A great bar, like a great cocktail, needs to have the right ingredients. So I thought I would start out by giving my rundown of some key attributes to look for in any bar you walk into. Hopefully these points will let you know when it is safe to order a classic like the Blood and Sand, or if you should stick to the Jack and Coke.
Fresh Juice: Bars that make their juice fresh will be more likely to put them on display or store them in the ice wells below the bar, versus keeping them in the fridge. Also, plastic containers can impart taste into the juices, so another quick check is to see if the juices are being stored in glass containers. Fresh juice can make a huge difference in a cocktail, so don't be afraid to ask if they squeeze their juice daily. Bars that do will take pride in that fact.
Quality of Ice: This is arguably the most important aspect to a great drink. The ice needs to be made just right to ensure very little taste interference, minimal ice chips when shaking and slow dilution to maintain the integrity of the spirit. The long time favorite for bars has been Kold Draft, but the more recent trend of custom built ice companies like Névé Ice are making a big impact on customers and connoisseurs alike. The best ice will be larger cubes; the greater the mass the slower the dilution. Look for one-inch by one-inch cubes or larger, and if it looks like the ice you get at McDonald's, then you might want to avoid a stirred drink.
Drink Preparation Methods: One of the biggest let downs for me is bellying up to a bar with high expectations, only to see the bartender violently shake a manhattan or muddle fruit into an old-fashioned. Now as a humble bar patron, you can't really expect to lecture on bartender on the preparation method or complain when you are served a drink made their way. After all, the bartenders job is to serve drinks in an effective and efficient manner, with more emphasis on the latter. So what can you do? Observe. Has anything been stirred? Are they shaking drinks with the goal of making slushees? Above all else, just tell 'em how you like it when you order (up, neat, stirred, bruised, rocks, etc.).
Unique Items: Another indicator of cocktail development at a bar is the "accoutrements" used in a cocktail list. For instance, if you see something other than Angostura Bitters or Vermouth used as an aromatic (e.g. Peychaud bitters, Chartreuse, Absinthe), chances are the bartenders are proficient in cocktail balance and composition. Also, more temperamental ingredients such as egg whites indicate an appreciation for the classic construction of cocktails. As much as the unique items serve as an indicator for potentially good libations, there are equal indicators for options to avoid. Any bar where most of the drinks have ingredients that include the word "pucker" or are consistently topped with coke or sprite should be avoided like the plague for fear of bad drinks and worse hangovers.
Hopefully these topics will help guide you towards more enjoyable cocktail experiences, where quality trumps quantity. If all else fails, order a beer.
"May the hinges of our friendship never grow rusty. And our ale never turn musty."-Irish Toast