) because they asked right off the bat if I could make it that way. The last one was someone grilling me on how I made my whiskey sour. If I had said Sour Mix, it’d be in the clear. But stating that we used equal parts lemon juice and simple syrup got the reply that it sounded too sweet and could I drop the sugar entirely (perhaps she was a diabetic?). I ended up convincing her that she should get wine (since it didn’t sound like she knew what she was talking about and I did not want to remake the drink to prove a point). Her glass of wine certainly wasn’t devoid of sugar (just not one listed on the ingredients).

      (Quote)  (Reply)

    • Doug

      12 November

      Frederic,

      See, I gotta say, your reply is kinda representative of the problem here!

      Let’s see: “Our clientele with expressed preferences want their drinks sweeter by 20 to 1.”
      This tells me that market forces either will or already have driven your drinks toward the sweeter end of the spectrum. This is as is should be. Fine. But know that these facts are known to me also, and have given me a rational expectation that your regular mix may not be to my taste.

      Then: “I’ll happily add a touch of sweetness to the drink of a customer who asks for it sweeter, but a customer who asks for the recipe to be a touch drier can pound sand.”
      I know that’s not your exact words, but the point of my post, Fred, is that that is how many of you and your colleagues are coming across with this!

      I’m terribly sorry you are butt-hurt insulted that I, as an unknown customer, ask for a drier drink. But what pisses me off even more, and demonstrates the problem, is that you are not insulted by someone who wants it sweeter. Since you, and every bartender who has this particular problem, take great pride in your work, I infer from this that you believe a well-crafted cocktail should be on the drier side. This should mean that we are on the same page. Be glad for the useful information and do your job.

      Then: “I have no problem with a customer who asks for another round, ‘but make this one a little less sweet.'”
      Oh, so if I let you know that my preferences run drier than usual when we first meet, I’m insulting you, but if I just had one of your drinks and tell you what could be construed as “that sweet-ass drink might have been ok if you hadn’t ruined it with all that sugar. Let me tell you how to fix it,” you have no problem?

      In all seriousness, I would never mean it that way. You know that. But if a bartender is going to take offense in one circumstance or the other, the second is at least in the same zipcode with rationality. Look, God’s customer recipe has way too high a ratio of idiots to knowledgeable people. (Maybe if bartenders were the praying type, he’d adjust his recipe, but I doubt it. He has a well-documented sense of humor.) Putting up with this recipe is the cross bartenders bear.

      In the mean time, when I ask for a Whiskey Sour on the drier side, please extend me the courtesy you would to someone who asked for it a bit sweeter. Make it with 1 to 3/4 lemon to simple instead of 1 to 1 and move on without holding a grudge in public forums.

        (Quote)  (Reply)

      • Frederic

        12 November

        I didn’t read your reply yet, but could you make it not so amateurish? Don’t worry, I tell this to every blogger, so don’t get so butthurt over it.

        Oh, I just got around to reading it. Asking for something “dry” or “sweet” are things I can work with especially with a classic like a Sour. Asking me if it’s not too sweet (especially with a list item) is a tricky question. I don’t know what degree of sweet that it becomes too sweet for their palate. When I hear this with wine, I’ll taste them on a few, and the first that you offer them will be way too dry and they actually take the sweetest wine by the glass that you offer. Which isn’t that sweet. Our list items aren’t sweet, but I can’t convince them of that.

        In the former, it is instructive. In the latter, it comes across like you don’t trust the bartender. Asking “how sweet or dry is that drink?” is a great question. Asking for a drink sweet or dry is a great request. Asking for something not too sweet means you want it sweet, not dry, but not too sweet. Or maybe it means you want it dry. Or maybe it means that you want it very sweet by my standards but you’re in denial that you have a sweet tooth. Or just a splash of simple syrup over the way I make it, or a splash of simple syrup under the way I make it. Wait a minute, you don’t even know how I make it yet!

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        • Doug

          12 November

          Frederic,

          Not disagreeing with you on most of what you say. But you really are missing the point of the post. I am not saying… [Massive number of points redacted because this is not the point]

          What I am saying is that there is no excuse for this singling out of a request for less sweet drinks (among the myriad preparation requests bartenders receive continuously) as some kind of especially heinous war crime by customers.

          It. Is. Not.

            (Quote)  (Reply)

  3. Fthisbs

    12 November

    You have no “elite status” when you order a lemon drop.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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