Customizing drinks on the fly with a “bartender’s choice” program is a great way to build relationships with guests and ensure their satisfaction. But offering this option in your bar requires a fair amount of preparation, training and follow up to be successful. Three seasoned craft mixologists shared their experiences with bartender’s whim drinks in a July 18 session at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans.
For starters, you have to be able to read people to get a sense of how adventurous or cautious they are, said Meaghan Dorman, head bartender at cocktail bars Raines Law Room and Dear Irving in New York. “Are they open, or are they really just looking for a safety net?”
You also have to ask the right questions before you start mixing to get a feeling for the type of spirits and flavors that will appeal to the customer, Dorman said. You should typically start by asking, “What are you in the mood for tonight,” and then, “Is there anything that you’re not in the mood for or don’t like?”
Katie Emmerson, bar manager for The Hawthorne in Boston, said she tries to use very specific terms when assessing guest preferences, such as, Do you like whiskey, rum, etc. Another strategy: “I try to get them to recall a drink that they’ve had before that they really liked,” she said.
Despite the barkeep’s best efforts, sometimes the bartenders’ whim is a miss. “It’s easy to tell when guests don’t like their drinks,” said Theo Lieberman, head bartender of venerable cocktail den Milk & Honey in New York.
And when that happens, he suggests approaching the guest casually and asking, “Is that working out for you? I can make you another.’” Keep in mind that some guests may be reluctant to admit that they don’t like the bartender’s choice, Lieberman noted.
So if you see that a customer is not enjoying a cocktail, you might even just bring over a new drink and say, “I think you might like this better.” It’s well worth the few extra dollars in liquor costs to make the guest happy and more likely to return, said Lieberman, who also works at Lantern’s Keep in the Iroquois Hotel and Raines Law Room.It can be a bit of a blow to the ego when the first drink you have selected and made for a guest is a bust, Dorman said. But getting it right on the second try can be even more valuable, she said, “because not many people would take the time to get it right.”