Years ago, I was handed a copy of Setting the Table by restaurateur Danny Meyer. It helped me understand the difference between service and hospitality. According to Meyer, service is the technical delivery of a service or product. Hospitality considers how the delivery of that product makes the recipient feel.
“Hospitality is the sum of all the thoughtful, caring, and gracious things our staff does to make you feel we are on your side when you are dining with us.”
When I think about the cocktail world, I believe the moment people need someone on their side is if they’re at a loss for what they’d like to drink. Cocktails continue to become more complex and expensive, and a helping hand may be what the guest needs. The nuance lies in asking the right questions.
As written in The Office by The Aviary, “‘are you in the mood for something shaken or stirred?’ is not a good question. What if the guest doesn’t understand the difference between shaken and stirred drinks?” In my experience, many people do not have a clear picture of when drinks are shaken vs. stirred. If they don’t care for the Old Fashioned, they may not understand that a Whiskey Sour tastes different.
I find that a cocktail is often mood-based, so try questions that help you gauge it. Are they exhausted? Fired up? Stuffed from a meal? Celebrating? This can signal what would appeal along with any flavors they like or dislike.
The Office sometimes asks, “if you could be transported anywhere in the world to sip this drink, where would it be?” This allows the guest to express their mood in another way. Maybe they want to be by a campfire, on a beach in Bali, or at a café in Milan? That question is fun and can help us create a unique experience.
For the home bartender, who is operating from a more limited supply, it still provides a guide.
The beach gives off Daiquiri and Paloma vibes.
Around a campfire may conjure the Old Fashioned or Espresso Martini.
A café in Milan makes me think of Aperol Spritzes and Negronis.
Better questions help you better understand the wants of a guest and will take your hospitality to another level.
Sidebar: if you're reading this and thinking, "Hey!! But what should I do or ask if I'm at the bar and am lost?"
A lot of cocktails are riffs on better-known classics (Old Fashioned, Margarita, Gimlet, etc.). Ask the bartender/server, "is this a riff on something?" If they're able to give you a comparison you better know, this can help.
Cocktail book author Robert Simonson once said, "Our eyes naturally go to the top left side of the menu. Therefore, the drink placed in the top left is often one they're proud of or trying to push."
Tell them flavors you don't like to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
This suggestion comes from my friend and bar proprietor, Tim Wiggins. "Order a classic cocktail you enjoy and know well. If they do that well, then try a specialty drink."