As I frequent various bars and cocktail lounges, I try to pay attention to what sorts of drinks people are ordering. It can be quite educational, as well as entertaining.
Different bars will attract different types of clientele, and this in turn will often dictate the types of drinks that you will see ordered over, and over again. With the cocktail coming back in vogue, people are beginning to acquire more of a repertoire and familiarity with the cocktail scene, and so you will often see a lot more then just the "old standards" that people order simply because they don't know what else to do.
As the "Wine Scene" evolved across America, it was interesting to watch the drinking trends shift across the spectrum. At first, the "pop wines" were all the rage as people went after the alcoholic buzz, but weren't quite ready for the complex tastes of a real wine. Then their tastes started shifting toward the fruity white wines, then onto the dryer, and more complex white wines, and eventually evolved on to the full and robust complexities of red wines. I'm now noticing that these same people are coming back to the more subtle complexities found in white wines, and thus the market is settling in on a more wide spectrum appreciation for all the variety that wine has to offer.
Cocktails perhaps are experiencing a similar evolutionary course as people begin to rediscover and appreciate this classic cousin to wine. The mechanics of a cocktail are distinctly different then wine, so the evolutionary process will no doubt take a different pace, but it can be interesting to watch this as it changes over time. I place the current cocktail culture at about the same stage that wine appreciation was when people were just moving out of the "pop wines" and into the fruity whites. They knew there were more exciting experiences to be had out there, but they weren't quite sure where to look for them.
One cocktail that I've noticed being ordered with a fair amount of regularity, is the Champagne Cocktail, it is ordered by both men and women alike, and it doesn't appear to be based on the cocktail menus that lounges often use to promote various drinks with. There are several different cocktails that are made with Champagne, and I expect that many of these just might possibly be gaining popularity due to the upcoming Millennium. Champagne, either by itself, or in a cocktail, makes an excellent and festive drink to celebrate any occasion at all. While it might be hard to find a bartender that can make a proper Bellini, this is definitely a festive cocktail of this variety that I would recommend trying.
Martini's of course are often one of the staple drinks of most bars. And while I personally might look aghast at some of the drinks being served with Martini tacked onto their name somewhere, they often do represent the class of cocktail that deserves recognition as well as discovery. In some bars, you may see Martini drinkers that are perhaps feeling threatened by the modern coffee drinker. These are the type that will very carefully, and specifically, order their martini prepared in a way that they believe proves they know their stuff. After rattling off a litany of brand names, ingredients, and mixing instructions, they'll sit back and observe the bartender as he produces their masterpiece.
Some cocktails become popular simply because that is what a bartender might currently be suggesting to customers who aren't sure what they want to drink. For several years now, the Cosmopolitan appears to be the cocktail that is most popular with bartenders across the country. I suppose this is one of those chicken and egg situations, in that it is hard to tell if this cocktail is popular because bartenders are pushing it, or if bartenders are pushing it because it is popular. It has just been fairly surprising to me that 9 times out of 10, when I ask a bartender for a cocktail recommendation, they will likely suggest a Cosmopolitan.
I recently asked a group of on-line bartenders what some of the popular drinks were that are ordered at their establishments, and here are the lists they responded with. The drinks aren't listed in any specific order, but simply represent what they perceive as being the commonly ordered drinks.
Bar #1 (Cheryl)
Screwdriver, Coffee Nudge, Gin & Tonic, Vodka Tonic, Margarita, Martini, Bourbon & Whiskey Sevens, All Premium Scotch on the Rocks, Vodka Cranberry, Drinks from my Personal Drink Book.
Bar #2 (Janet)
Jack Daniels & Coke, Jim Beam & Coke, Fuzzy Navel, Vodka Cranberry, Seven & Seven, Sea Breeze, Sweet Tarts, Harbor Lights, Kaluha & Cream, Lemon Drop.
Bar #3 (JC)
Long Island Ice Tea, Rum & Coke, Vodka Cranberry, Liquid Cocaine (specialty of the bar), Snakebite, Gin & Tonic, Jack & Coke, Buffalo Sweat, Red Snapper, Purple Hooter.
Bar #4 (Jenny)
Blue Iced Tea (a variation of the Long Island Ice Tea), Long Island Ice Tea, Red Devil (a.k.a. the "Devil's Drink"), Mongolian Mother Fu**er (slight variation of the Purple Hooter), Sex on the Beach, Amaretto Sour, Black Label on the rocks, Vodka Cranberry, Rum & Coke, Jack Daniels & Coke.
It is interesting to note that in all of these lists, the only reoccurring drink is the "Vodka Cranberry", which forms the basis of a Cosmopolitan. Many of the other cocktails are simple statement of ingredients (Gin & Tonic, Rum & Coke, Scotch on the Rocks…), or are in that class of cocktail that I think of as representing the early stages of cocktail awareness (Screwdriver, Fuzzy Navel, Sex on the Beach…). Fortunately, there are a few "real" cocktails floating around in the list (Martini, Margarita, and Red Snapper).
Another entertaining aspect of watching what people order is to see if you can pick out the "odd man out". This is the patron that doesn't quite fit with the rest of the clientele at the bar. This can take a number of different forms, but commonly goes one of two different ways. First, there is the customer that orders a "shock" drink (Brain Hemorrhage, Sex on the Beach, Orgasm…) at a bar that is more into the Martini, Scotch, and Chardonnay crowd. One easy way to notice this is to simply watch when the bartender rolls their eyes when the waitress presents an order. You don't even have to hear what the cocktail is in order to tell what the bartender is thinking. On the other side of the coin, is the patron that will order an uncommon or complex cocktail (Bellini, French 75, Negroni, Sazerac...) from a bar that obviously isn't familiar with this type of drink. The drinks I listed here, are all considered "classic" cocktails, but are also ones which bartenders often have either never heard of, or don't know how to make. Somewhere in the middle, is the patron that attempts to order a cocktail that is a "specialty" drink from some other bar, which of course the bartender has no clue as to what it is, or what the ingredients are.
So the next time you are in a cocktail bar, pay attention to what the people around you are ordering. Especially when you are in a "new" establishment, attempt to get a pulse on the bartender, the clientele, and the type of ambiance that is being pulled together. Not only can this help you adjust your mindset to better fit in with the flow, but it can also be quite entertaining to watch those who just don't quite get it.