Insider asked drink experts about the best and worst cocktails to order at a bar.
Classics like old fashioneds and Negronis are hit staples and easy to make.
House margaritas and daiquiris are often too sugary and syrupy to actually enjoy the alcohol.
If you’re looking to enjoy a great-tasting cocktail, there are classics and new concoctions that are sure to please, and others that may disappoint.
Insider spoke with drink experts to find out what cocktails are best to order from restaurants and bars, and which ones you should skip.
Easy to make and delicious, old fashioneds are classic cocktails
Alisha Kaplan, bar manager at Wolf’s Ridge Brewing, told Insider that a classic old fashioned — typically made with sugar, bourbon, and bitters — gets you the most for your money.
“If you’re looking for a boozy, spirit-forward cocktail, go with an old fashioned,” Kaplan said. “It’s a simple, three-ingredient, bang-for-your-buck cocktail that can be easily altered according to your taste.”
Kaplan suggested asking the bartender for whiskey recommendations or mixing things up with an Oaxaca old-fashioned, which uses tequila and mezcal instead.
Order a Negroni if you’re looking for consistent quality
According to Corey Phillips, beverage director at Nina and Rafi, Negronis are likely familiar to any bartender you sit in front of.
“In my opinion, a Negroni is a great way to get a consistent, delicious, and sophisticated cocktail,” Phillips said. “… All of these ingredients can be found behind almost any bar in the world and are well-known amongst bartenders.”
Phillips said the cocktail is easy to throw together since it’s made by combining equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari.
If you like sweet drinks, a Mai Tai is a classic choice
Kaplan told Insider that Mai Tais are great options for people who like their drinks sweet, yet strong.
“This Tiki classic is not only delicious but sneaky with its booze,” Kaplan said. “It may not taste strong, but you’re definitely getting your money’s worth.”
The bar manager added that the orgeat syrup — a sweet addition made with almonds, sugar, and orange-flower water — gives the drink a complex and rich flavor that “will make you feel like you’re vacationing on a beach.”
Old Cubans are an underrated drink that nearly every bar can make
Shawn Soole, cocktail-book author and owner of Soole Hospitality Concepts, recommended Audrey Saunders’s old Cuban if you’re looking to steer away from the classics but still want a quality drink.
“A mix of rum, lime, mint, and sparkling wine served up, it’s a hybrid daiquiri-mojito-royale cocktail that most bars should have all the ingredients for and is always a crowd-pleaser,” Soole told Insider.
Soole added that old Cubans are especially fitting for the summer.
Most restaurants have unique mojitos
Chef Omar Torres, food and beverage director at Bonsai at Hilton Pensacola Beach, said you’re guaranteed a hit when you order citrus-based cocktails, like mojitos.
“Mojitos are versatile, elegant, pleasant to the palate, and most bars will have a different version of it,” Torres said. “… They are fun, and you can always put a spin on those classics, making it unique.”
Although you can order a specialty mojito to switch things up, Torres said that options like Moscow mules and French 75s offer similar flavor profiles.
You can’t go wrong with a Tommy’s margarita made with quality tequila
Kim Haasarud, professional bartender and beverage consultant, told Insider that simple margaritas with fresh ingredients can’t be beaten.
“A Tommy’s Margarita is a full 2 ounces of tequila, fresh lime juice, and agave nectar,” Haasarud said. “Call out a good tequila when you order it. It’s simple but delicious.”
If you’re unsure what a good tequila might be, ask your bartender for recommendations.
Order a martini to truly taste the quality of the ingredients
Jim Montes, a bartender and cocktail program designer at Top of the Market, believes that simplicity is best when it comes to great cocktails.
“I recommend taking a ‘whole food’ approach if you’re looking to get more bang for your buck,” Montes said. “The more straightforward your drink is — less processed, fewer added mixers — the better the results.”
Zack Musick, head sommelier at Merriman’s Hawaii, echoed this sentiment and told Insider that patrons should try to order simple cocktails made with liquor that the bar or restaurant specializes in.
“Order simple cocktails that will showcase what the bar does best,” Musick said.
When in doubt, order a drink from the bar or restaurant’s specialty cocktail menu
Haasarud told Insider that the trick to getting a high-quality spirit at a lower price is to order a drink from the bar’s featured cocktail menu.
“The bar may have worked out a special deal with the distributor or supplier, so you may be getting some liquor that is much more expensive at a lower cost,” Haasarud said.
Haasarud added that they’re likely made more often and that bartenders “have to put in a lot of effort into prepping those items and it is something they are proud of.”
On the other hand, Long Islands will cost you more for less
Kaplan called Long Islands “the amalgamation of everything terrible in a cocktail.”
“Not only are they pricey, but are often inconsistent and of poor quality,” Kaplan said. “Yes, they will get you drunk, but a long list of bottom-shelf liquors, pre-bottled sour mix, and Cola from a gun will guarantee you the worst hangover of your life.”
Soole added that although the drink is easy to order, it’s rarely made well.
“It’s complicated, befuddled, and not really trying to achieve anything as a drink except to get the drinker drunk, which while that is the whole point of drinking, the journey is more important than the destination,” Soole told Insider.
Amaretto and whiskey sours can pose a health risk if made incorrectly
Austin Carson, founder and co-owner of Restaurant Olivia, told Insider that he doesn’t recommend any drink made with egg whites, like classic amarettos or whiskey sours, due to the potential risks of consuming the raw ingredient.
“I’ll generally stay away from egg-white drinks,” Carson said. “Doing so implies a sanitary wherewithal that I have to trust as well as proper execution.”
Many bars and restaurants now make these drinks without egg whites or will accommodate special requests.
Miami Vices are often filled with less wholesome ingredients
Torres said that although he understands the appeal of a Miami Vice, he doesn’t think it’s a great option for those who want a quality cocktail experience.
“Enjoying a cocktail at a bar or restaurant should be fun, fresh, pleasant to the palate, and good for you,” Torres said. “Unfortunately, there are many bars out there that use syrups and many other chemicals to make their cocktails.”
Torres recommended avoiding drinks based on syrups and concentrated juices since they take away from the quality of the liquor.
Manhattans shouldn’t be ordered at bars that don’t sell a lot of cocktails
Kaplan recommended steering clear of vermouth cocktails like Manhattans in order to save yourself from drinking spoiled alcohol.
“This three-ingredient cocktail includes vermouth, which can and does go bad,” Kaplan said. “If you see an old dusty bottle of vermouth on the back bar, run for the hills.”
The bar manager added that this drink is especially risky to order at bars or restaurants that are not cocktail-focused.
House margaritas are usually made with low-quality ingredients
Haasarud recommended avoiding house margaritas to skip the potential hangover from sickly sweet mixers and bottom-shelf tequila.
“Not all house margaritas are made with fresh lime juice,” Haasarud said. “Rather it’s usually the cheapest version of a margarita made with a sour mix out of the gun and with a cheap tequila.”
Haasarud added that patrons should avoid any drink that contains mixers “out of the gun,” since they are usually preservative-laden and customers don’t know how often the bar cleans the machinery.
Don’t order an Adonis unless the bar specializes in cocktails
Carson told Insider that similarly to a Manhattan, an Adonis is made with ingredients that can be spoiled easily, making it a bad choice at dive bars and restaurants that aren’t known for their cocktails.
“I’d stay away from cocktails built upon ingredients that oxidize quickly like sherry and vermouth,” Carson said. “It’s sort of a ‘don’t order seafood at a restaurant that doesn’t sell a lot of seafood’ bit of advice.”
The alcohol in daiquiris and piña coladas is not the focus of the drink
Montes told Insider that you should skip popular poolside blends, like strawberry daiquiris and piña coladas, if you want to truly enjoy the alcohol in your drink and get the most for your money.
“As perfect as they are by the pool and as beautiful as they look in photos, I would overlook having a blended drink. To put it simply, they are diluted,” Montes said. “… You may be buzzing on a sugary mixer more than alcohol.”
The bartender recommended ordering the martini version of the drink instead for a similarly sweet and tropical option.
Don’t order a specialty cocktail that belongs to another bar or a drink that you made up
Musick told Insider that if you want to have a great drink and a friendly exchange with your bartender, don’t order mystery cocktails, such as signature drinks from other establishments.
“It’s not a good idea to order a specialty cocktail from a menu at another restaurant,” Musick said. “It will only frustrate you and the bartender.”
Musick added that you shouldn’t order a cocktail you made up unless it’s simple since most bartenders don’t have the time to write down the proper ingredients and amounts.
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