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Top bartenders reveal the best cocktails to order at the bar

Want to order a high-value drink at the bar? Here are the cocktails the pros suggest trying

An Old Fashioned cocktail.
wagjm, Pixabay wagjm/Pixabay

Are you getting the most bang for your buck at the bar? You may have a go-to cocktail, but when it comes to finding real value at the watering hole, some mixed drinks are better than others.

We love expensive, maximalist bar drinks, but that’s not always the route to take, especially if you’re looking to make your dollar go as far as it can. So we asked a few top bartenders what they think someone should order if they’re looking to get the best buzz for their buck — in other words, the best cocktails that offer a decent amount of flavor and booze without creating a lot of credit card debt.

The best drinks to order

The subject is tricky, as sometimes bars push a specific product or raise the price on another based on supply, trends, popularity, and more. Some bars don’t have shelf upon shelf of spirit options or lesser-known liqueurs. In fact, as most bar-goers know, ordering is often about doing the best you can with a somewhat limited well selection.

There’s an art to ordering a strong value drink. While we have plenty of experience on the subject, we sought out even more advice from bartenders all over the nation. Next time you’re thinking about drinks to order at a bar, consider these options, endorsed by the pros.

The classics

Alicia Perry is the beverage director at C.H. Projects, a consortium that includes some of the best bars in the country, like Polite Provisions and False Idol in San Diego. She says that finding the right drink is about reading the bar.

“I suppose, if you went to a space that costs out their cocktails reasonably, then there should be a generous list of cocktails,” Perry said. “Sadly, that is not always the case. So I guess if I were to visit my neighborhood bar of choice, I would hope that the following cocktails are $13 or less: old fashioned, sazerac, gimlet, Americano, gold rush, sherry cobbler, spritz.”

The gold rush is a particularly satisfying and relatively simple option made from honey syrup, bourbon, and lemon juice. The drink is pretty much the love child of a bee’s knees and a whiskey sour.

Martini cocktail
Don LaVange Don LaVange/Flickr

The martini

Jason Hedges is the author of The Seasonal Cocktail, a gorgeous book focused on mixed drinks that reflect the various stretches of the year and are made with seasonal ingredients.

“This can vary depending on the establishment and their offerings, but beer and wine tend to be good value for the volume of alcohol you get,” Hedges said.

But what if it’s a mixed drink you’re after?

“If you’re looking for a cocktail, an extra-dry martini is going to get you the best bang for your buck,” he said. “It’s straight alcohol that is often served in large cocktail glasses.” This is to say nothing of the cool factor involved and feeling like James Bond whenever you order the drink.

The sidecar

Meanwhile, Charles Mary is all about a classic. He’s the owner of Bakery Bar in New Orleans.

“Sidecars are great,” he said. “Brandy, lemon and triple sec. There shouldn’t be a bar that isn’t equipped with these items. Two ounces of brandy will do the job. The exciting thing about them is the variety of reasonably priced brandy or cognac out there that can be used to enhance the cocktail.”

Now is arguably the best time to play around with this particular drink, as the brandy wave continues to gain momentum. More cognacs are available in the states while domestic producers are trying their hands at brandy-making, especially in and around top wine appellations (as you’d expect from a wine grape-based spirit). In short, the days of the boring brandies your grandparents drank are long gone.

Read the bar

Micky Mullins is another industry pro based in New Orleans. He’s the beverage director for The Bower and The Bower Bar. He likes to read the scene depending on where he ends up.

“My go-to for a great value cocktail is first going to happy hour and seeing the house cocktails offered,” Mullins said. “But beyond a great happy hour, look for something spirit-forward like an old-fashioned, Manhattans, and martinis. These will provide a straight, to-the-point drink without the sugars and juices. If you’re easing into the evening, a classic margarita is never a bad option.”

We tend to agree, especially as you can tweak these classics without extra cost by trying out a new kind of bitters or swapping a bourbon for a rye, or trading one brand for a comparable one. And there’s always the most direct approach known as the boilermaker.

“On the flip side, just go all in and get your favorite shot and a beer,” Mullins said. “Generally speaking, most cocktails have close to the same amount of booze in them, so drink what you like.”

The Manual Sam Slaughter/The Manual / The Manual

Next time you’re at the bar, consider one of the above options, especially if you’re looking to maximize what you get for the price. You may not be able to order that 15-ingredient drink that gets set on fire before it’s served, but you’ll still have plenty of great options. No matter what your next beverage is, at least it likely won’t break the bank.

More of a wine person? Check out some helpful wine terminology so you know what you’re talking about next time you order.

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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