Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

Bartenders Reveal the Secrets of a Successful No-Menu Cocktail Program

Image: Celia Jacobs

Done right, the dealer’s choice is a thing of beauty. A customer utters a few simple descriptors, and the bartender looks into her crystal ball and conjures up an appropriate cocktail. Bars like Attaboy in New York City, Civil Liberties in Toronto, and Cloakroom in Brisbane and Montreal made their bread and butter on this customer-dictated approach. No menu is found in any of the bars, and staff fly free-form, personalizing each drink to match a guest’s whims.

“With dealer’s choice, you can showcase cocktails and ingredients that guests may not be familiar with,” says Nick Kennedy of Civil Liberties. “It offers a great deal of learning and creative opportunities for the bar team, which reduces our staff attrition.”

Even if your bar opts for menus, someone will eventually put their trust in your hands and ask you to personalize their beverage. How should you handle such a situation? These are five tips from the industry’s no-menu masters on how to perfect the dealer’s choice.

1. Ask Smart Questions

“The hardest thing to teach people is how to read the guest properly,” says Andrew Whibley, a partner at Cloakroom. He begins each order by asking guests to choose a category: spirit, style or classic. From there, he asks a series of follow-up questions designed to narrow down the choice of cocktail. Do they want something refreshing? Spirit-forward? “We also use ‘citrus or no citrus’ as a major pivot point.”

From there, Whibley digs deeper by gauging their interest in certain drink descriptors, like fruity, bitter or herbal. “After that point, we’re pretty confident that what we’ll make will be close to what the client is looking for.”

“You need to be able to get a sense of where a guest is coming from in terms of expectations of sweetness,” says Kennedy. “It takes experience and the ability to ask probing questions that provide heuristics for balance.” Dietary restrictions are a must-ask, he says. “We’ll often inquire if there are any spirits a customer loves or hates or how they feel about black licorice.”

2. Know Your Audience

“Never get away from what you’re actually trying to do,” says Whibley. “Make the client what they want. It’s better to nail what they’re looking for with a simple drink than make something overly complicated that doesn’t line up with their tastes.”

In other words, this isn’t the time to test-drive a new drink. “Make cocktails for the guest in front of you, not the guest you want in front of you,” says Kennedy. “Sometimes, they just want a bomb Midori Sour.”

3. Know Your Bar

While custom cocktails may have their allure, it’s not for every bar program. High-volume bars don’t have the time needed to build that bond with a customer. Attaboy puts a cap on its requests—35 at a time—to keep staff focused on fulfilling orders.

One important consideration is continuity. If the person interfacing with the guest isn’t the same person making the drink, you risk losing the nuances of the order.

For Kennedy, going off-menu requires staff to act as ambassadors to cocktail culture and have a deep knowledge of recipes to match. “It’s a key element of ensuring the growth and sustainability of cocktail culture in your city.”

4. Stock Your Inventory Wisely

With no menu, how do you anticipate your orders? The short answer: practice. Over time, Civil Liberties learned its standard needs for base spirits and the rest of the backbar. But trends can also have a hand in what’s moving off the shelves. “Every now and then, I’ll be scratching my head during inventory, trying to figure how we passed so much of this one product in a week,” says Whibley. “It’s because our employees decide to use a new amaro or new product in almost every drink.”

5. Remember the Customer Is Always Right

“We’ve gotten good at [bartender’s choice], but nobody bats 1,000,” says Whibley. When a customer doesn’t love what’s in front of them, his team takes a moment to analyze where they went wrong by asking questions like, “Did we misinterpret the customer? Did they forget to mention a flavor they don’t like?” Then they adjust accordingly and make a new cocktail. When all else fails, he says jokingly, “We make them a London Calling.”