Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | October 29, 2008

Trust the Bartender

I’m not much of a cook. I have a few things that I do alright and am quite content to make for myself on a regular basis, things like grilled chicken, beef stew, or roasted root vegetables. They’re all simple and well within my cooking abilities. What would it be like for me to go out to fine restaurants, though, and only order grilled chicken? It’d be crazy. I’d be missing the opportunity to go beyond my culinary skills and limit myself to what I can do with ease regardless of the location. I’d effectively be telling every chef in every restaurant I went to, “I don’t really care what you’re good at, I like chicken and I’ll take it as I’m used to making it. Your skills are not needed.”

But that’s not how the overwhelming majority of us treat restaurants. We may like our simple favorites, but we trust that professional chefs can offer us something different, something we can’t do ourselves, something that we believe will be better – which is why we go to restaurants in the first place. We go to expand beyond our normal culinary experiences, be it with regional cuisine or artistic interpretations of classics. And we would never, ever think that a trip to a fine restaurant is the proper occassion for grilled chicken.

Unfortunately this analogy doesn’t really hold when it comes to bars, bartenders, and cocktails. Or at least, most people haven’t extended their desired experiences from visiting a good bar from their desired experience of visiting a fine restaurant. As a result, people tend to just go ahead an order what they like — gin and tonic,  Allegash White Ale, house pinot — and ignore the possibilities afforded by expertise in master bartenders.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that some people just know what they like and want to stick with what they know. But you’d never order that plain grilled chicken in Le Bernardin or Gramercy Tavern.

Last night while I was enjoying Adam Bernbach’s creations at Bar Pilar, I wondered to myself why more people don’t seek out this type of cocktail experience. Every week Adam develops a new tasting menu of five drinks for his Tuesday cocktail sessions. I’ve experienced the cocktail session twice now and a defining concept is that while you don’t know what it will be going in, you trust that Adam will come up with delicious drinks that you would either have never heard of before or may ever experience again.

A good example of why this is such an improved way to experience cocktails in a bar came in two of the drinks in last night’s cocktail session. The last two drinks of the flight were called From Harm and Red Sky Dusk. Both included scotch as a base. Now I’m not a scotch drinker. I don’t own a bottle at home and will never ask for it in a bar. Moreover, scotch cocktails are notoriously hard to make well, so I’ve had even less exposure to it in bars. Yet by placing trust in Adam that he knows what he’s doing and can expose me to incredible drinks, I get to try delightful new scotch cocktails that I assuredly never would have had if I left my drink choices up to what I already knew and liked.

Not everyone goes to bars to find new things. None of the people I went to Bar Pilar with last night had the tasting menu (though two ordered Police Lights & Rain after I had it). But I think that there needs to be a fundamental shift in how bar-goers think about ordering drinks at bars with quality bartenders and cocktails. Go beyond what you usually order.  Expand your horizons and you’ll elevate your enjoyment during a night of fine drink. Trust the bartender.



  1. The Japanese, bless their cotton socks, have a word for what you’re talking about, omakase.

    Life offers up more choice than answers, I think that you’re on the right track building a philosophy of having what’s good.

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