Value is a funny thing. It all depends on perspective (but then, what doesn't?). Food and drink have always played a big part in my life so I was never really willing to compromise on them. Even when I was a student I'd prefer to buy cheaper constituent ingredients than buy the subway sandwiches. To be honest, said sandwiches always seemed really expensive to me.
Working in bars during this time was a blessing - I had access to great drinks and didn't have to subject myself to everyone elses cut price vodka and 'Red Bull'. The stuff I did spend money on I was careful about. It seemed a double insult to spend what little money I did have on something that was less than mediocre.
You can find value at both ends of the scale: luxury justifies the price tag by providing a crafted product or service - something unique (well, the ones that endure at least). Even if it's a bit of a financial stretch, it seems worth it. On the cheaper side, mass produced objects come with the benefits of economies of scale and demand-led efficiency. The cheaper stuff is often more of a necessity anyway. Happy with both of these. It's the flabby excess of the middle ground that doesn't make sense - where's the value?
It's this mediocrity that leads to problems with cocktails. I believe cocktails offer both value, and a wonderful luxury to enjoy. Get the occasion right and they are completely justified- I find there are more opportunities with cocktails to fit your mood just right - tremendous value in itself!
That said, a few pointers for when you're in a bar to help you avoid those wasted cocktail opportunities: Christmas is coming up - you don't want to throw away your hard earned on substandard drinks when there's so many good cocktail bars around. As a disclaimer, on a whole, this applies to the aforementioned middling ground. A little research will point you to some great bars that you can trust emphatically.
1. Two for one
Cocktails require craft. If they're offering you half price drinks there's something fishy going on - they're not offering you half price beer or wine are they? Chances are it's cut price booze and a lot of sugar - neither which your head or liver will thank you for the next day.
2. They turn their back on you
Cocktails require craft. Yes, the same point as above and one I'll no doubt echo again. They're exactly like your perfectly assembled dish. If someone turns their backs on you chances are they don't know what they're doing, and may well be doing something you don't want.
3. Mystery hooch
If you put poor ingredients in, you get a poor product out. Sure, there's many products you won't have heard of, but you really don't want to be drinking cut price booze. I'm not being snobbish. It removes what drinking should be about - great taste experiences and a good time with friends. Cheap alcohol is just going to make you drunk - and not in a good way.
4. Heavy laminated menus
If they hand you a heavy card menu that's cost a fortune to print, chances are they're never going to change it (this of course doesn't apply if you're drinking in somewhere like The Connaught or The Artesian). Also bad if they have to search around for their cocktail menu - or blow dust of it (seriously, it's happened to me). Menus should be updated - for the sake of the bartenders and their patrons. Similarly, a tome of cocktails can suggest that none of them will be made well. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
5. They don't know the menu
You order the 'Creole Fizz' from the menu and they look puzzled at you, pick up the menu and scan for it.
Order a beer.
6. They don't know the drinks
After ordering your 'Creole Fizz' from the menu they pick up a book and search for the recipe.
Order a beer.
7. A messy bar top
Although this might be an unfair reflection, and one that comes from a bartender's perspective, the barman's duty is to look after the bar. Sure, cocktails are often the main focus of this but they should be chatting with you, checking you're ok and keeping their space clean and clear. If the place is a mess, it also shows that the bar probably isn't set for making cocktails and it's been shoehorned in by lazy management as a misguided means of bucking poor sales.
8. Wilted mint and frozen berries
See points 1,3 and 4. If there's only substandard ingredients about, it's going to be a very hard task to pull out anything good from the offering. Also, if they're using dried or frozen ingredients without specific purpose it suggests cocktails aren't being sold sufficiently, or the venue is out of touch with seasons.
9. Two ice cubes in your G&T
Something I've talked about before, but if your cocktail isn't filled with ice, the shaker wasn't and you aren't being served by a cocktail ninja, stick with a nice cool beer.
Sharing drinks are great! They get people together and, especially at a party, a well made punch removes stress from the whole affair. The problem is many cocktail pitchers are lazy attempts to bulk sell a drink. They tend to offer little value either, and essentially leave you with a watery, sugary spirit mixer. There's better ways to get a round of drinks.
What I'm saying is: don't waste your money on these poor imitations of cocktails. Pubs are great - enjoy a great spirit, a fantastic craft beer or wine, only branch out to the cocktail if it's going to deliver. I love cocktails, but to me they are special; they're worth the expense and I genuinely think they offer great value. Seek out the better examples!