What’s the Best Drink to Order in a Dive Bar?

So you’ve put some Hank III on the jukebox and are gearing up to play some Big Buck Hunter. But first you’re gonna need a drink. (And cash—plastic isn’t accepted at most dives.) We spoke with a

variety of folks in the booze industry to find out what to order at a dive bar so that you don’t look like an ass in front of the regulars.

“The key to ordering at a dive is to know where you are. You wouldn’t go into a taqueria and order lasagne, so don’t head into your local watering hole and expect the bartender to stir up a perfect Sazerac,” says Charles Joly, the chief mixologist at the Drawing Room in Chicago. Your best bet is to order some spirits neat (do you really want to be sucking on the ice from this joint’s ice bin?) and a beer. Bottles are good since the glassware may be dubiously clean, if it even exists. Bourbon is always a good choice, says Thad Vogler, owner of Bar Agricole in San Francisco. “Jim Beam and Wild Turkey are the best-value spirits out there.”

If you’re going beyond a shot and a beer, a good rule of thumb is to avoid anything where what’s in the drink isn’t in the name and anything that takes more than two steps. Safe-ish cocktails include a gin and tonic, Jack and Coke, Makers and ginger, and Scotch and soda. “If you don’t know what’s in it, you shouldn’t be drinking it,” says Jason Mathern, manager of the 24-hour Club Ms. Mae’s in New Orleans, who says he doesn’t have time for “ridiculously” named drinks.

If you’re lucky, you might be able to get away with a good “old-man cocktail” that’s easy to make, says Adam Lantheaume, proprietor of the Boston Shaker store in Boston. “Something like a Rusty Nail [Scotch and Drambuie] might work out.”

But forget about ordering drinks that contain vermouth (Manhattans, martinis, et al.), since it’s a type of wine, and the bottle sitting around the bar almost certainly hasn’t been refrigerated, so its flavor will be flat. You wouldn’t want to drink a glass of wine from a dusty bottle that’s been on the shelf for months, so don’t contaminate perfectly good whiskey with it either.

If you’re very broke but still want a mixed drink, ask for a “mat shot.” That’s when the bartender picks up the rubber mat under the booze he’s been pouring all night and empties its contents into a shot glass for you—usually for free. This is also good fodder for bets.

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