Charles Joly is the king of ‘dealer’s choice.’ We all know what the dealer’s choice is,
right? Well, if you don’t, it’s that decision you place solely on that guy or
gal behind the bar when you don’t know what you want or simply can’t be
bothered deciding. I’ve noticed in the past few years that some bars actually
have ‘dealer’s choice’ listed as an option on their menu.
Requesting a dealer’s choice implies trust and sometimes
cements comradeship. It does, however, require a bartender that has an astute
creative sensibility or a vast memory bank of drinks. Or both, as is the case
with my good friend Charles. I witnessed this trait often during his tenure at
Chicago’s Drawing Room and even more so from the tiny confines of The Office,
a tiny bolthole of a bar tucked away beneath the award-winning Aviary where he was
until recently the Beverage Director.
As the sun sets on his time at the latter (his last night
was Halloween), it reminded me of the profound skill it takes to offer only
dealer’s choice options like they do at The Office and like they’ve done at New
York’s Milk & Honey (now re-incarnated as Attaboy) very successfully for years. But not only does
it require skill, it takes a certain degree of empathy to find that perfect
drink; that one where the guest says, “yep, that’s exactly what I was looking
For me it all starts with asking the right questions and
Charles does this better than anyone. In fact, his quest to get the most
appropriate and satisfying drink in front of every guest inspired this very
article. Most customers will be proffered a cocktail menu as they approach the
bar and will hopefully choose something from that list of beverages that you’ve
spent weeks, maybe months, curating.
But what if they don’t?
If they want something ‘off menu,’ then they’re really putting
their decision in the hands of the bartender on duty. But what if said
bartender is not the creative type? Which is totally fine. Not every barkeep
wants to grow up to be a mixologist (also totally fine). Not every bartender
has a drink with lemongrass and lychee up their sleeve, you know, just in case.
Nor does everyone need to know the original recipe for – or the etymology of – the
Any such interaction about a dealer’s choice should begin
with a dialogue. When I ask a bartender to make me something they like (which
is how a recent conversation transpired at Drink in Boston
recently), I mostly get asked: “what spirit do you like?” This can be a fine
approach but it’s become all too common and not as thoughtful as something
like: “what are you in the mood for?” I find this a more personal, professional
and inquisitive approach. Some of the questions Charles would often ask me back
in those Drawing Room days might have included:
“Where have you been tonight?”
“What was the last drink you had?”
“What do you normally drink?”
“Are there any flavors or ingredients that you really don’t
“How do you feel about eggs?”
“Where did you have lunch today?”
“Who’s your favorite muppet?”
“Where did you go on your last vacation?”
“How early do you have to be up tomorrow?”
“What do you have planned for the rest of the night?”
Those last two weren’t his way of coming on to me by the way;
rather it allowed him to better understand if I’m going for dinner, perhaps I’m
celebrating something significant, or maybe I’m on my way home for dinner and
I’m in for a quick “one and done.” Or maybe I have friends in town and I’m
going out for a big night.
What you’re doing by asking such questions is essentially
gathering information about that person and their tastes, either generally or
at that exact moment. By listening carefully to the answers, and I mean really
digesting the information, it will allow you to find the exact drink they
wanted while perhaps enlightening them on a spirit or ingredient they either
never knew existed or one they thought they didn’t usually like. Win win.
He goes on to add that, “by asking what spirits they like
backs you into a corner. It’s also very limiting in that the guest won’t ever
find out that you stock some great grappas or armagnacs or piscos. When a guest
tells me that they like, say, vodka, this only gives me very little information
about where I can take them. The dealer’s choice can be a dangerous prospect.
It’s not for the inexperienced bartender and there’s painfully few people that
can pull it off with skill and confidence. It’s a somewhat intimate exchange,
like a masseuse. Often you need to build up trust with the guest over time.
Really, it comes down to knowing how to read customers.”
I remember being at a very prominent New York bar a few
years back when I asked the bartender for “something refreshing.” What I got,
along with an arrogant smirk, was a Dirty Martini, which as we all know is
about as far from refreshing as one could go on the flavor wheel. When I think
‘refreshing,’ I think Paloma, Tom Collins, Cube Libre, Americano, gin &
tonic etc. Clearly he wasn’t actually listening.
At The Daily,
a small bar I opened in 2011 with the AvroKO Hospitality Group, I introduced a menu
of six drinks that changed every day. What once seemed like a daunting task was
actually executed extremely well because of a Rolodex of over 500 classic
drinks from where we curated each daily menu. The best outcome from this
concept was that the bartenders have been able to memorize all of these drinks
because they make each of those six drinks dozens of times per night.
Many return customers and regulars at The Daily often
request a drink that was on the menu last night or last week or last month.
They’ve also built up a great trust in the bartenders there because they know
that they have a massive repertoire of drinks they can call on. So the dealer’s
choice is an important part of the service model at The Daily and the bar staff
need to able to come up with dozens of such drinks on a nightly basis. It’s a
highly skilled professional who can pull this off with a smile.
Read more from Editorial.