I love cocktails. For better or for worse, I’ll gladly plop down money that I don’t have in exchange for inventive and delicious mixed drinks in a swanky lounge. Still, sometimes I just want to keep it casual and drink on the cheap at a dive bar—and that’s when I steer clear of the mixology craze. The local pub is no place for artisanal experimentation.
For the most part, my dive bar menu consists of neat whiskey, gin on the rocks and whatever beer they’ve got on tap. When I stick to these usual suspects I know exactly what I’ll get, I won’t annoy my bartender with complicated requests and I won’t make the person behind me wait ten minutes for their drink. If you do want a mixed drink at a dive, however, that’s fine—you just need to stick to a limited menu.
There are, in fact, certain cocktails that you can order pretty much anywhere without any trouble. A good rule of thumb at a dive is to order mixed drinks that only have two ingredients, but there are some exceptions. Another helpful rule is avoid drinks that require a very specific garnish, meaning pretty much anything beyond the typical slice of lime or maybe a simple cherry.
Let’s go over some of the cocktails that you should never order at your local dive and consider some reliable alternatives that you can turn to instead.
Don’t Order: Martini
On paper, the Martini is a pretty simple recipe. However, there are so many nuances in how a Martini might be prepared based on your particular preferences that it can become very complicated. Are you shaking or stirring, are you chilling the glassware, do you have orange bitters on hand? Your bartender probably doesn’t have high-end vermouth or fresh twists of lemon peel or gourmet herbed olives. To avoid a disappointing drink and a frustrated bartender, skip the Martinis.
Order Instead: Gin and Soda
You could, of course, go for a gin and tonic—it’s simple, it’s classic and it’s delicious with even the cheapest of well gins. However, sometimes the tonic on a soda gun can be pretty bad. Maybe the lines haven’t been cleaned in a while, maybe the calibration on the mixture is a bit off and suddenly your G&T is DOA. Go for gin and soda, it’s a safer bet. For some extra zing, add a hefty squeeze of lime or ask for a quick shake of Angostura bitters.
Don’t Order: Whiskey Sour
Fancypants cocktail bars use a lot of fresh citrus juice for their sour cocktails with hand-squeezed lemons and house-made lime cordials. Your standard watering hole, however, does not have this luxury. Instead, they have mass-produced sour mix, which is basically tart neon sugar water. It will absolutely ruin your whiskey and maybe even the rest of your night. Skip it.
Order Instead: Whiskey Ginger
Sure, a refined Kentucky Mule with spicy gourmet ginger beer would be fantastic but you still can’t go wrong with a simple whiskey and ginger ale. It’s a tasty, dependable option that will elevate even the roughest, most grizzly whiskey into an easy sipper.
Don’t Order: Cosmopolitan
There’s all sorts of reasons you should not order a Cosmo at a dive bar but let’s focus on the main two. First off, the ingredients just might not be on hand. Instead of snappy cranberry juice and sophisticated Cointreau, you’ll end up with metallic-tasting cranberry juice cocktail and cheap, syrupy Triple Sec. In addition, you’ll alienate yourself from your bartender because you’re ordering a drink that simply doesn’t belong here. Just as you don’t insist on a can of Schlitz in a high end bistro, you don’t go for the Cosmo at the dive bar.
Order Instead: Vodka Gimlet
You can’t get too much more basic than this: it’s just vodka and Rose’s lime syrup. You’ll still get to enjoy a zippy vodka drink with a distinct saturated color and there are no top-shelf ingredients or special techniques required. If you really want to make it easy on everyone, ask for it on the rocks instead of shaken and served up. Pace yourself, though. These short sharp cocktails have a way of disappearing very quickly.
Don’t Order: Mojito
Never, ever, ever order a Mojito unless you’re at a Mojito bar. If this drink isn’t explicitly highlighted on the menu, then assume it isn’t an option. Not only does the bar have to have fresh mint leaves and a good muddling setup on hand, the building and mixing of this drink is a lot of work. If a bar is specifically set up to crank out Mojitos, then yes: order one and it will be amazing. In all other cases, don’t do it—you’re going to get a sub-par drink and an unhappy staff.
Order Instead: Cuba Libre
On the other hand, a Cuba Libre can’t fail. It’s simply a rum and Coke with a lime, but that one addition seriously takes the drink up a notch. Although the traditional recipe calls for Bacardi Silver, it’s also delicious to mix things up with gold or even spiced rums. Don’t get too crazy, though. Save the top-shelf rums for sipping all on their own.
Don’t Order: Negroni
Like the Martini, this isn’t a super complicated recipe. However, it’s just uncommon enough of a request that you might fluster a bartender who’s been slamming out soda-gun drinks all night. On top of that, the Negroni is a cocktail that really needs to be stirred, strained and garnished with a twist of fresh orange peel. Save this one for the cocktail lounge.
Order Instead: Campari Soda
If you’re in a Campari kind of mood, simply take it with soda over ice. It’s a perfectly bittersweet aperitif and with a relatively low ABV, it happens to be a great choice if you’re looking for something that won’t get you super sloshed.
Don’t Order: Margarita
A Margarita should always be made with freshly squeezed lime juice and sweetened with either agave or premium orange liqueur. Otherwise, there’s simply no point. At a bar that isn’t equipped for that, you’re going to end up with the aforementioned bottle of sour mix and your displeasure will be second only to your upcoming hangover.
Order Instead: Tequila
By all means, if you’re feeling tequila then you should have some, but not in Margarita form. Take it neat or on the rocks with a slice of lime. This is how tequila was really meant to be enjoyed.
If this list isn’t speaking to you, there is one other option. Chat up your bartender (if it’s not too busy) and see what they like to drink. You may find out that they do, in fact, have one or two specialty cocktails that they like to mix up and would be happy to help you out. But if they’re slammed with a million drink orders, just keep things simple. At the end of the day, the best dive bar cocktail of all is a mean and burly boilermaker.