Win Friends and Influence People with a Classier Cocktail

“I never drink anything stronger than gin before breakfast.”

— W.C. Fields

Nothing screams fresh-out-of-college like a Bud Light in a chic downtown lounge. You might have ditched the popped-collar polo, but if you’re still rocking cheap beer and boxed wine, you need a bit of help. Follow this guide to learn the ins and outs of ordering a classy cocktail, the perfect confidence booster for a night out.

Think of your cocktail as a conversation piece. If you sit down with a relatively unique drink at a table full of standard-issue vodka crans and domestic beers, you’re going to get a few questions about it. A classic cocktail is the gastronomic equivalent of vintage fashion. Properly executed, it can set you apart and make you memorable.

The first thing you need to know is that classy fellows drink hard alcohol. Spirits, straight up. Forget those TV spots with rugged outdoorsy types drinking cold beers. You’re not going for rugged, you’re going for sophistication. Style. Urbanity.

But before we continue, heed my warnings…

Warning Number 1: Know your venue

Just as you wouldn’t drink a Bud Light in a downtown lounge, you probably aren’t going to find any Courvoisier in a college bar. Your drink is just another accessory, match it to your location.

I use this as a rule of thumb: when I’m at a bar, do the urinals have puke in them? If they do, it’s a domestic lager night.

Warning Number 2: Take it for a test drive

Here’s the worst thing you could do after reading this article: sidle up to an attractive young lady in an ultramodern bar, order a new high-proof drink and take a gulp.

Unless you’ve tasted one of these drinks before, I guarantee you’re going to cough like the dickens and look like an idiot. Times have changed. Most of us weren’t weaned on classic pre-prandial drinks. We grew up with vodka coolers and light beers. If you’ve never had a martini before, (and I mean a martini, not an appletini, crantini or pomtini), they might take some getting used to.

That’s not to say that a well-made cocktail can’t be delicious. Just that they can be a bit of an acquired taste.

Give a few different drinks a go, but try them in low-stakes situations. Out with a few friends. On a night off. Not in the middle of conversation with a beautiful woman.

The Basics

No matter what you’re drinking, there are two things that apply across the board.

Make it your own. I’m going to suggest some classic drinks that you can order almost anywhere… But don’t take them as they come. You can use “modifiers” to stand out. Ordering a Martini? Ask for it “dirty” (with a splash of olive brine). Wedges of lime, cherries, and olives are present at just about any bar you’ll visit. Use them to customize your drink… Within reason.

Feign a fickle palate. Don’t be a jerk about it, but show that you know a bit about your chosen libation. Request top-shelf liquors by name. If the bartender mentions that they don’t have a certain ingredient, assess its importance and order a replacement or change your drink. There’s a fine line, here. You don’t want to appear snobbish, just particular.

By all means, experiment. But if you have no idea where to start, try a couple of these classics on for size.

Vodka or Gin Martini

2 oz. of high-end gin or vodka and a splash of vermouth shaken over ice and strained into a glass. Garnished with an olive. Choose whichever liquor suits your fancy. Vodka gives you the added cool-factor of a James Bond association. Gin has more character and a continental charm.

Ordering tips

Standard top-shelf gins are Bombay Sapphire and Tanqueray. Standard top-shelf vodkas are Grey Goose and Ketel One. A bartender should ask you when you order if you have a preference for the spirit, but you can always specify before hand. Depending on the bar, you might be able to ask for other premium spirits by name, but the four listed above are safe bets. And please, whatever you do, don’t order it “shaken, not stirred.”

Useful modifiers

  • Order a martini “dirty” for a splash of olive brine added to the drink.
  • Order with extra olives for added food-value.
  • Depending on the bar, order with a lemon curl or a cocktail onion instead of the olive.


While often enjoyed by women, the Manhattan was once described as “a drinking man’s cocktail. Strong, urbane and simple.” A Manhattan consists of 2 oz. Rye whiskey, a dash of sweet vermouth and a dash of Angostura bitters shaken over ice and strained into a glass. Garnished with a maraschino cherry.

The major stumbling block with this one is the fact that some bars no longer carry bitters. Some people argue that bitters can be left out, but I’d recommend going with something else if the Angostura bitters aren’t available.

Useful modifiers

  • Rye is the traditional choice for this drink, but any whiskey will do. Try with Scotch, (also called a “Rob Roy”)
  • If you’re at a particularly well-stocked bar, try asking for alternative bitters (orange bitters or Peychaud’s bitters are the most common)
  • A “dry Manhattan” is made with dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth.

Non-standard highballs & Craft beers

I’m not talking about rum and coke, or vodka and cranberry. If you don’t end up acquiring a taste for the classics, try ordering a scotch and soda, or a gin and tonic. You can usually get away with house spirits in the highballs because of the mixer.

If you really just like your beverages fermented, plenty of upscale bars and lounges carry a wide variety of microbrewed craft beers. Take some time to learn about beer styles, and ask what local brews they carry.

Useful modifiers

  • Lemons and limes will go with almost any high ball. If they don’t come standard, be sure to order one.
  • Wheat bears have gained popularity in the past few years. Drink these light tasting guys with a wedge of lemon.
  • Some bars will do “mixed beer drinks.” Try a Black & Tan, pale ale on the bottom with stout or porter floated on top. Harp and Guiness are commonly used.

A final note

Still think that real men drink beer and that these beverages are needlessly complex? Let me share a quick story with you that will hopefully change your mind.

A few years ago, I sat down at a table with a couple of loud guys drinking Guiness and going on in fake Irish accents about how it was a “man’s beer.” One of them caught a glimpse of my gin martini and went off on it. “What is this? A woman’s drink? Where’s your beer?”

Without missing a beat, I smiled and offered him a sip. He took a swig, his eyes bulged and he started coughing. By the time I finished my drink, it was clear who had out-manned whom. The best sort of masculinity is the understated sort.


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About Derek Houg Derek is a writer, editor and jack-of-all-trades living in Vancouver, BC. Surviving on his wit and charm, he always seems to pull it together at the last moment. His likes include indie rock, pop culture and Kurt Vonnegut. To find out whate else he's up to, check out

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