If you’re not already hunkered down in your hometown for a lot of festive family time, you’re likely steeling yourself for the massive transit clusterfuck that awaits. Our advice if you’re in the latter boat: Drink, but no so much that you can’t navigate the eighth circle of hell that is Penn Station during the holidays or figure out a gate change when your flight is, inevitably, delayed. You’ll likely find yourself in a mediocre airport (or train station) bar to accomplish that nerve-soothing pre-gaming, and once you’re home, your bar choices might be limited to the types of joints that pour mass-produced beer, crappy sour apple martinis, or highballs with plastic jug whiskey (but hey, you still need a cocktail, because families are stressful). So here is our early Christmas present to you: A guide to hacking the bar — any bar — and drinking well, even when your boozy pickings are slim.
Campari and soda
While we’ve been in a few bars that swear they have no Campari, most are able to procure a dusty bottle of the red liqueur from the depths of storage. A heavy-handed pour with a splash of soda creates a drink we could sip all night; this works well, too, if you’re normally a negroni orderer but don’t trust the caliber of the watering hole’s vermouth.
Schlitz (or any bad light beer) with bitters
Let’s say you’re holed up in a spot that is completely lacking in spirits — or perhaps you’re feeling like drinking a beer but see only light American lagers on the list. There’s a good chance the bartender has a crusty bottle of bitters laying around; have him or her add a couple of dashes to your brew. It won’t take much to give you a vastly altered — and pleasant — drinking experience.
Whiskey and bitters
An old-fashioned is usually a safe bet because done the old school way, it’s only three ingredient: whiskey, bitters, sugar. But even if the bar you’re drinking in has neither cubes nor packets nor simple syrup, you can still hack this drink by just asking for a pour of whichever whiskey on the shelf seems most quaffable and adding a dash of bitters.
Tequila and tonic
One bartender we know calls this the poor man’s margarita — and he’s spot on: There’s enough citrus in tonic to make it a particularly good mix with tequila. And most bars keep a brand beyond Cuervo Gold (or another horrendous variety) on the back bar; a silver will do you just fine.
We’re beginning to see this pop up on more serious bar menus around town, but it’s something you can order in a charmless dive, too. Here’s what Robert Krueger, beverage director of Extra Fancy, has to say about it: “This is such an under-appreciated drink. It’s just chilled gin in a glass with a dash of bitters. Traditionally, it’s Plymouth gin, but there are so many great ones out there now. I like Dorothy Parker or Ford’s. Skip the lemon twist that some people use as if you’re in a proper dive you won’t get a fresh one anyway. The formula is simple: If you see a bottle of Angostura, ask the bartender to rinse the glass with it and add the coldest gin they can stir up for you. It can be done in a martini glass or on the rocks.”
Many of our friends in the industry also point out that good booze you do spot at a bar like this is likely cheap — so keep an eye out for Grand Marnier (tasty on the rocks), a top-shelf bottle of bourbon or Scotch, and other oddities.