If you’ve visited a cocktail bar in the last decade, you’ve probably noticed that, on top of their seasonal cocktails, many bars have a drink called “dealer’s choice” or “bartender’s choice.” This means that since you can’t make up your mind (or you’re feeling lucky) you’re willing to let the bartender design a cocktail just for you. Originally formalized with a menu designation by Christy Pope, co-creator of Midnight Rambler in Dallas, “bartender’s choice” has become a staple on menus from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach.
But, just how did that happen? Back in 2005, Pope was helping to review the menu for Little Branch in New York City.
“When I reviewed the menu I suggested that the last cocktail on the menu be ‘bartender’s choice,’” says Pope. “That allowed for the opportunity for a more crafted cocktail experience for those who wanted to engage with that sort of thing.”
In 2009, Sam Ross (who previously worked with Pope at Little Branch) added a “dealer’s choice” to the cocktail menu at Comme Ca in Los Angeles. “As the craft cocktail movement continued to spread, the bartender’s/dealer’s choice option became more commonplace in these craft cocktail bars,” says Pope.
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How does “dealer’s choice” work?
There is a process Pope goes through in order to determine the appropriate cocktail for a guest. She doesn’t go in blind and just make what she feels like. The odds are that wouldn’t really work out very well for anyone.
1.) She asks the guest if they’ve been to the bar before? If so, she asks what cocktails have they had before that they enjoyed?
2.) She asks the guest what they normally drink and what their “go-to” drinks are. This helps determine palate preferences and gives clues about the drinking prowess of the guest.
3.) She finds out if they want an “aromatic” style drink (stirred and strong, like a Manhattan, Martini, Old Fashioned) or “sour” based drink (including citrus juice like a collins, mojito, or daiquiri).
4.) She asks if the guest has a particular spirit preference, a spirit they hate, or if they have any allergies.
5.) The last step is all about context clues. “Determining how often someone enjoys cocktails and their “drink IQ” will be very helpful in determining a cocktail that will best exceed guest expectations.”
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Do people like them?
Even with all that knowledge, “dealer’s choice” still seems a bit like rolling the dice (because it is, literally, randomized). But the bartenders who we spoke to told us that customers are rarely unhappy.
“In general, most ‘dealer’s choice’ cocktails go over well and if they are not the right fit, then there should be no obligation to pay for that cocktail and it should be replaced with another choice,” says Pope.
Even with all the positive responses to the drinks, there’s still room for interesting stories about the results.
“I once made a ‘Morning Glory Fizz’ for a guest who was convinced that his deceased grandmother was trying to reach out to him through several signs he had been receiving and this cocktail choice was another ‘sign’ for him… cocktail tarot!”
When menus advertise this option, they are usually one of the most popular offerings and most bartenders seem to genuinely enjoy making them. Plus, it keeps them on their toes — and makes the rote performance of making a drink into a spontaneous act again.
“I personally think that every good and seasoned bartender should feel comfortable pulling something out of their sleeve to make for a guest who wants to be surprised,” says Johnny Livanos, Bar Program Director at Ousia in New York City. He believes that it’s great for those people who either don’t really know what they want and trust a bartender to make the decision for them.
Experimental drinkers like experimental drinks
“Dealer’s choice” cocktails are not simply black and white. There are a lot of gray areas within this seemingly popular request. “By falling into the ‘Dealers Choice’ trap you have put yourself in a position where you’re either going to hit it out of the park or fail miserably, but luckily this isn’t a gambling table in Vegas, it’s a bar, so this is where you have to start making your own rules,” says Christopher Reale, bartender at Grace Forth Worth.
Customers are usually happy with the results. “If ever is the case where they are not, I like to determine why, so I have that piece of information when crafting their next cocktail,” says Jeremy Williams, bartender at Lumber Baron Bar in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“For instance, everyone has a different acumen to sweet, spice, and other various flavors. Determining how different people perceive these flavors is a big part of creating a cocktail for each individual to enjoy.”
Williams knows the properties of his ingredients well enough, whether it be spirits, citrus, syrups, and bitters to create something fantastic on the fly. “I think more people should be open to experiencing a bartenders creativity.”
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New freedom for bartenders
Bartenders enjoy the freedom to create something special and unique for a person, but the likelihood of them loving the same exact thing is slim. “As a bartender, it is your job to pick their brain a little and pull out some basic information so when you do create that special random drink the guest still feels like they are getting what they asked for,” says Reale.
Where should you try it? There are countless bars across the country with a “dealer’s choice” on their menu.
Here’s a few: