Is It Rude To Send A Cocktail Back?

Bartenders and etiquette experts break down the rules around rejecting a drink.
There are generally guidelines to follow when it comes to sending back a drink
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There are generally guidelines to follow when it comes to sending back a drink

Odds are you’ve seen someone send back a dish at a restaurant once or twice. Or maybe you’ve even had to do it at some point. But have you ever seen someone do this with a cocktail?

While some might balk at the idea of sending back a drink, others hardly hesitate. And bartenders say it’s somewhat infrequent but certainly happens.

But what are the rules around sending a drink back? Is it obnoxious or totally kosher? We asked bartenders and etiquette experts to break it down.

If there’s a clear problem, don’t hesitate.

“Depending on the circumstances, you may certainly send a cocktail back, but always use your best judgment,” said Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.

“If you get a drink that is clearly not what you ordered, let the bartender know immediately,” she added. “If the cocktail does not have the type of liquor you requested, missing liquor completely or extremely too strong, you can politely ask to have your cocktail remade.”

Similarly, if the glass is dirty or a bug has flown into your drink, don’t hesitate to request a new one.

“We’re all human beings,” said Saeed “Hawk” House, a Los Angeles bartender and founder of Cocktails by Hawk.

“Sometimes there’s an instance where you’re busy and maybe you missed an ingredient. It’s happened to me,” House said. “Maybe I forgot the agave or simple syrup, and it was too tart. When the drink was sent back, I gladly remade something. We’re in the hospitality industry, so we want to make sure you’re doing well.”

If it’s made correctly but you don’t like it, be considerate.

“If the cocktail is just not your thing, it’s OK to set your drink aside and ask for something else,” said Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and co-host of the “Were You Raised by Wolves?” podcast.

“But the key is to be polite and make it clear that ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ and that you sincerely appreciate the care and effort that went into making the drink and there’s nothing objectively wrong with it ― it just turned out to not be your thing,” he added.

The bartenders HuffPost spoke to said they aren’t offended if a customer sends a drink back because they dislike it.

“I have zero problems with a guest sending back a cocktail,” said Alex Barbatsis, head bartender at The Whistler in Chicago. “A huge aspect of bartending is making sure people are enjoying themselves, and it’s hard to have a good time when you don’t like your drink. I would much prefer to make a replacement cocktail that they enjoy rather than have them sit there and be grumpy.”

Ivy Mix, co-owner and head bartender of Leyenda in Brooklyn, also believes patrons shouldn’t have to force themselves to finish a cocktail that’s not their thing.

“I think if you don’t like it, then don’t drink it!” she said. “But if you don’t like it, don’t drink half of it and change your mind. That’s the annoying thing, and arguably you’re just trying to get a free drink out of the matter.”

She offered another word of caution to potential drink-rejecters.

“Don’t do it more than once. If you don’t like your second drink, just say maybe these aren’t for you and order the vodka soda you wanted all along,” Mix said. “And don’t be a jerk.”

If you decide to send a drink back because you dislike it, be polite about it.
Enrique Díaz / 7cero via Getty Images
If you decide to send a drink back because you dislike it, be polite about it.

Bartenders are less likely to send drinks back.

When it comes to their own experience as customers, however, there seems to be a hesitancy among bartenders to send drinks back.

“I will say, I don’t follow my own rules and usually don’t send back cocktails,” Barbatsis said. “Since I’m in the service industry, it feels very strange to say, ‘I don’t like this,’ especially if I know the bartenders.”

House also said he doesn’t send drinks back out of respect for his fellow bartenders.

“If I don’t like something, I’ll bite the bullet and still drink it because I know other bartenders aren’t necessarily like me,” he noted. “I don’t understand it, but some will get insulted or upset like they messed up. But if you send a drink back, you’re not saying they’re a shitty bartender or attacking them.”

If you’re going to send it back, do it quickly.

Say you do receive a drink that has a problem or you take a sip and strongly dislike the taste. The key to handling this situation is to address it in a timely manner.

“If you’re going to send a drink back, do it quickly,” Leighton said. “Don’t wait until you’re halfway through the glass.”

Meaghan Dorman, bar director of Raines Law Room and Dear Irving in New York City, echoed this advice.

“I don’t find it rude, but it does need to happen within the first couple sips,” she said, noting that servers and bartenders at her bars are trained to check in with guests within the first couple of sips so they can acknowledge any dislikes. Then they have a conversation about what exactly they dislike to avoid repeating the issue.

“Sometimes it is a misunderstanding about what a guest meant. Sometimes it is them trying something new, like a bitter liqueur that just doesn’t suit their palate,” she said. “The only issue that can come up is if people try to return a drink that is basically empty. Drinks should be returned if you truly do not enjoy it enough to drink. ”

Acting fast could also give the bartender the opportunity to salvage the drink if there’s just something small that’s off about it.

“Is it too sweet, too sour, too bitter? Let the bartender know, and there’s a good chance they can tweak it for you,” said Cole Newton, a New Orleans bartender and board member of the United States Bartenders’ Guild.

“It could be that stirring a bar spoon of simple syrup or a dash of bitters into a completed cocktail is all that’s keeping that drink from being perfect.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.

If you’re sending your cocktail back, try to make a more informed decision with your replacement drink.

“Ask for guidance before you order, especially if there are any ingredients you’re unfamiliar with,” Leighton said. “For example, if you order something with Cynar, a bartender is going to be less excited about making you a new drink if you complain it was ‘too bitter’ for you.”

Dorman noted that her bars encourage customer collaboration with bartenders in the hopes that they discover something new that they enjoy. So there’s often discussion of what they’re in the mood for and what sounds interesting to them.

Don't be afraid to ask your bartended for guidance if you aren't sure about certain ingredients on the menu.
ilkermetinkursova via Getty Images
Don't be afraid to ask your bartended for guidance if you aren't sure about certain ingredients on the menu.

“If you are unsure about a wine or spirit, you can always ask for a sip to taste to ensure you will be happy with your choice before a full pour,” she said. “With mixed drinks, remember the staff is there to guide your experience, so always ask for their advice if you are unsure of what cocktail best matches your taste. We love to talk drinks and get it right on the first round.”

When you do talk to your bartender about your drink choice, try to be open-minded and listen to their expert advice. It’s helpful to learn about new ingredients and combinations.

“Most of the cocktails on our list are pretty accessible, but a few are definitely a little funky and weird,” said Newton, who owns The Domino and Twelve Mile Limit. “Sometimes even when you try to steer them to something you think they’ll like, a guest will order a drink that’s just not for them, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it.”

Consider the venue.

It should go without saying that there’s a wide variety in bars. Consider those differences when you’re making decisions about drinks ― and possibly sending them back.

“It’s important for guests to realize what sort of venue they’re in,” said Josh Lindley, co-creator of Bartender Atlas and lead bartender at Eataly Toronto. “Instead of being like, ‘I’m a dirty martini drinker,’ ask yourself, is this the place where you want to drink a dirty martini.”

Adjust your expectations and order accordingly. A beer-heavy dive bar might not be the place where you ask for an elaborate many-step cocktail or launch into a full discussion about fresh and fruity combinations. Similarly, if you don’t love the drink you got there, consider if it’s worth sending back over a taste preference. You might be better off just ordering a beer or simpler mixed drink for your next round.

“If you look at a drink list and it’s all austere French liqueurs and you order a daiquiri, you can’t expect that daiquiri to be good,” Lindley added. “Look at the space and what the bartender is trying to put forth.”

Be prepared to pay.

So what happens to your tab when you send back a cocktail?

“If there is a problem with a cocktail, you should not be expected to pay,” Gottsman noted. “If it’s a taste preference that you do not like, you should be expected to pay for your drink.”

She compared it to buying an unfamiliar item from the grocery store and expecting to be refunded after you try it and decide you do not like it.

“It’s always a risk when you order something that you are not familiar with,” Gottsman noted.

Still, odds are you won’t be asked to pay for your rejected drink, especially if you sent it back after only a couple of sips.

“Many bars and restaurants will gladly make you something else and might not even charge you for the original drink, but you should definitely still be prepared to pay for it regardless,” Leighton said.

And even if that drink isn’t included in your tab, what should you do about gratuity?

“The question is, should you tip on a cocktail that was not good and they had to replace?” Gottsman said. “Yes, you always want to tip the bartender for making the situation right.”