Some Dos and Don’ts for the Savvy Drinker

Excerpt from DRINKS: A User’s Guide
Adam McDowell
Excerpted from Drinks: A User’s Guide by Adam McDowell. Copyright © 2016 Adam McDowell. Published by TarcherPerigee, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Excerpted from Drinks: A User’s Guide by Adam McDowell. Copyright © 2016 Adam McDowell. Published by TarcherPerigee, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.


The dipsomaniac and the abstainer are not only both mistaken, but they both make the same mistake. They both regard wine as a drug and not a drink.

- G. K. Chesterton

It’s an unfortunate fact that mastering the art of boozemanship involves learning how to dodge rip-offs, rudeness, and nonsense. Most people are ignorant about drinks and therefore susceptible to misdirection. Others—the scoundrels! see potential gain in exploiting that general ignorance. Knowledge and experience make the artful drinker impervious to bullshit and instill in her the confidence to insist on whatever beverage she actually wants and will enjoy in the moment. Here I provide some general guidance on avoiding the usual pitfalls of everyday drinking—advice for a world in which the art is halfway lost, but well on its way to being regained. 


Mind Your Manners at the Bar

Behave yourself. For example: You push up to the bar to wait your turn. Next to you is a fellow in a blue hat, already waiting. Bartender comes over and looks at you to get your order. What to do? Gesture at the man in the blue hat. “He was here first, then it’s me,” you say. This is basic bar etiquette. 

Grab the Corner of the Bar on a Date

If you can, snag the corner spot. If you and your potential paramour are sitting side by side, you won’t get a chance to look at each other—or touch knees, if things are going well. 

Order Fancy Cocktails

You may not be too familiar with the fancy cocktails on the menu, but how will you ever find out what they taste like if you don’t try them? 

I know people sometimes hesitate at the prices, too, but cocktails at a nice bar will tend to include 2½ to 3 ounces of liquor, sometimes more (sometimes a lot more in New York or New Orleans). If you do the math, you’ll find that cocktails are usually the best value proposition on the drinks menu. Let’s imagine a very nice bar in a big city, where manhattans cost $15. That’s 2 ounces of whiskey and 1 ounce of vermouth, so call it three small drink units. If you ordered three whiskey and sodas at the same bar, it might cost you $18 (if you’re lucky), and the result wouldn’t be 

nearly as tasty and interesting. Savvy drinkers choose cocktails for the sake of bang for the buck alone. 

Send Back a Drink That Isn’t Right

It’s okay to send back a poorly made drink; this practice keeps everyone honest. When I’m certain (not guessing) there’s something wrong with a drink—it’s an underpoured pint,* a beer that tastes off (like butterscotch, for example, a sign of diacetyl contamination), a cocktail that tastes like it wasn’t made properly, or, in the classic case, a wine that tastes quite flat and lifeless (and is therefore likely “corked”)—I’m content to send it back, and I won’t take any guff about it. You might have to politely stand your ground. Saying, “I’m sure you want me to be happy with my drink” tends to work. 


Don’t Gender Drinks

There’s no such thing as a man’s drink and a woman’s drink. 

The easiest way to demonstrate that you don’t know a damn thing about drinks is to repeat silly rote notions about which things are for boys and which are for girls. 

Ribbing your male friend who orders a bloody Mary or giving a backhanded compliment to the woman who drinks cognac straight from a snifter is wrong on a few levels. You’re not doing your friends any favors if you’re implicitly making them second- uess their choice of beverage. Can’t a person enjoy a swig in peace? 

Aha, you say, What about wines and other products with aimed- t- omen names like Mommy Juice and such? Well, that’s a trick question: This sexism in liquid form is not for women or for men, nor is it fit for any human. It’s for pouring down the drain. Ditto any product with an overtly dudely name. 

Nor are there young person’s drinks and old person’s drinks. Professionals in the world of drink—winemakers, writers, critics, sommeliers, servers, and so on—regard this sort of nonsense as outdated and naïve. 

In short, gendering drinks just makes you look like a jerk. So does saying this or that drink should or should not be consumed by members of a particular class, nationality, race, and so on. All drinks are for all adults who want to try them. 

* In most English-speaking countries, a pint is 20 ounces by law. If they call it a pint, that’s how much beer they have to give you; less is cheating. Suspiciously small glasses are a common trick, especially in Canada. In the United States, pints don’t quite reign the same way as a beer-serving format, but a pint, if that word is explicitly used, should be 16 ounces.  

Don’t Say Mixologist

I don’t personally have a problem with the term mixologist, which has a deeper pedigree than you might imagine (it’s from the mid- nineteenth century). However, mixologist and mixology are so contentious and unloved among the cocktail cognoscenti that it’s best to avoid them. Bartender or (in some countries) barman will do just fine. 

Don’t Drink the Wine at Weddings

Wine is nearly always bad at weddings. Meanwhile, the spirits at the bar are all the popular ones, of the same quality as ever. Focus your efforts there. 

Don’t Say, “Let’s Do a Shot” 

Shots are usually a terrible idea, especially at the end of the night. Do you really want to be super drunk for the cab ride home? My rule on speed drinking is to never instigate chugging or doing shots. But as with beer in a bucket— lso usually a bad idea— f someone else initiates the round, I grin and bear it. Better to go along than get in the way of other people’s fun. Order something wiser when it’s your turn. Lead by example. 

Don’t Drink When You’re Upset

If you’re in a foul mood, go for a walk. Take a bath. Meditate. Save the drink for a time when you’ll enjoy it.