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Dealer's Choice

What's a bartender to do when a customer says "surprise me"?

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Shawn Heale, a bartender at Garageland, often makes a "Remember the Maine," as a "surprise" cocktail. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Shawn Heale, a bartender at Garageland, often makes a "Remember the Maine," as a "surprise" cocktail.

Maybe you've tried most drinks on your favorite cocktail bar menu and you're feeling adventurous, or maybe the menu is intimidating and you don't know where to start. There are lots of reasons to ask your bartender to surprise you with a drink — to hand over the decision-making to a professional.

As it turns out, this happens more than you'd think.

For Shawn Heale, a bartender at Garageland in downtown Spokane, dealer's choice cocktails are a heightened level of hospitality.

"It's always fun because people want to feel special. Getting a customized drink is kind of the epitome of that," says Heale.

Crystal Bertholic, lead bartender at Ruins, likes the challenge of creating a custom drink.

"It's like going to an executive chef at a nice restaurant and letting him choose an entrée for you," she says. "That's something that I really enjoy doing, because it's not something I get to do all the time. People are sometimes very specific in what they want. It's really fun to be able to play with different flavors and ingredients to really knock people's socks off."

Every bartender follows up a surprise request with a series of questions. Bertholic starts by asking what kind of drinks guests might make at home before offering a series of stylistic buzzwords (like "spirited" or "citrusy") and examples of each to get a sense of the guest's palate. Chelsea Tolle, general manager at Volstead Act, zeros in on a favorite base spirit. Heale asks what spirits a guest doesn't like. Other bartenders ask about allergies.

Once the bartender gets a sense of the guest, the fun begins. Zach Humphreys, bartender at the Peacock Room, usually makes a signature drink off the menu since those aren't available anywhere else, but in a pinch, he'll whip up something else.

"All bartenders have a few tricks up their sleeves," he says. "You can come up with a drink pretty quick."

Heale usually stays away from the menu completely. "It's pretty rare that I'll make someone something off the menu if they go dealer's choice," he says. "If they want something special, they usually came in to order something that isn't on the menu, or they didn't see anything that really struck their fancy on the menu."

Matching a guest with the right cocktail is a skill cultivated over time. "There's a lot of things that guests will say that indicate to me the kind of drink they'll like," says Kristy White, bartender at Clover. "If they say, 'I want something sweet, but not too sweet,' that usually means they want something sweet. I joke with people and say: 'If you don't like it, then I'll drink it,' but it rarely happens."

If you do happen to get a dealer's choice you don't like, every bartender I talked to said that they would make it right, whether that meant tweaking the existing drink, or creating something completely new.

"It's really trying to let your guests know that you are there for them and their enjoyment," says Bertholic. "It's a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. I think once you get to that point, it's a better experience every time for everyone involved." Far from being offended when a guest doesn't like a drink, she's insistent that her guests are honest with her so that she can make it right.

Several bartenders told me that they'd added drinks to the menu that started as a dealer's choice, making it part of the recipe and menu development process.

If you've never tried a surprise cocktail, it might seem intimidating at first.

"Be honest about what you like and don't like," says Tolle. The more information you can give your bartender, the more likely you are to find a new favorite. Before heading to a new place, Humphreys recommends a little research. "Take a look at the drink menu first, see what the bar specializes in," he says. You're going to be more successful with a drink that matches the overall theme. White suggests staying open and not being afraid of unfamiliar ingredients.

You'll likely have better luck getting dedicated bartender attention when the bar isn't hopping. Although all the bartenders I talked with enjoy dealer's choice, it can be more difficult to be creative at a busy time.

Most bartenders want to do anything in their power to add to your enjoyment in their bar, and surprise cocktails are part of that.

"I hope that people understand that if someone walks in the bar, we genuinely want them to enjoy their experience while they're with us," Heale says. "I will happily make whatever someone wants to make their experience at my bar a better time, 100 percent of the time."♦