Hi there, Salty,
A question: When is it inappropriate to ask what an establishment’s rail whiskey is? Obviously, there are the clear answers: If there’s a drink list with prices, no reason to ask; if it’s a typical bar, ask away. I’m more curious about the places in the middle: Is it gauche to ask about a rail whiskey at an upscale bar or lounge? What about at casual restaurants?
Riding the Rails
In Salty’s humble opinion, any menu that doesn’t list the prices should be ground up in the garbage disposal. What kind of infinite budget do these places think I’m working with? But that’s a rant for another day.
Lots of bars specializing in spirits have that fat little menu booklet with about 25 pages of bottles, listing both the price of the bottle or just a pour. Those might look stuffy, but they’re actually great. You pay only as much as you want to spend, and ordering from that sleek-looking book lets you feel sophisticated, even if the drink you choose is not.
But you’re talking about mid-range places, ones with multiple whiskey options but no menu that lists them all. That’s… pretty specific. I’m going to go ahead and give you a blanket answer for just about anywhere you choose to go: asking about prices is fine.
Go ahead! It’s your money, and no server in the world wants you to leave upset with how you spent it. It sounds like you just don’t want to sound too crass when you’re ordering, making a beeline for the cheapest thing the bar has to offer. If that’s the case, there are lots of different ways to ask about what’s cheap:
“What whiskey do you usually use in your Manhattan?”
“Do you serve [X cheap whiskey that you already know you like]?”
“Do you have anything along the lines of [see above]?”
“I’d love a pour of something for under ten bucks. Do you have anything like that?”
“Do you have any specials?”
“I know next to nothing about whiskey. Is there an inexpensive one you’d recommend?”
There’s really nothing to it, sweetie—just ask for what you want. A busy bartender doesn’t have time to hold your hand and walk you through the entire menu, so they’ll appreciate you getting right to the point. One exception: asking about “rail” whiskey might not always be the best move, not because it’s gauche, but because a lot of upscale places don’t really have a “rail” option like dive bars do. They might have a whiskey that they default to (“Manhattan, up, got it—Templeton okay?”), but it’s not necessarily a cheap variety, and maybe not the cheapest they’ve got behind the bar.
All you need to do is be polite and direct, explain that you’re looking for a drink on the less expensive side, and if your server balks at your economical drink order, then honey, that’s just a server who hasn’t been in this business very long.
All in all, you sound like my kind of dinner date, ordering kinda fancy drinks at the least fancy prices. Not only that, but you want to make sure you’re not putting your foot in your mouth while you do it! That means you’re someone who’s thinking about the human on the other end of your food and drink transactions. And when you’re thinking even a little bit about ways to not be a garbage person at bars and restaurants, you’re already succeeding.
Got a question about dining out etiquette? Or are you a server/bartender with a question about how to handle customers? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.