By Ross McCammon
Because this isn't really about cocktails. It's about business.
I work at Esquire, and we drink on occasion. We drink when things need to be celebrated, contemplated, figured out--but languidly, casually, without a clear goal in mind. We drink for defined periods of time and not all that often, but we drink. We drink with each other or with people we're getting to know. We drink in the conference room. We drink at bars. We drink to build relationships, to learn things. We're not looking for an escape but the opposite of escape. We don't want to lose something but gain something--an idea or a partnership or a new way of looking at our existing ideas and partnerships. Serious stuff, if you think about it. We think drinking is good for business when done the right way. So there are rules that we've worked out from drinking, from sharing knowledge about drinking in the magazine, from being around people who know more about what we drink than we do. And the rules are like this...
- You called the meeting, you get to the bar early. Even if you didn't call the meeting, you get there early. Because if you get there early, you begin defining relationships. Not only between you and the people you're meeting with, but between you and the bar itself: the cocktail waitresses, the bartenders, the guy sitting next to you. You have come to this bar for relationships. You might as well begin making them.
- You can sit at the bar. But standing's better. When you stand, you are able to receive. You are on the level of those who will approach you. You're not in a position of weakness. You're in a position of authority. Or at least parity. Anyway, you got there first. So you stand and wait. With a drink.
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- Your order is one of two things: a beer or a whiskey on the rocks. The beer is safe. The whiskey is less safe. But so much more interesting and potentially rewarding. Because when you order a scotch (good when drinking with the Japanese) or a bourbon (good when drinking with the Americans) or a rye (good when drinking with the Southerners--or other Americans or the Japanese), you are suggesting that you are committed. A whiskey isn't a beverage, it's a drink. And a drink is an experience. And it would suggest to those you are meeting with that you are about to have an experience that could lead to more experiences. Also, a whiskey will get you drunk. But you are not going to get drunk tonight.
- If you're ordering beer, it should not be a light beer. Light beers are weak beers. They are tentative. They are for weak people. No one has ever wanted to enter into or continue a relationship with a weak person. Order anything else: a Guinness, a Budweiser, whatever IPA is on tap, etc.
- Drinks should be ordered confidently, explicitly, specifically. You should have an idea of what you want before you even walk inside. You should scan the taps before you even get to the bar. Unless you're sitting at a table too far away from the bar to see the taps, never ask, "What do you have on tap?" It's too easy to find out for yourself. Also, beer on tap is generally no better than beer in a bottle. Bars don't clean their taps enough. They get gunky. Bottled beer is consistently fresher. It's true.
- Always drink what you want. There's a thing that happens in meetings at a bar or even over lunch. The first person orders a beer. The second person orders a beer. The third and fourth people order beers. You are the fifth person. You don't want a beer. You want a whiskey. Do you order the beer? You do not. You order a whiskey. More often than not, you will find that the second through fourth persons will change their orders based on your order--the rogue order. Because they never wanted a beer. No one should ever drink anything in a meeting at a bar they wouldn't drink by themselves.
- There are some drinks no one should ever order during a business meeting. No light beers, as stated previously. No rum and Cokes. Not because this isn't a serious drink (it's a serious drink in the right context--if you're in a beach bar in Cuba, for instance) but because it is too closely connected to nonserious drinkers. No gin and tonics unless it's hot outside. No drinks ordered off the cocktail menu. There is great risk here. When you order off the cocktail menu, you risk that the drink comes in a very tall glass with too much accoutrement: oranges and cherries and umbrellas, etc. Then you're the one sitting there with the stupid drink. You don't want to be the one with the stupid drink.
- If you don't drink: Order a club soda on the rocks with lemon. There is no shame in club soda.
- So, the perfect drink. There are many, of course. Some guidelines: It should be a drink that no one can screw up. It should be a drink that every bartender knows how to make. It should be a drink with ingredients that every bar has. If we had to settle on one though, we'd go with an "Old-Fashioned, no fruit." If you have any doubt that your bartender won't know how to make an Old-Fashioned, then order bourbon (or rye, if they have any) on the rocks with a dash of bitters. A little trivia if you need it: The Old-Fashioned is the first cocktail. First made in 1806. Whiskey, sugar, water and bitters. And no fruit. (The fruit--muddled orange and cherry--is an adulteration that came much later. Which is a shame.)
- At some point, order and pay for a round. Doesn't matter if you are the one being courted. Order a round. You are capable of ordering and paying, so you do.
- And, for chrissakes, never ask about specials. Asking about A few words about restroom breaks: Uh ... not too many. Monitor your intake. Looks weak. Anyway, you might miss something. Specials in a bar is like asking a shoeshine guy for extra polish.
- Do not get drunk. To aid this, come hydrated and well fed. And don't drink too much. How much to drink? Don't drink more than the most senior person at the meeting (client, partner, co-worker or the potential version of all these). To ensure this, order a "water back" with your first order. Drink at least half a glass of water for each drink. Sinatra supposedly did this. Even if he didn't, you should. If you start with a whiskey, switch to beer after the second one.
- A few words about restroom breaks: Uh ... not too many. Monitor your intake. Looks weak. Anyway, you might miss something.
- Only bring up business after the first drink. You've allowed people to relax. You've allowed them to get their bearings. The only business that happens before the second drink is the business of drinking. Which is serious business. (See the first 13 rules.)
- Things to talk about: You could talk about kids. People enjoy talking about their kids. You could talk about sports--but only if you actually know something about sports. People who talk about sports but don't know anything about sports might as well be talking about the weather. Things you shouldn't talk about: the weather, the cocktail waitress, religion, politics, the guy in your party who just got up from your table to hit the john. You could talk about booze, maybe. You could talk about how rye is made from rye. And scotch is made from malt. And bourbon is made from corn. And vodka is made from pretty much anything: potatoes and wheat and grapes and lots of other things. You could talk about how the difference between a good bartender and a great bartender is how long they shake a martini--a drink doesn't start getting cold until after the 15th shake.
- Here's when you leave: You leave about 30 minutes after you've deemed that business has been taken care of. You leave before you've gotten drunk. You leave in a position of strength. There are three phases of a long night of drinking. There is the first half, when no one is having any fun, when things are a little awkward and you're feeling everyone out and they're feeling you out. There's a second half, when things are fun, when things are comfortable, when things are still intelligent and when work is getting done. And then there is overtime. Overtime is tricky. This is the time when work has been done, when you are still feeling good, when you could stick around for a little while. You could go either way, you know? "Another drink?" someone asks you. "Come on!" they say. The answer is: You have to get going. You'd love to, though, really. But you've gotta get home. Whether or not you go home is unimportant. Maybe you do. Or maybe you go to another bar, where there aren't so many rules. The point is, these aren't your friends. These are people you're doing business with. Big difference. And when you're doing business, you quit while you're still pretty much sober. That is: ahead.
Ross McCammon is an articles editor at Esquire magazine.