Cocktail Business Cards, Explained

When and where to use this quirky accessory for a better drinking experience.

Los Angeles–based bartender Daniel Ralston recently posted a photo on Twitter of a business card that a patron had handed him.

"Had a truly bizarre encounter at the bar tonight," Ralston tweeted. "An old guy gave me a business card. It had no information on it except a drink recipe. HIS drink recipe. He just said, 'Make this if you can.' I did."

"I will probably carry this around for the rest of my life," Ralston added, referencing the business card labeled "Johnny's Dream" whose ingredients included tequila, Aperol, lime juice, orange bitters, and orange juice, served shaken with an orange twist. The instructions were overlaid on what was presumably a photo of the finished cocktail itself.

Although Ralston had characterized the experience as "bizarre," other Twitter users confirmed that these cards, while somewhat rare, aren't unheard of.

"I found it pretty charming and it wasn't a difficult drink to make," Ralston told The Takeout. "The guy who gave it to me was in his late 70s so I couldn't be too mad about it. Also, the drink name is perfect."

While it was the first time Ralston encountered such a card, another person on the Twitter thread, Jon DeRosa, came across quite a few while he was bartending at Peacock Alley, a cocktail bar inside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City sometime around 2009-2011. Given the new light shed upon this practice, we can help guide your decision on whether to make a little stack of drink cards yourself.

What’s the purpose of a drink business card?

Ralston's experience, along other stories shared on Twitter, suggest that such cards are common among patrons who either have an obscure go-to drink order or who like their cocktails made a specific way. There are even stories alleging that Carol Burnett carries drink cards so that her Cosmopolitans are made a specific way—she purportedly requests that bartenders "shake the shit out of it." 

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But apart from custom orders, DeRosa says he often received them as a way to bridge language barriers.

"In my experience, it was usually Asian businessmen who presented them at the bar for the primary purpose of ease of ordering," DeRosa told The Takeout via email. "If you think about it, it makes perfect sense for the well-traveled professional who may not speak English very well, but spends a lot of time in foreign bars and restaurants. I am not sure if it is a cultural phenomenon, but it is certainly a polite and succinct way to order at a busy and possibly noisy bar, and ensure you are getting the exact drink you prefer, no matter where you are in the world."

Beyond practicality, DeRosa speculates that there's probably a little bit of personal pride informing this ritual as well.

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"[These cards might be] a chance for a little bit of one's true personality to shine through, despite the buttoned-up suit and tie," he said.

Sometimes DeRosa would return the card after making the cocktail, while other times he and his coworkers would keep them. If a guest was staying at the hotel all week, they'd hang on to the card to anticipate their order.

"I remember looking at the cards at times and thinking it was kind of nice to see 'another side' of someone I might otherwise peg as a rather serious businessman," he said.

Is it annoying to hand the bartender a cocktail card?

It can certainly seem like a cute quirk for an older person or a beloved comedienne to hand the bartender a cocktail business card, but do bartenders/mixologists really want you making a rather specific off-menu request in this way?

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The short answer: Sure, as long as it's not too busy.

Ralston said it "definitely helped" that he was asked to make Johnny's Dream on a slow night. And DeRosa said he appreciated the effort to make his job easier and more expedient, since it doesn't necessitate anyone leaning over the bar shouting directions over the crowd. He also liked how it was a way to connect with a customer when conversation wasn't possible because of language or noise.

"Music may be considered the universal language, but I'd make a strong argument that liquor is the other," he said.

What should a cocktail business card look like?

DeRosa said the cards he received were typically in full color, and almost always glossy or laminated. They weren't professionally designed, but were completely sufficient nonetheless.

"The recipe for the drink was included, with proportions, and almost always, there was a picture of the drink on the card—or a generic 'close-enough' representation—and in every case I can remember, the drink had a name that was clearly given by the cardholder," he said. In other words, they hewed pretty close to the Johnny's Dream card posted to Twitter.

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The preferred brand of liquor is often included in the ingredients list, too, especially if the drink is otherwise a classic.

I personally have a favorite drink that I like to make myself at home but have rarely been able to order at bars to my liking. If I wanted the ideal version, I'd have to get very, very specific, and frankly, no amount of nervous eyebrow raising, overtipping, and utterances of the phrase "I'm sorry, but..." could make me feel like I have any right to order anything other than a High Life (The Champagne of Not Being a Pain in the Ass). The last thing I want to do is correct the bartender or ask for another drink with more exacting specifications.

But maybe one day, when there's hardly a crowd at the bar and my advanced age makes most of my actions charming or at least excusable, I'll offer up a smart little card with directions for my beloved Wooden Leg. Or I'll airdrop my bartender a TikTok of my grandson making it. Whatever it is we're doing in 30 years.

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