When I visit a new bar and sample its drinks, I’ll try to comment on the following factors:
Taste. If I don’t love the taste of a drink, it won’t end up on my list of favorites, but I might still award respect and credit for being unique or just generally interesting. The most creative cocktail menus often list ingredients that are completely unknown to me, so sometimes I have no idea what to expect when I order a particular drink. I most appreciate drinks with balance – not too sweet, sour or bitter. I do have a preference for sweetness vs. bitterness, but then again my go-to drink is a filthy martini, so I’m by no means biased against non-sweet drinks. As I become more knowledgeable about the art and science of cocktails, I’ll try to provide informed commentary about the drinks I try.
Presentation. Drinks don’t have to be pretty in order to taste great, but I love it when they are. I appreciate the use of customized garnishes, foams, and anything else that can help to distinguish a drink. More than that, I appreciate the process of making a drink, which is why I always try to sit at the bar. I like being able to see the mixing, shaking, stirring, pouring, and everything else that goes into the final product – and often there are tiny touches that speak to the bartender’s craftsmanship.
Value. As someone who’s spent the last few years living in Paris and London, I’ve become accustomed to paying the equivalent of more than 14 USD for cocktails at well-known bars. I generally think this is a rip-off, but there’s not much to be done about it other than to give credit to those few bars that charge slightly more reasonable rates (or are at least more liberal with their serving sizes and/or shots on the house).
Bartenders. I have a real fondness for bartenders who view their work as an art form and demonstrate true passion and energy for what they do. The best bartenders not only display craftsmanship and knowledge. They engage you in conversation and make some effort to get to know you, as a person and as a drinker; you leave feeling that you’ve actually made a new friend. And they love being asked to make something different so that they can show off their skills. I think the bartenders, more than anything else, make or break a bar.
Menu. Sometimes you’re just looking for a really good martini, so it doesn’t matter how expansive or creative the cocktail list is. But in general, the cocktail offerings are your first clue to whether or not you’ve found a good bar. I’d never choose a bar with no signature cocktails of its own. The cocktail list doesn’t have to be extensive, but it should demonstrate the creativity of the people making the drinks, so the more (and more unique) drinks, the better.
Ambience. This is a tricky attribute and one that I find is more often than not a miss. Ambience takes into account a lot of things: size of the space and number of people, variety of clientele, decor/theme, seating arrangements, and lighting. I generally prefer bars that are smaller and more intimate, without pretension. Ambience alone won’t make or break a bar for me, but great ambience can go a very long way.