Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Is the Customer Always Right?

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.

Should craft bartenders be cool with making "easy" drinks like Jack and Coke for less experimental customers?


Jack and Coke in a retro Ball glass. [Flickr: Will Nickelson | Clueless Photog]

If you frequent the cocktail blogosphere, you know there's been a bit of a kerfuffle recently regarding booze and burgers. That would be burgers metaphorically (not as an accompaniment to a drink) over at Alcademics, written by San Francisco journalist and blogger Camper English.

It all started right after Christmas when English ran an article in the San Francisco Chronicle where he discussed how craft bartenders are easing up on the attitude, trying to work more positively with customers to find good drinks that will suit their palates, while gently nudging them away from "easy" drinks such as vodka tonics or something-and-colas.

This article prompted a cascade of comments on the Chronicle's website, and later in response to a related post on English's blog, provocatively titled, "Why Can't I Get a McDonald's Hamburger at Chez Panisse?"

The dustup comes down to this: many customers wouldn't even dream of walking into a white-tablecloth restaurant and ordering something safe and pedestrian off-menu—such as a hot dog or cheeseburger—but the same customers might venture into a bar with a creative cocktail menu and order a Jack and Coke.

If a diner were to attempt such an order in a restaurant, they'd likely be directed to the menu, possibly with some suggestions from the waitstaff, and would make little fuss about it. But if a bartender recommends a drink from the menu or a different option from what the customer ordered, the response—as the comment war indicates—is often quite different:

I'm in my 50s and know exactly what I like to drink. I don't really need a bartender young enough to be my kid telling me what I 'should' be drinking.

Who gives a damn what the bartender wants you to prefer? If he's so smart why is he on the drudge side of the bar?

This topic has become increasingly popular in the bar community, and the bartender's response varies widely. Most bartenders employ some aspect of the "Customer is always right" principle. If the ingredients are available, they will make the requested drink.

But does the customer have a responsibility as well? Possibly to distinguish the types of drinks they'll order based on the type of bar they're visiting?

Just as it'd be ridiculous to enter a dive bar and ask for a Last Word, isn't there something at least slightly wrong with going to a bar with a spectacular selection of spirits—an ambitious and balanced cocktail menu and a carefully developed mixological aesthetic—and asking for the bibulous equivalent of a baloney sandwich?

Readers of the Chronicle and Alcademics have had their say; now it's your turn. How far should bartenders go to give a customer exactly what they want? What kind of protocol, if any, should customers follow when visiting a bar with an ambitious selection of drinks?