I'll admit that I've become a cocktail snob. As I've been learning at home about bartending I've put my usual geek focus into it. When I go out it's hard to not be all "born again" on people. I've gotten to the point where I recognize that people should drink what they like, not what books or people tell you they should like. That said, I still have a lot of judgment in me for the bars who are serving the drinks. I used to get my nose out of joint from badly mixed cocktails, but I've come to understand that I just need to assess a bar for its capabilities and order accordingly. Here are a few things that I look for in a bar, and how that effects what I'll order so that I have a satisfying experience.
Before I get into my guidelines, I'll start with one rule, which is I don't order an Old Fashioned at a bar I don't know anymore. After witnessing endless horrors committed to this most perfect of drinks, this simple rule just keeps me happier. I need to know that they have correctly made an Old Fashioned before, or I need to have spent enough time with the bartender(s) that I trust them to do it right.
1. Measuring the Pour
While free-pouring liquor is very common, and a lot of people think it is "so cool," it's actually a horrible bar practice. If you measure the liquor with an actual measuring implement every time, then you get much better consistency. The point of a good cocktail is balance. Unless you measure you can't know you'll hit the correct balance every time. If someone free-pours I'm going to stick with beer or neat liquor. If I'm feeling plucky I'll order something like a Manhattan, Rob Roy, or a Black Russian, and hope they get it close enough.
2. Real Citrus Juice
Sour mix is the bane of a good drink. Margaritas should use limes, Sidecars should use lemons. They should not use the same, generic sour mix. Fresh juice tastes sooo much better. I've compared it at home just to see, and it is a night and day difference in the drink. Also the little bottles of lemon and lime juice you can buy in the grocery store do not come even close to fresh juice. You may not be able to tell this at all bars, because often they will squeeze a bunch before the shift and put it in faster containers to use behind the bar. A little close observation though can often tell you. Sour mix is often stored in big full-bottle-sized plastic containers, while I've most often seen fresh-squeezed in smaller containers. You can also just ask. If they don't use fresh juice, I won't order anything that requires it. That makes me sad because I love the whole sour family, many classics that use juice, and a fair number of tiki drinks. Oh well.
3. Tasting the Drink Before Serving
Someone who really cares about what they are serving will test the drink first. They take a clean straw, dip it in to get a small amount, and taste it. If the balance isn't right, they can modify it, or start over. This is especially true for me with drinks that have citrus in them, since different fruit can have different sour/sweet balance to them each day. It's a habit of someone who cares. It ups my confidence and I'll order most any drink in the bar from them (assuming the previous two things are checked off).
Bonus: Water with Your Drink
This is just classy, and also caring for the customer. You should get a glass of water with your drink. In a good bar that cares about what they serve and the people drinking, they want to keep you hydrated and enjoying their drinks, not spewing and passing out on the floor in their hopefully clean bathroom.
So these are the main things I look for these days. I'll watch them make drinks for a few other people first, or start with something simple, like a Manhattan, to see how they make it. Once I've got the pulse of things, I can have an enjoyable evening with my expectations in the right place. What do you look for?