9 mistakes you’re making when ordering drinks, according to bartenders and beverage experts

Ordering a drink from a bar can sometimes seem complicated or confusing.

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Ordering a drink from a bar can sometimes seem complicated or confusing.
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Brendan McDermid/Reuters

  • INSIDER spoke to bartenders, bar managers, and beverage experts to learn about some common mistakes people make when they order drinks at a bar.
  • If a bar is crowded, some experts suggest you avoid ordering hot drinks and cocktails that are time-consuming to make.
  • Some bartenders told INSIDER that they prefer when patrons tell them what sort of drink they’re in the mood for instead of just saying, “Surprise me.”

Ordering a drink at a bar doesn’t have to be complicated – but if you want to optimize your drinking experience, it helps to know some of the things you might be doing that could be messing up your cocktail order or confusing your bartender.

To keep your drink-ordering process smooth and quick, INSIDER asked bartenders and beverage experts about some of the most common drink-ordering mistakes they see bar patrons make.

Here are some mistakes you could be making when ordering drinks and how you can avoid making them in the future.

Asking a bartender to make you their favorite cocktail isn’t the best way to get a drink you’ll enjoy

Although it seems like a reasonable tactic, asking a bartender to make you their favorite cocktail could result in you paying for a drink you don’t really like, especially since your personal preferences could be entirely different from theirs.

“While I know the customer is attempting to be congenial and make a connection [by asking this question], oftentimes what I like to drink or what I enjoy making isn’t going to be what they want to drink,” said bar manager Nicky Beyries of Laszlo and Foreign Cinema in San Francisco, California.

If you want to increase your chances of getting a drink you’ll actually enjoy, Beyries said you should ask the bartender to recommend you a drink based on some of your personal preferences.

“Giving the bartender a few parameters – spirits you do or don’t like, a type of drink you’re in the mood for, or something you often enjoy means they can either direct you to something on the menu or play dealer’s choice,” Beyries told INSIDER.

When a venue is busy, most bartenders prefer that you and your entire group are ready to order before you even approach the bar

Although it’s always OK to ask the bartender questions about the drink menu, it’s a wise idea to at least have some sort of idea of what you and your group want to order before you approach a bartender.

“If you notice it’s particularly busy or hard to get a drink because the bartender is helping other guests, help out the bartender by having an efficient conversation [with your group] to convey the needs of your party quickly,” said bartender Ben Potts of Beaker & Gray in Miami, Florida. “It’s not a requirement, it’s just a decent thing to do.”

Telling a bartender to surprise you with a drink probably won’t result in you getting a cocktail you want

If your bartender doesn't know anything about what sort of flavors or drinks you like, they may not be able to surprise you with a drink you'll love.

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If your bartender doesn’t know anything about what sort of flavors or drinks you like, they may not be able to surprise you with a drink you’ll love.
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Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

“Most bartenders genuinely want to make you something you’ll like, which is why ‘surprise me’ is such a kick in the pants,” Katie Molchan and Elaina Holko, bartenders and bar owners at Mixtape in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told INSIDER. “While patrons should absolutely continue to lean on the expertise of their bartender, they need to remember that we likely don’t know anything about them.”

If you want a surprise drink, Molchan and Holko said you should tell your bartender three things: the spirits you like (such as gin or vodka), the flavor you’re craving (such as sweet, bitter, or spicy), and the strength you’re in the mood for (something strong or light).

During peak bar hours, you may want to avoid ordering hot drinks and cocktails that are time-consuming to make

There’s nothing wrong with ordering a work-intensive, intricate beverage but if you order one during peak hours at a bar, keep in mind that you might not receive the best possible version of the drink and it could take quite a while for you to get it.

“Timing can definitely matter,” said head bartender Josh Cameron of Boulton & Watt in New York City. When a bar is incredibly busy, Cameron said it’s not the best idea to order a hot cocktail, like a Hot Toddy, because they typically require more effort to make than a drink that’s served on ice.

Elayne Duff, the director of trade development for New York City’s Liquor Lab, also said if you order complicated cocktails during a busy time, your order might not be well-received by the bar’s staff and it may take a while for you to get your drink. If a bar is busy and you want your drink in a timely manner, she said you might want to order a more simple cocktail.

Telling a bartender to make your drink ‘strong’ probably won’t accomplish much

When bartenders make cocktails, they typically follow specific recipes and formulas.

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When bartenders make cocktails, they typically follow specific recipes and formulas.
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Cindy Ord / Stringer/Getty

“Cocktails have specific recipes. [Telling a bartender to make your drink strong] is like telling a chef to make your food good. If you want something strong, order a tequila shot,” Alex Vines, bar manager of Fulton Alley in New Orleans, Louisiana, told INSIDER.

Assuming every brand of spirits pairs well with every type of mixer can lead to some not-so-great drink orders

When it comes to hard liquor, many drinkers assume that all vodkas, gins, and rums taste more or less the same. But each liquor brand uses unique distilling methods and base ingredients that can results in spirits with noticeably varied taste profiles.

“The mistake most people make is they tend to stick with what they know, even if the drink they’re ordering clashes with the flavors of the spirit they ask for,” said beverage director Juliana Montebello-Roman of PR Italian Bistro in Chicago, Illinois.

Even if you’re ordering a simple drink with soda water, the type of spirit you choose can entirely change the flavor of your drink, added Kevin Flannery, general manager and spirits specialist of Ocean Prime in New York City. Although it’s helpful to know which brands of liquor you prefer, it could be helpful to ask bartenders for their spirit recommendations when you order certain mixed drinks.

When ordering your drink, speak up and avoid using unnecessary abbreviations

It’s important to avoid using unnecessary abbreviations when ordering a drink because you might confuse the bartender or accidentally order something else.

“Clarity is key – bars are typically noisy and it’s hard to hear. Enunciating and saying exactly what you want helps ensure you get what you ordered,” said bar manager August O’Mahoney of Baltaire in Los Angeles, California.

“Sometimes people think they’re being cool and abbreviate things, like asking for a glass of ‘Chard’ instead of ‘Chardonnay’ or asking for ‘Pinot’ when it could [mean] Pinot Noir or Pinot Grigio, and it’s hard to understand,” he added.

Knowing the differences between ordering a drink ‘neat’ or ‘up’ can come in handy

Knowing a few basic bar terms can help you get the drink you actually meant to order. Eamon Rockey, director of beverage studies at The Institute of Culinary Education, said some of the most common terms that confuse bar patrons are “neat” and “up.”

A “neat” drink is typically poured straight from the bottle into an old-fashioned glass. “Neat” drinks are usually served at room temperature and they are meant to be sipped.

When you order something “up,” it typically means you want your drink served cold. Rockey said a drink ordered “up” is “a full drink’s measure of spirit, simply chilled over ice, and strained into a stemmed cocktail glass.”

Instead of ordering something you aren’t sure about, try asking the bartender questions about the cocktail menu

“Many guests visiting craft cocktail bars are timid and afraid to ask questions about the menu, [so] they end up ordering something they don’t like by mistake, or they choose to go with something recognizable and safe that perhaps they recognize from an advertisement,” said beverage director Sam Nelis of Caledonia Spirits’ Barr Hill in Montpelier, Vermont.

But all of the bartenders that INSIDER spoke to agreed on one crucial point – a good bartender wants to make you a drink that you’ll enjoy. So don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re confused about a bar’s cocktail menu.