It should be simple: Sit down. Order a drink. Drink it. But where there are ignorance and ego, there are also faux pas to be made. And cocktail bars are lousy with them. Follow these five simple "thou shalt nots" of cocktail ordering and your dignity will remain unscathed.
DON'T: Ask for a different brand of liquor than the one listed in a specialty cocktail on the menu. Yes, we know how much you like Hendricks. But does it really make sense in a drink that needs the heft and sweetness of, say, an Old Tom gin? If you're at a good bar, the reason you're paying $13 a pop is, among other things, that the bartender has tested all the brands of a given spirit with the drink he's creating and selected the one listed because it works the best with the other often-complex elements in the cocktail. Save your brand preferences for simple classics like Old Fashioneds and daiquiris.
DON'T: Say "Make me whatever you want." The "Bartender's Choice" option that has appeared on so many menus is a mixed blessing, for both the customer and the bartender. The problem is, it's meaningless without at least a brief discussion of what you're really after. If you step up to a swamped cocktail bar and ask for "whatever" or "the best one," count on the bartender making two of whatever's already in his shaker. Either wait till you can have a tete-a-tete or order from the menu.
DON'T: Order all off-menu drinks. When a mixology geek places an order with a bartender, it can sometimes feel like a lost chapter of Harry Potter, with bespectacled, intense young men shouting strange, incantatory phrases ("Tailspin! "Mother's Ruin!" "Tuxedo!") at each other in an attempt to cower their interlocutor into submission. At least make your first drink order one from the menu—it's a sign of respect, and it'll help broaden your horizons. After that, you can get around to ordering all the drinks that start with the letter M from the Savoy Cocktail Book.
DON'T: Ask for stirred drinks to be shaken or vice versa. Simple rule to remember: Clear drinks (i.e., cocktails with just booze—think Negronis, Manhattans) are stirred. Opaque drinks (with fruit juices, egg whites, etc.) are shaken. There are very, very few exceptions. Don't mix it up, or you'll be getting a watery Martini and a really strange whiskey sour indeed.
DON'T: Order wine. What are you thinking? That bottle of Merlot's been open since Tuesday and it was crap to begin with. You're in a cocktail bar—so order a cocktail, damnit.
— Christopher Ross