Bartenders’ Secret Tips on Having the Best Whiskey Bar Experience

| April 17, 2018

Let’s face it; wandering into a whiskey bar like Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, Oregon, can be a life-enhancing event for most whiskey aficionados and an eye-opener for the whiskey novice. However, navigating a menu of over 1,200 different whiskies can be intimidating for even those among us who serve spirits as a profession.

So, how does one go about making the best decision when choosing a whiskey that doesn’t break the bank or discourage expanding one’s palate? Well, I’ve canvassed several great bartenders, many of whom have worked or currently work in whiskey bars, and accumulated a few tips on how to walk into a whiskey bar and make the best of your experience.

First, and most important, remember that this is your experience, and you are there to have a good time, enjoy the company of those you came with, and try a fun, new, whiskey. There is no reason to be intimidated or overwhelmed in this environment. If the attitude of the space seems like it may be too stuffy or judgmental, one should never feel obligated to stay; find a dive bar with a good selection of whiskeys and spend your money there. A personal favorite when I lived in Austin was The Grackle (their website is no longer theirs, apparently;) bonus, they have a killer veggie-focused food truck right outside.

A great rule of thumb going into any bar is knowing the style of whiskey that you prefer and flavor notes that work for you, even if you’re interested in moving outside that comfort zone. If, say, you are a fan of softer styles of American bourbon such as the honeyed, yeasty notes of the higher wheat Bernheim or Maker’s Mark (which uses no rye in the mash bill, only barley, corn, and red winter wheat,) but want to stretch out a little, take a look at American single malts, which are notable for their softer, toasty-cereal tones, but not the peaty, medicinal quality of Scotch.

A bar in Waco, Texas (image copyright The Whiskey Wash)

If you’re more a Peat Monster style of drinker, something along the lines of Balcones Brimstone would be an interesting choice. It’s also good to know how you enjoy having your whiskey, be it neat, with a cube, in a Glencairn or a single rocks glass, or with a little water on the side. For higher proof selections, I always suggest a little water on the side so the guest can tone down the proof if they want.

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Have a basic understanding of the terms used in whiskey production: bottled-in-bond, single malt, single barrel, barrel strength, etc; which are indicators of not only quality, but also hint at what is going to happen flavor-wise. A great resource for this can be found at Whiskey for Everyone. Trust your gut; if something seems too pricey, don’t be harangued into ordering it. Similarly, if something jumps off the page and speaks to that secret place that you used to write in your journal from back in high school (maybe college, we’ve all been there,) take the plunge and order up.

Keep a notebook if you’re interested in learning about your tastes and tracking your journey as a whiskey enthusiast. There was a time when I made notes of everything I drank; beer, wine, spirits, until I learned enough about my palate and my preferences to be pretty clear about what I really enjoy. I still take notes on any new product that I may come across. A personal choice has always been Moleskine products: they’re available in a great number of sizes, colors, and specialty options, as well as hard and soft-cover options.

Ask about flight options. Even if the menu doesn’t specifically state that flights are available, it doesn’t mean that the manager, bartender, or server won’t be excited to share a few smaller portions of whiskeys that they are personally enthusiastic about, some hard-to-find spirits, or some new items that they have in house. Flights are fun ways to expand one’s experience without worrying about consuming too much alcohol in one sitting. To that, don’t forget about keeping your palate fresh and drink plenty of water and grab a few smaller bites of things that will compliment your spirit selections.

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Ask about barrel selections or special bottles that the venue may offer, sometimes called the captain’s list. Many bars that focus on whiskies have invested in private selections that you will be hard-pressed to find outside that space. Generally, a bar will send a representative to a distillery and that person (or people) will hand-select one barrel that they feel represents the best of the batch and their flavor preferences. They will then buy that barrel and it will be bottled (usually at barrel strength) and shipped to their facility. These selections can be pretty amazing drams and since they are limited production, no two offerings will taste the same, allowing you to enhance your experience and discover something new about the specific tastes of the space you’re in.

In Oregon, a control state, if you come across a barrel selection that you really enjoy, you can sometimes find it at the liquor store that supplies that bar, since bars have to get a liquor store to pick up the barrel and that location will generally hold onto excess stock as well as place it on their shelves for general purchase. Most consumers walk right past it not even aware that the slightly more expensive bottle of “X” on the shelf is anything that special.

Finally, trust the team the bar put together to serve you and your needs. Most bars at this level have a fairly rigorous training program that follows a pretty intense screening and hiring process. At Bobby Heugel’s spaces in Houston, such as Anvil, bartenders have to learn 100 different drink recipes (which they then have to make for $1 a pop before they pass) and pass a blind taste test of 50 spirits by correctly determining 47. These bar managers, bartenders, and servers all have to know their stuff and be on their game to be the people standing in front of you talking about whiskey. And they are only there to make sure that you have the best time possible.

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