I’m a bartender, and here are 11 signs your drink was made improperly

Emma Witman is a bartender from Asheville, North Carolina.

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Emma Witman is a bartender from Asheville, North Carolina.
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Emma Witman

  • Bartenders need to balance numerous tasks at the same time, and sometimes they make mistakes.
  • You can often tell your order was made improperly from the color, taste, or presentation of a cocktail or beer.
  • Emma Witman, a bartender in Asheville, North Carolina, explains 11 telltale signs that your drink was made improperly.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

One thing I quickly learned as a bartender: You’re doing a lot more than just making drinks on the job.

We’re trying to start tabs, close tabs, greet new faces, grab orders, think up a cocktail for a special request, answer questions, stay hydrated, find the barback, and monitor heavy drinkers – all while crafting multiple drinks at a time.

And the standard for every drink we send out is sky-high: We want to deliver you a perfectly constructed drink, in the perfect vessel, at the perfect temperature, and with the perfect timing, within seconds of one another when a multiple-drink order is in play.

We always try our best, but within the harsh standards of the craft-cocktail world and a long and ever-growing list of rules to bartend by, we at times fall short. Particularly as a baby bartender, I was prone to forgetting a crucial ingredient, shaking a cocktail that was meant to be stirred, or watering down a martini with way too long a stir.

With that in mind, be kind if you spot any of these trademark blunders we’re prone to make when we’re preparing your drink. Here are 11 telltale signs you’ve been served an improperly made drink.


Something’s wrong if your gimlet, cosmo, or other shaken cocktail isn’t ice cold.

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Brent Hofacker

Unless the cocktail you ordered is served on the rocks, any shaken cocktail should come out of the bartender’s tins ice cold.

I’ll explain why in more detail later, but as for making a citrusy cocktail, they’re shaken. Always.

This is an easy rule for bartenders to embrace, as shaking is a far quicker chilling process than stirring – roughly half the time. And in this profession, every second counts.

So if your gimlet, cosmo, or other shaken cocktail served in a dainty coupe isn’t as cold as if it were coming straight out of a freezer that’s -5-degrees Celsius, the bartender’s shake was either too weak, too short, or both.


On the other hand, your martini or Manhattan definitely should not be ice cold.

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In the bartending world, there’s a corollary to “shaking until ice cold.” A stirred drink served “up” is not served as cold as possible. For that reason, expertise in the science of the stir is a must for every bartender.

When you’re shaking a cocktail, you can gauge when you’re done by the way the ice sounds in the tin. It’s never going to take a very long time – less than 15 seconds – to accomplish.

But when we stir a cocktail served up, like a martini or a Manhattan, we want to serve your beverage almost as cold as possible. Why? Unlike shaking, a stirred cocktail’s trademark aromatic qualities and booze-forward appeal plummet when swirled to peak coldness.

So as we stir for 30 seconds to a minute and a half – depending on how fast our fingers are – we might take a little taste of the drink with a straw once, or even multiple times.

No, it’s not to get a buzz going, but to test the temperature and dilution so we can stop stirring exactly when it’s perfect, not a second before or after.


“Shaken or stirred?” is a question you should never hear back when you order a martini.

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Marco Secchi/Getty Images

“Gin or vodka?”

“Olive or lemon twist?”

“Vermouth or no vermouth?”

These are all acceptable questions when you’ve ordered a martini.

“Shaken or stirred?” is not one of them. Not even if your name is James Bond.

So if your martini gets shaken without a specific request, that’s a huge no.

Why does it matter?

For starters, as previously mentioned, shaking a martini or a Manhattan will often simply mean overdilution, since the violent shaking process means reaching peak coldness quickly.

Furthermore, like in the world of cuisine, texture can be as important to a drink experience as taste. A stirred drink has a deliciously silky texture on your lips that an aerated, shaken drink lacks.


However, if you’re ordering a dirty martini, feel free to specify shaken or stirred.

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John Patriquin/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

But what about dirty martinis? Those are mostly booze. No citrus, no sweetener – just gin or vodka, dry vermouth, and olive brine.

Frankly, as bartenders, we can’t come to a consensus about whether to shake or stir a dirty martini.

Because to be clear, stirring a drink that’s meant to be shaken is just as big a no-no as the reverse.

You know how when you buy a smoothie in the grocery store, the label often says to shake first? That’s because separation is natural for juices. If those types of drinks were stirred and not shaken, the ingredients might remain stubbornly separate.

So while shaking a martini of any variety feels sacrilegious, it makes sense in this case. Olive brine is a sort of juice, after all.

As such, feel free to apply your new cocktail knowledge to this conundrum. Go for stirred if you want your dirty martini warmer, less diluted, and with possibly not-entirely-incorporated olive brine. Ask for it shaken if you want a colder, mellower cocktail with an aerated texture and thoroughly mixed-in olive juice.


Your beer lacks a foamy head.

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Horacio Villalobos/Corbis via Getty Images

I had to consult my more beer-minded colleagues for this one, since, despite living in the US city with the second-most breweries per capita, I apparently still suck at impeccable beer pouring and glassware pairing.

For most German- and Belgian-style beers, there should be about two to three inches of foamy head. Extra points for appropriate glassware, when available.

Any other beer pour should have half an inch of foamy head. So the idea that a perfect beer pour is completely clear of foam is pure myth.

In my experience, customers sometimes scoff at that much foam in their beer, and some view it as a petty way for bars to save on their beer budget.

But that’s not true. The foam actually acts as an aromatic track, making your sensory introduction to the sips of beer to follow more vivid.

Even if you don’t care a whiff about a sensory experience, you should still desire a foamy head on your beer – because if the CO2 isn’t released in the glass, it will be far less pleasant in your stomach.


If your glass of wine tastes off, there’s a chance the bottle was corked.

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David Paul Morris/Getty Images

Corked wine is essentially wine that has gone bad because of a chemical interaction that happened between the outside world and the cork.

One joy of training in the food-service industry is tasting your bar’s corked wine on purpose so you know what to look out for.

People often have their own reference for the specific smell evoked (“my great aunt’s attic in the summer,” for example), but it might resemble something like wet cardboard or newspaper.

The hope, of course, is to stop bad wine from ever reaching your taste buds. But during a busy shift, we occasionally miss these bad glasses before they’re placed in front of you.


The color of your cocktail can be a dead giveaway that it was poorly made.

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bogdanhoda/Shutterstock

The cosmopolitan, the cocktail made famous by “Sex and the City,” is distinctly pink. Always. So if a light-yellow cocktail with a sugar rim pops out after you ordered a cosmo, the bartender probably just flubbed what the order was in their mind.

If, on the other hand, you order a cosmo and it arrives in a barely-there hue of light pink, your bartender has a seriously wrong idea of what the ratio of cranberry to vodka to lime to orange liqueur is in a cosmo.


You ordered a drink with the word “Collins” in it and it arrives in a short glass.

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Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Here Media

The cocktail gods are sometimes merciful when it comes to naming drinks.

For example, a Tom Collins comes in a Collins glass, whose height and length keep the carbonation fizzier. Easy! And yet we still occasionally fail to pair a cocktail with its proper glassware, even when it’s in the name.

For instance, I didn’t realize for a long time that highball cocktails were meant to come in tall glasses. This seems rather obvious in retrospect.

Another common drink you see put in the wrong vessel are Sazeracs, which are famously served without ice but in an ice-friendly “rocks” tumbler.

I suspect this is one of the reasons that, in my experience, men love to order Sazeracs far more than other iceless cocktails, which are usually served in stemmed glassware: for fear of judgment.


Your extra-dry martini tastes suspiciously light and funky, rather than like three ounces of chilled gin or vodka.

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Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

The traditional martini usually has somewhere between half an ounce to one ounce of dry vermouth.

An extra-dry martini, on the other hand, is essentially three ounces of chilled gin or vodka served in a fanciful glass with a lemon twist or olive. A dry martini might have a small amount of vermouth – say, a quarter of an ounce, or even less, like a simple vermouth “rinse” that’s swirled around the inside of the glass.

Unfortunately, this terminology can be confusing. I’ve met more than one bartender who at one point thought that a dry or extra-dry martini meant adding extra-dry vermouth to the drink: What they thought of as a dry martini was the exact opposite of what a dry martini is.

Be wary of this misconception when ordering a martini extra dry, or simply ask for “no vermouth” to avoid it.


You ordered a Ramos gin fizz and it took less than seven minutes to make.

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Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post via Getty Image

This eight-ingredient cocktail requires roughly seven minutes of shaking alone to make right.

So if you get one on the fly, you shouldn’t be as dazzled as you would be by the proper, time-consuming version, which you also absolutely shouldn’t request from a busy bartender to look impressive.


Your drink isn’t what you ordered.

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Norm Shafer/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Be careful how you order drinks like a greyhound, which can just as easily be ordered as a “vodka grapefruit.”

A baby bartender too sheepish to ask for clarification from you, a colleague, or the internet may confidently give you what they think a greyhound is but is in fact not.

I once served a guest a tequila-and-grapefruit “greyhound” that was promptly, rightfully sent back.

I’ve also forgotten to add mint to a mojito before, which means that, in essence, I didn’t make a mojito – I made a daiquiri with a splash of soda.

Fortunately, if you spot these errors, they’re easy to fix. And we want to fix them. Whether we messed up or you just didn’t like or expect what we made you, always being right is a huge perk of being on your side of the bar.

But if you want the best outcome, go ahead and use some tact when it comes to sending back that shoddy drink we made you. After all, a little courtesy goes a long way.