Great bartenders are like great chefs. They’re both intensely focused on flavor and quality, constantly checking their creations for balance and consistency. But while chefs can taste their food all night long in the privacy of the kitchen, bartenders are allowed but a quick, discrete sip, known in the industry as the straw test.
A bartender takes a plastic straw, dips it into a meticulously prepared drink and plugs the end with her finger, trapping the liquid inside until it’s dispensed into her waiting mouth, all in the name of quality control.
As cocktail culture continues to grow and demand a new standard of excellence, straw tasting has traditionally been the accepted way to test a drink before serving it. But bars, like restaurants across the globe, are phasing out plastic straws in favor of sustainable options, and the debate rages on about whether straw testing actually improves quality.
For most bars, quality begins with the individual ingredients. Fresh produce is obviously crucial, but even with a reliable source, there may be swings in flavor. One batch of lemons could be mouth-puckeringly tart, while another is mild, almost sweet.
Scott Koehl, the beverage director for DMK Restaurants in Chicago, says his group adjusts ingredient proportions for cocktails based on that day’s produce. A signature drink at Ada Street, the Killing Floor (jalapeño-infused tequila, watermelon and lime) is calibrated based on the water content in the watermelon juice and can vary up to three quarters of an ounce. DMK’s twist on a Moscow Mule, the Chills & Thrills (vodka, ginger juice, lemon and rosé) is adjusted based on the spice content of the ginger.
And while Koehl says his staff tastes around 70 percent of the cocktails made in an average evening, there are plenty of ways to maintain quality without the straw test. “When it comes to quality control, we look at all the different ways to check—temperature, taste, color and fill line,” he says. “Before you even straw-taste, you can usually tell if something is wrong. The cocktail should be a consistent color and reach the same fill line every time.”
Koehl requires bartenders to taste infusions, juices and anything else open before service. When it comes to straw tasting, they do so with either reusable metal straws or biodegradable paper straws and make adjustments as they see fit.
Devon McGrath, the beverage director of Cultivator Shoals in New Bedford, Mass., has bartenders sample every drink. He says the most important thing is that drinks taste the same no matter who makes it or how busy the night is.
“No matter how many times you make a drink, sometimes you can get distracted and miss a step,” says McGrath. “We’ve been using a straw, but since our push to go straw-free, it has raised some issues. Our reusable and paper straws cost more money or need to be washed every time we taste. Spoon tasting can be sloppy sometimes. It’s a constant work in progress.”
Tasting isn’t legal in all 50 states. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission, for instance, only allows minimal tastings of beer, wine or cider for employees of liquor-licensed businesses; they can not taste liquor.
And with many bars focused on eliminating as much waste as possible, straw tasting with plastic or even paper straws isn’t exactly sustainable. For now, the perception of quality standards is up to the bar manager and, perhaps more importantly, the customer.