- Lots of bartenders love making a perfectly balanced classic cocktail, like a Negroni or Old-Fashioned – and sometimes they add their own twist to it.
- Some said their favourite cocktail to make a less well-known traditional recipe or a variation thereof, like a Sazerac, Bijou, or Clover Club.
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Whether you’re visiting a dive bar or a fancy cocktail lounge, chances are, the person behind the bar has some serious skills, and if you order well, you may just get to see them. In between slinging draft beers and vodka sodas, bartenders can flex their mixology chops. And for many, there’s one particular cocktail that really lets them shine, or impresses their customers, or that they’re just downright proud of because it tastes so good.
We heard from bartenders around the US about the drink they most enjoy making – here’s what they had to say.
Renato Brignardello, bar manager of the Telefèric Barcelona in Walnut Creek, California, loves taking the modest gin and tonic to the next level.
“At Telefèric, I love turning gin haters into gin lovers! Most experiences with gin and tonics consist of terrible gin, watered town tonic, and rotting lime wedges,” which might explain why gin is so passionately loathed by a vocal subset of the population.
“But, surprising customers with a beautiful gin and tonic with high-quality botanical gin and herbs, spices, and fruit over hand-cut ice makes it my favourite cocktail to serve. The balance of acidity and sweetness is perfect, plus, it’s quick to make!”
Maurice Juarez, restaurant manager of Heirloom Restaurant at The Study at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut loves pouring a true NOLA-style Sazerac.
“My favourite cocktail to make is a Sazerac,” which is a cognac cocktail made with an absinthe rinse, sugar, and bitters. “After my experience in New Orleans, the birthplace of this classic, I find myself being persnickety when I order it anywhere else. I love making this cocktail for Heirloom guests as it is such a detailed libation and preparing it is truly an art form.”
Billy Cox, the bar chef at Ocean Prime Boston, appreciates the classic balance of a good Old Fashioned.
An Old Fashioned is one of the oldest, if not the single oldest popular cocktail recipe and it’s still ordered at watering holes across the world for a reason. It doesn’t have many ingredients, but mixing one is a detailed process.
“The old fashioned is a very in-vogue cocktail,” Cox says, “and customers really appreciate watching the process of it being made.”
John Ceselka, mixologist at the Library Bar in the Hudson Hotel by SBE in New York, New York also appreciates the Old Fashioned.
For Ceselka, the beauty of the Old Fashioned comes directly from the whiskey at its core. “In this day and age, with so many high-quality whiskey options, I try not to mask the spirit’s flavour but enhance it with the perfect amount of bitters, sweetener and a zest of citrus topped with luxardo maraschino cherries,” he said.
“I think the simplicity of an Old Fashioned goes a long way. I value the time it takes to perfect a recipe to ensure it has the right balance. Watching someone enjoy their first sip of a well-balanced cocktail always makes me smile.”
The favourite for Evan Danielson, beverage director of City Winery Nashville in Nashville, Tennessee, is another classic: the Negroni.
His reasoning is similar to the above. “It’s such a simple drink in concept, but somewhat difficult to execute well,” he says.
“With only three ingredients, there’s not a lot to hide behind technique-wise. Plus, the drink is a beautiful springboard for variations … swap just one ingredient out and the drink can become a completely different expression of the original.”
Ilan Chartor, bar lead of KYU in Miami, Florida also adores a perfect Negroni.
“Usually I shoot for balance and acidity and the Negroni nails that,” Chartor said. “I like that there are a ton of renditions of the Negroni like the boulevardier. We have one on the menu at KYU called ‘It’s 4:20 Somewhere’ in which we instead use bourbon as our base, then add tamarind, tarragon, and Fresno chillis.”
Jim Kearns, beverage director for Golden Age Hospitality (which includes ACME, Slowly Shirley, Happiest Hour, and Tijuana Picnic) says a Manhattan is his favourite both to make and to drink.
“As bold, yet simultaneously subtle, as a Manhattan is to drink, there are few drinks that I feel more completely test the technique of the bartender making them. Making a good Manhattan is infinitely subtle.” Kearns says the most common, and his favourite recipe for a Manhattan is two dashes Angostura bitters, 1 ounce sweet vermouth, and 2 ounces rye (he prefers an overproof rye).
Kearns has a detailed method for building the perfect Manhattan, and it involves letting it sit between stirs and before straining.
“The time a stirred drink sits on ice, un-agitated, is called ‘cooking.’ Especially with a Manhattan, this process has a transformative effect on the cocktail. There is no scientific reason for this, but it gives the drink a slightly cloudy appearance, which is partially how I know if a Manhattan is ready to serve or not.”
Dzu Nguyen, bar manager at Horsefeather in San Francisco, California is stuck between warm-weather classics.
“My favourite drink to make is a tie between a classic Cuban daiquiri or a mojito,” two classic cocktails that both exude summery vibes. “Both of these cocktails exemplify simplicity and in that makes them some of that hardest cocktails to make ‘right.'”
The key, he says, is “striking the right balance between sweet, sour, and spirituous which is more challenging than it sounds. Every time I make a daiquiri or a mojito, I look at it as a chance to learn to make it better each time. It also really helps that I love drinking these cocktails, too.”
Nathanael Mehrens, beverage director of Stay Golden Restaurant & Roastery in Nashville, Tennessee, likes perfecting rare combinations.
“Some of my favourite drinks to make are cocktails that bring acid, fat and bitters all together in balance because there really aren’t a lot of them out there, so folks aren’t as familiar with them,” he says.
“A Mai Tai with Amaro or a Mezcal Ramos with Campari is really fun to share with a guest who is a more seasoned drinker but may not gravitate toward something like that on their own.”
Garret Dostal, head bartender at Añejo in NYC likes to put his own spin on a Bijou.
“It’s not one of the most common out there,” he said, “but in the bar industry, most people have come across it at least one on a cocktail menu. It is a balancing act of complex and robust flavours that not all people get right.” The cocktail is traditionally made with equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and chartreuse, but Dostal enjoys making his own carefully tested versions.
“As a tequila bartender, I like to throw in a spin on the classic using a clear tequila with gin-like qualities such as Hiatus Blanco or even playing with a Mamorata varietal of Mezcal like a Tepeztate which has flavours that rival chartreuse in complexity.”
Federico “Fede” Montemayor Jr., bartender at Prohibition Supperclub & Oyster Bar in Houston, Texas, likes making a sweet Pre-Prohibition-era treat.
“My favourite cocktail to make is a Clover Club, he says. At Prohibition Supperclub & Oyster Bar, “we use Seersucker Southern Style Gin because its light notes of mint and juniper play very well with the raspberries and the aromatics open up beautifully with the egg white froth to make a rather light and refreshing take on a classic.”
Fraser Hamilton, bar manager at Sweet Liberty in Miami, Florida likes making the house special Piña Colada.
“I love making our Piña Colada. It’s a familiar drink to most people, but we serve it in an interesting and unique way by adding coffee, sweet Sherry and using our house rum blend made in-house specifically for this purpose.”
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