I’ve been asked by bar customers to make some pretty ridiculous drinks in my day—Sex with Alligators, a Duck Fart, a Sloe Comfortable Screw Up Against the Wall, a Cement Mixer, a Brain Hemorrhage, a Greene County Man Hammer. Most of them are not very good, and the people who order them are not shooting for the stars when it comes to a properly made cocktail—not that there’s anything wrong with that. Drink what you like, that’s what I say. However, when someone asks me to make a beverage I’ve never heard of before, many times I’ve simply rolled my eyes. Having bartended for over 15 years, I feel like I know a thing or two about what drinks are good and worth knowing about —and worth making. Make you a “Jamaican Lizard”? C’mon, dude.
Occasionally, though, I’ll be caught off guard: Instead of asking for Duck Farts, tipplers will make a savvy request, asking for something new with Cynar, something spiritous and gin-based or something with herbs and Chartreuse. They similarly ask me to make drinks that I’ve never heard of that are also well-balanced and delicious. This really rattles my cage. How do I not know about the Bonsoni? The Bitter Giuseppe? The Knickerbocker? And The Improved Whiskey Cocktail? I’ve been mixing drinks most of my life, and there’s always more to learn.
This perfect storm of customer enlightenment is a confluence of several things, but it is largely due to the well-read, well-traveled, curious tipplers here in Charlottesville who are paying attention to the momentum of the craft cocktail movement nationwide. Increasingly, these consumers are dropping some knowledge on the beaks of local bartenders, themselves eager to augment their recipe book. their skill set and their ability to please their guests. I checked in with a few locals about the serendipity of learning and creating new bevs through savvy sippers.
Brad Langdon, Public Fish & Oyster
Cocktail: Big City Blues
“I had a regular come in to my old bar all the time. He would usually just drink bourbon straight or a Manhattan, but it was Derby season so he was feeling a mint julep. We came up with a fusion of the two cocktails: a mint julep/Manhattan hybrid with a touch of blueberry shrub. The end result was a surprisingly delicious concoction! From then on it would be his first cocktail of the night whenever he stopped in.”
2 oz. Hudson Manhattan rye
1 oz. Carpano Antica
2 dashes Breckenridge bitters
8 large mint leaves
1/2 oz. blueberry shrub
Muddle mint and blueberry shrub in a mixing glass. Combine remainder of ingredients. Stir with ice and strain up into a coupe. Garnish with a Luxardo maraschino cherry.
Brianna Sumey, Red Pump Kitchen
Cocktail: Picante Paloma
“I’ve always appreciated a perfectly crafted margarita. It’s slightly sweet, tart and damn delicious. A fellow customer, Rich, shared that appreciation but we both wanted something lighter, something more refreshing. We opened the restaurant with a classic Paloma, and then collaborated on the drink below. The flavors are really turned up on this one.”
1 1/2 oz. Tequila (100 percent agave blanco)
1/4 oz. Cointreau
1/2 oz. pink peppercorn syrup
Pinch of Himalayan salt
Few sprigs of cilantro
Squeeze of lime
3 oz. quality grapefruit soda
Cayenne sugar salt rim
Equal parts sugar and water
1/2 cup pink peppercorns
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. cayenne
Moisten the rim with lime and coat with the cayenne mixture. Fill glass with ice. Add tequila, Cointreau, salt, lime, peppercorn syrup. Give a nice stir to chill. Top with grapefruit soda. A few pink peppercorns from the syrup for added color and texture.
How to politely ask a bartender for an off-menu cocktail
1. Ask your bartender if he has time to make you something off-menu. If he is in the weeds, please pick another time to ask.
2. Have a recipe ready, in case the bartender is unfamiliar with your requested beverage. If he is unfamiliar with your beverage, do not take that moment to gloat.
3. Have a backup beverage in mind in case he doesn’t have the ingredients/equipment to make your drink.
4. A bartender’s limited resource to making a living behind the bar is time. If he takes extra time to politely field your request and ensure your drink is made properly, be generous in equal measure.
5. Not all bars do fancy cocktails. Order cocktails at a bar that does cocktails, and don’t be judgy if they don’t.
Micah LeMon is the bar manager at The Alley Light.