There I was, grabbing some dinner with a couple of friends at a sushi place one cool autumn evening. It had been a relaxing meal, with no warning of the life-altering upheaval that was in store for me.
I thumbed through the cocktail menu, and a drink caught my eye. I can't remember the name, but it had lotus flower and mint in it, which sounded absolutely delicious. I beckoned the waiter over and put in my order, excited at the prospect of drinking something new.
The sound of my friends' cackling laughter when the drink came, though, haunts me to this day. The drink was pastel green, had a literal pink lotus flower on top and was served in possibly the most feminine martini glass I'd ever seen. I tried to drink it with as much dignity as I could muster, but I had little remaining after even the waiter smirked at me. I couldn't shake the thought, "Oh god, I wonder what the bartender thinks?"
It's exactly the kind of question people like me tend to overanalyze, so I asked some of the city's more experienced and well-traveled bartenders their thoughts of common stereotypes about drinks — and they didn't hold back.
Don't fret if you find your favorite bartender teasing you about your regular order, though. A common sentiment expressed from everyone I talked to was that people are going to drink what they think tastes good, so if you like it, own it. After all, that pink-and-green lotus concoction was pretty tasty.
The drink he's learned to love: The Mojito
Working in a Cuban restaurant gave Kidwell a love and appreciation for the mojito that not many other bartenders have. "We were going through 10 pounds of fresh mint every day. I respect the mojito; it kicked my ass every Friday and Saturday night."
Years on the job: 6
Currently works at: Hush Lounge
Past experience: Leapin' Leprechaun, Embargo '62, Beast and Barrel, Flying Squirrel, Northshore Grille
What he drinks: Whiskey from Scotland or Japan and rum from Martinique or Puerto Rico (and occasionally the cheap coconut rum he and his friends drank in his youth)
Favorite drink to mix: Manhattan. When Kidwell was less versed in the finer points of cocktails, most of his "original" creations were really just riffs on the Manhattan, usually inundated with blue curacao. "I realized that what I was doing was nothing that no one had ever done, I just didn't know what to call them." As he gained experience, he found an appreciation for the Manhattan and learned how to creatively alter it without flooding it with fruity liqueur.
What you should do at a bar: Trust the person behind it. Bartenders are educated in what they do and a brief conversation will give them a good idea of what you're looking for. "We're back here for a reason," Kidwell says. "We know what we're talking about."
What you shouldn't do: Ask the bartender what s/he wants to do when s/he grows up. "I'm 30 years old," says Kidwell. "I'm pretty sure I've found what I want to do when I grow up, thanks. I'm making a career doing this."
What your bar order says about you: Seven years and six establishments have given Kidwell enough experience with different crowds that he can zero in on your personality depending on what you're drinking. Below are a few examples.
THE DRINK: Lemon drop
THE TYPE: The drunk girl
"I hate to be so blatant, but in my experience, around 1 a.m., you have that poor blonde-headed, lost-her-phone, can't-find-her-friends girl that just really needs another shot, and all she'll accept is a lemon drop," says Kidwell. And he's picked enough of these girls up off the bathroom floor to know the type.
THE DRINK: Manhattan
THE TYPE: The surprising (in a good way) guest
"When someone comes in and orders a tried-and-true Manhattan, that's my kind of guy. The night just got better," Kidwell says. The Manhattan comes in several different varieties, so when a new patron orders a classic Manhattan and goes so far as to specify the liquor, Kidwell knows he's met his match.
THE DRINK: Sangria
THE TYPE: The surefooted
"It's for people who want to make up their mind once and just go with it. There's no rethinking sangria. Once you've started drinking sangria, you don't really want anything else," Kidwell says.
THE DRINK: Domestic beer and then a classic cocktail
THE TYPE: The echo
"It's always young guys that come in and order a Bud Light, but once their buddy shows up and orders an Old Fashioned, suddenly this guy is all about good bourbon. They think 'Oh, my friend's drinking this, and I need to look as edgy or as cool, too,'" says Kidwell.
THE DRINK: Old Fashioned with club soda
THE TYPE: The clueless drinker
Kidwell can handle muddled fruit in an Old Fashioned, but the decades-long trend of adding club soda to the typically bourbon cocktail is absolute blasphemy in his book. "They just don't know how to drink," he says of such patrons.
The drink she's learned to love: The Martini
"I respect martini drinkers, even though I usually have to ask like 40 questions," says Keith, who regularly made martinis during her time at Easy Bistro. "They know exactly what they want and how they want it in there." Pro tip: Dry martinis are made without any vermouth, and wet martinis have more vermouth than normal — and vermouth does go bad, i.e. bitter.
Years on the job: 7
Currently works at: The Flying Squirrel
Past experience: Alleia, Easy Bistro
What she drinks: "Basically everything from any bar," she says with a laugh, but in narrowing it down to one she says tequila and tonic, which gives a very uplifting kind of buzz.
Favorite drink to mix: Boozy bourbon drinks. A Sara Keith classic is "The Breakup," which doesn't have a specific recipe, but has enough bourbon in it for any poor soul at her bar who looks like they just got dumped and wants to forget for a night. Aside from that, people who drink Manhattans or Old Fashioneds tend to give the bar less trouble, she says. "Bourbon's just more of a drinker's drink. They know what they want and are looking to enjoy it."
What you should do at a bar: Especially on weekends, know that the bartender is busy and will get you your drink. "A bit of patience goes a long way," Keith says.
What you shouldn't do at a bar: Disobey Aretha Franklin. "People will snap their fingers at you, bang on the bar, strangers will call you weird nicknames and even scream at you to get your attention," says Keith. "Just... don't do any of those things."
What your bar order says about you: Easy Bistro and The Flying Squirrel cater to very different audiences, meaning Keith has a wide breadth of experience. She can usually pin down what you're like depending on what you order.
THE DRINK: Gin and tonic
THE TYPE: The regular
"Gin and tonic is huge, and a lot of people's go-to," says Keith. "I respect it because gin is awesome and delicious. Can't go wrong there."
THE DRINK: Tequila shots
THE TYPE: The blackout-seeker
Despite tequila being the main ingredient in one of Keith's favorite drinks — emphasis on "drink" — she acknowledges people don't give it the respect it deserves. "People just can't handle tequila. Tequila shots are for when someone just doesn't want to be a person the next day," she says.
THE DRINK: Bud Light
THE TYPE: The disappointed
The Flying Squirrel doesn't serve domestic beer, so Keith says people who order Bud Light or other domestic light beer have one of three reactions, usually: "They either say they can't drink here and leave, usually with their wife; I'll recommend a craft pilsner and they'll complain it has 'too much flavor'; or they'll just go with my suggestion." The fallback drink for the disappointed? Usually a Jack and Coke.
THE DRINK: Long Island Iced Tea
THE TYPE: The wild partier
"People know it's going to give them the fastest buzz, and I just look at them thinking, 'Do you really want this hangover tomorrow?'" Keith laughs. "Especially on the weekends, we serve a lot more than weekdays."
THE DRINK: Vodka and soda, extra lime
THE TYPE: The dieter
"I think vodka drinkers just don't like the taste of alcohol or they're watching their weight," Keith says. "I get a lot of middle-aged women ordering their 'diet drink' of a vodka soda."
The drink he's learned to love: Old Fashioned
"We've been making them a long time, but when I started, I was only making like five in a year," Stanley laughs. "No one ordered them, but I still had to have all the stuff on hand to make them." However, over time a dedicated group of men and women started coming in and ordering almost exclusively Old Fashioneds as the popularity of bourbon cocktails surged. "They're cool guys, and they look forward to the drink, so I definitely don't mind making them."
Years on the job: 20
Currently works at: Chattanooga Billiard Club Downtown
Past experience: N/A. Stanley's been CBC's loyal bartender since the late '90s, though he did wait tables at El Chico while he attended UTC.
What he drinks: Craft IPAs, especially Ballast Point Sculpin from San Diego. "The Chattanooga beer scene has exploded in the last two years, it's been great to watch," he adds.
Favorite drink to mix: The Gummy Bear. "It's basically a millennial Sex on the Beach," Stanley says of this combination of raspberry vodka, peach schnapps and cranberry juice. "We sell them for $5.50, and let me tell you, tasty and cheap is a winning combination. It makes everyone happy."
What you should do at a bar: Practice patience. "It goes beyond yelling or waving money at me. You can tell by how people look at you," Stanley says.
What you shouldn't do: Come in if you're underage. "I know Fridays are busy and I can deal with that, but getting in trouble with the ABC Board could make me lose my job or snatch away our business," says Stanley. "It's not exactly considerate of the people whose livelihood depends on the bar."
What your bar order says about you: Stanley has seen it all in his more than two decades at CBC, and while he doesn't want to be mean to anyone, he says, some things just ring true.
THE DRINK: Manhattan
THE TYPE: The tries-too-hard
Stanley doesn't get many orders for Manhattans, but a lot of the time, they're from guys who want to look like they know what they're doing. "They might not like the drink at all, but they read about it and want to be the cool guy," he says. "And if they don't like it, they'll just sip on it slow for about an hour and be miserable."
THE DRINK: Craft beer
THE TYPE: All flannel, all the time
"They've usually got a beard, too," says Stanley, who is surprisingly clean-shaven for a craft IPA-lover. "Oh, and they're definitely going to want more."
THE DRINK: Whiskey ginger
THE TYPE: The social drinker
"Whiskey gingers are like the Bud Light of cocktails," Stanley says without a hint of derision in his voice. "I like to hear people order whiskey gingers. It means they like it and will be back in 10 minutes. That's a good thing."
THE DRINK: Whiskey sour
THE TYPE: The novice drinker
While this drink will get you judged by the seasoned 40-year-old next to you at the bar, says Stanley, the people who order them aren't afraid to do so. "Whiskey sours are sweeter than whiskey gingers, so they're usually drunk by rookies," he says.
THE DRINK: "What's your cheapest shot?"
THE TYPE: Pretty much everyone at CBC
"I'll hear 'What's your cheapest whiskey?' a lot in a given night," Stanley says. "I know why they're here, it's not rocket science. I tell them, 'Let's just get you that Evan [Williams Green label] and find you your future girlfriend.'"