Though the origins of the bartender’s choice cocktail bar may be murky, the simple act of leaving one’s drinking fate in the hands of a trusted bartender is likely as old as bars themselves.
'Spicy, with Tequila'
“It’s all about interpreting the prompts customers provide—or, on a more elemental level, making them feel comfortable enough to provide such prompts in the first place,” writes Drew Lazor in “The Method Behind the “Bartender’s Choice” Cocktail Bar” . This interaction can result in responses that run the gamut of interpretation from the types of cocktails they usually enjoy to the color of their aura to the more risqué. (Drink bar manager Ezra Star tells Lazor: “One time, someone said, ‘I want something that looks and tastes like a penis’… Sorry, I don’t really know what that tastes like—I’m a lesbian.”)
Across the board, though, PUNCH has heard the following: One of the most common refrains bartenders get in this situation is, I’d like something spicy, with tequila.
“The ‘spicy margarita’ order reminds me of the ‘fruity martini’ order of five years ago,” says Attaboy’s Dan Greenbaum, in New York. “It’s easy for bartenders to roll our eyes at it because the order is now cliché and a lot of the people that order it are basic, but it’s hard to deny that the combination works.”
The real challenge with such a popular request is how to respond in a way that’s more interesting than the standard spicy margarita.
Bobby Heugel (of Houston’s mezcaleria The Pastry War)—who, at time of publishing, received the request “about ten times” over the previous weekend alone—turns to a cocktail that has become his de facto response, which combines a house-made habanero tincture with the bracing effects of mint and Chartreuse. “Mint and habanero really play tricks on one another mentally. We associate mint… with a cooling feeling, the opposite impact that we associate with spiciness or ‘heat.'” The result is “simple, but has enough going on to be intriguing to stand out the guest who probably asks the same spicy question to every bar,” says Heugel.
Greenbaum, meanwhile, most often turns to a drink with a citrus-driven agave base—either tequila, or if the customer is open to smokiness, mezcal—then layers in the fresh flavors of something vegetal (such as cucumber or strawberries) and heat from chiles, in fresh, powdered or hot sauce form. One stand-by: the Mexican Razor Blade, which sees the burn of tequila and chile powder mitigated by fresh cucumber and bright lime.
At New York agave den Mayahuel, Phil Ward points to menu mainstay the Stone Raft, a riff on one of the first drinks he concocted using mezcal. The savoriness of amontillado contrasts distinctly with the heat of spicy jalapeño-infused tequila and the smokiness of mezcal, making for a stirred response to the “spicy, with tequila” request that boldly amplifies both the savory and the herbal.
As Greenbaum concludes, “If the best cocktails are served cold and consist of bold flavors, ‘spicy tequila’ fits into that description.”