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Creating a Workable, Real-World Cocktail Menu


Chris Amirault
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Over many a beer-and-shot, I had the great privilege to pick the brain of Toby Maloney, our own Alchemist and the ingenious mixologist behind the Violet Hour, among others. I was complaining about the dearth of good Providence cocktail bars, and it got us to talking about the strategies one might use to create a workable real-world cocktail menu in a fine city like my own. We bounced around design concepts (accepting that one's friends or dates need entry cocktails and a few classic tipples made well), prep issues (what can and cannot be bottled), training (not everyone has been behind the stick at Death & Co. or Absinthe), and the like. I can't report too many details, because I want to respect both Toby's great ideas and the fog through which I'm trying to remember them.

A few months later, I have been invited to be part of a discussion here about this very issue. An established joint wants to add a cocktail menu that's not too ambitious out of the box and reflects their approach to food and drink (high quality, artisanal when possible, neighborhood). It got me thinking about my conversation with Toby and prompted me to start this topic here. How would you approach this discussion? What are the other issues at stake? What sorts of up-front investments would you make (or not make)? If you're starting small, what does "small" look like? How can you balance the needs of the cocktailian diner and the diner's X-A-Tini date?

And so on.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I would start with individual bartenders who seem interested in expanding on their craft. I doesn't take much for someone to put out some dough and bring in some bottles of bitters and some more advanced tools (good muddler, jiggers, tin on tin shakers, a worthwhile bar spoon). I myself work part time at a dive bar in Brooklyn and I bring in my doctors bag, place bitters bottles and syrups I make at home onto the bar. I run across the street to the grocer before my shift and buy mint and a seedless cucumber and a half dozen organic eggs. Sure I always sell more PBR but week by week, people come in expressly for cocktails. I don't get too ambitious, just prepared for two or three interesting, fairly elaborate cocktails. I even freeze block ice in the freezer in the basement. The owner encourages me as his only investment is fresh lime and lemon. I charge the price that the house would charge for whatever spirits. An old fashioned? $7. Same as what the house would charge for a shot of the Wild Turkey 101. The bar doesn't loose and the extra tips usually make up for the original expense I put out. At this level, it's a labor of love anyway.

In a market or establishment where M&H or Death & Co. level cocktails are unfamiliar, I'd say maybe a third of the people will become instantly curious at seeing one muddle a bitters soaked sugar cube or flame an orange twist. At that point, in that context, the bartender is doing something really special. The punters ask questions, you get a chance to talk about the the craft and many people start ordering outside the usual.

Again, this is starting out small. A non-cocktail bar may not support this kind of thing on a busy Saturday night but hopefully there are more than a few individual bartenders reading Imbibe or Joy of Mixology and are getting excited that their job can be a bit more glamorous and specialized than opening up bottles and puring a five count of Stoli into syrupy tonic water.

Hopefully, the establishment can see some excitement emerge from an individual bartender's initiative, maybe even get some attention from local bloggers/foodies from this and work to support a wider, more ambitious beverage program.

"Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a

claim on, even its ice compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like

food."" - Kingsley Amis

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That's a great start, TVC.

I don't get too ambitious, just  prepared for two or three interesting, fairly elaborate cocktails. [snip]

In a market or establishment where M&H or Death & Co. level cocktails are unfamiliar, I'd say maybe a third of the people will become instantly curious at seeing one muddle a bitters soaked sugar cube or flame an orange twist. At that point, in that context, the bartender is doing something really special. The punters ask questions, you get a chance to talk about the the craft and many people start ordering outside the usual.

So what are those interesting and somewhat elaborate cocktails that you used to showcase the mad skillz and impress the tongue?

Hopefully, the establishment can see some excitement emerge from an individual bartender's initiative, maybe even get some attention from local bloggers/foodies from this and work to support a wider, more ambitious beverage program.

I'm lucky to have an owner/chef friend who is already excited about the idea and is responding to this interest as a result. And I'm convinced that, with some thoughtful ideas like yours, this can be win:win. After all, for me (like you at the dive bar) it'd also be a labor of love.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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I agree with TVC, if a program like that is going to work it's going to have to start with the bartenders; they have to at least want to learn The Way, no matter how far they might be from it. In our case at Veritas, set in a town full of efficient and cocky drink-slingers from the college bars, we've more or less settled on the idea that we'd rather train high-quality people with an acute interest in spirits and good experience at waiting tables to be our kind of bartender, rather than take the guy who already has all the bad habits of the high-volume scene and has never gotten a complaint on his vodka cranberry (and hence no reason to change what he's doing) and try to do the Eliza Doolittle number on them. To get to this point was a long, painful journey filled with questions about why we don't use sour mix.

I agree that doing a few "flashy" things as a matter of course, like flaming orange peels, is a great way to get people to notice what you're doing and take an interest. Even if they don't order one of your special drinks, it's at least got them thinking about it, and they might do it the next time they come in. If you don't have bartenders who at least want to do things the right way, they're going to start taking bad shortcuts, and at that point things start going downhill and you might as well not have invested in an interesting cocktail program.

Quality spirits, fresh juices, good ice, nice glassware is all good and necessary to greater or lesser degrees, but what really matters is people.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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So what are those interesting and somewhat elaborate cocktails that you used to showcase the mad skillz and impress the tongue?

It depends on what kind of non-cocktail bar we're talking about of course but I've had success with having the makings of a southside, a sazerac and a daiquiri on hand for that person who is curious about cocktails. A southside (with muddled cucumber) is not intimidating, very refreshing, and very good at communicating the role fresh ingredients play in a good drink. It's a great alternative to the mojito and a good gateway to gin. It's also easy to batch it ahead a time and bottle it for busier periods. For the spirit forward, the sazerac is always my standby. The sazerac has prostelitizing powers over the uninitiated. It certainly gives one the chance to show multiple techniques and babble on about the rich history of the American cocktail. Buy some sugar cubes and if absinthe isn't available at the bar, bring some from home and keep it in a three dollar atomizer. A daiquiri with fresh lime and good balance has the benefit of transforming the notions of how drastic a difference there is between a good daiquiri and the slushies that folks may be more accustomed to.

A well dressed bartender (waistcoats and whatnot) is entirely contextual. In certain neighborhood or restaurant bar environments it can visually communicate as effectively as fresh citrus and bitters bottles on the bar. Personally, I can't pull it off at my current employ, as proper attire interferes with my ability to toss drunks out onto the street during later, rowdier shifts.

"Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a

claim on, even its ice compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like

food."" - Kingsley Amis

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It depends on what kind of non-cocktail bar we're talking about of course but I've had success with having the makings of a southside, a sazerac and a daiquiri on hand for that person who is curious about cocktails. [snip] A daiquiri with fresh lime and good balance has the benefit of transforming the notions of how drastic a difference there is between a good daiquiri and the slushies that folks may be more accustomed to.

What we might call comparison drinks are a good idea. I had been thinking along the same basic sour lines as you but in re an up Margarita with a properly salted rim, which more patrons are likely to have had elsewhere in its crappy form.

A well dressed bartender (waistcoats and whatnot) is entirely contextual. In certain neighborhood or restaurant bar environments it can visually communicate as effectively as fresh citrus and bitters bottles on the bar.

A formally dressed bartender wouldn't work in this context, I don't believe.

Chris Amirault

eG Ethics Signatory

Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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  • 3 weeks later...

A great list could

-offer someone something familier

-push them outside of their comfort zone

-not cost too much

-educate

-inspire

We have a caiprahina made with mango, a customer may not know what cachaca is but lime, sugar and fresh mango are friendly enough. The only added prep is a mango or two a day and the customer now knows about a new base spirit is and may be willing to try something else new.

You'll have to determine where your clientele's comfort zone is. Our list has seven drinks, each based on a base spirit (Vodka, Bourbon, Rye, Gin, Cachaca, Cognac, and Sangria) The tend to be twists on classics with some sort of fresh local ingredient, which pretty much sums up the concept of the restaurant.

I went to Camino in Oakland, CA last month. Their cocktail list came out before dinner and was only four drinks long and each one was merely a list of ingredients. It was clean sexy and made me want to try them all. They didn't but they could have easily had an after dinner/before dessert list. With a before dinner list and an after dinner list you begin to educate the clientele about when it is appropriate to drink cocktails and what types of cocktails you might have at such times.

I don't live in one of the hubs of cocktailian culture so I am always trying to figure out ways to bring people towards their next step of enlightenment.

Oh and this probably goes without saying around here but never underestimate the power of exclusivity, one house made ingredient in a good cocktail would be enough to get me to come back, a batch of bitters or almond orgeat can last a long time for not too much added prep.

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Oh and this probably goes without saying around here but never underestimate the power of exclusivity, one house made ingredient in a good cocktail would be enough to get me to come back, a batch of bitters or almond orgeat can last a long time for not too much added prep.

Yup. Couldn't agree with this more. The house made mixers are definitely the unique angle that's gotten the most press for my bar/my bartending here in Philly. House made ginger beer, grenadine and lemon and lime cordials along with flavored syrups of various sorts are always behind the bar. The ginger beer is pretty versatile and is used in Dark 'n Stormys, Gin-Gin Mules, Moscow Mules and a couple of original cocktails as well. I make a gallon batch about once every ten days or so. Takes about 20 minutes. Makes everything it comes in taste better and fresher. It's a no brainer and a win-win for the bar and the guests.

As for adding that "neighborhood" flavor to the cocktail menu, use local produce when possible, local liquor if possible (in my case I'm a big supporter of Bluecoat gin, made right here in Philly) and name drinks after local places, people and things. The "inside joke" is always good, if the guests pick up on it. I named the Front Stoop Lemonade in honor of the fact that we Philadelphians like to sit out on the front steps for a drink. Besides that, most of us don't actually have back porches, so it's a natural fit. Schuykill Punch is a sly reference to the local tap water. I'm working on a Schuykill Punch for the fall cocktail menu.

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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  • 1 year later...
  • 2 weeks later...

And the silence is deafening.

Here's a more specific question, then. I've been noticing boatloads of "Chocolatinis" out there, and the ingredients are quite, uh, horrifying. Any ideas for something we could make on the sweeter side but with a nod to something more classic that could make a first-timer say, "Wow, that IS better than the Hersheytini!" or whatever?

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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And the silence is deafening.

Here's a more specific question, then. I've been noticing boatloads of "Chocolatinis" out there, and the ingredients are quite, uh, horrifying. Any ideas for something we could make on the sweeter side but with a nod to something more classic that could make a first-timer say, "Wow, that IS better than the Hersheytini!" or whatever?

On the chocolate angle, I immediately think about what Rick Bayless is doing at Xoco. Warm drinking chocolate could certainly be perked up with booze as well as spice. How about the Aztec with mezcal & chili or La Parisienne w/ cognac & orange peel...

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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Is there anything wrong with a couple of classics done properly? Manhattan, Daiquiri, Old-Fashioned, Martini, Margarita, etc.

And then one or two cocktails based on each of the liquors used in those classics.

When I started making cocktails seriously at home, many of my friends "hated" gin. Interesting thing was, they sure drank their Aviations, Pegu Clubs and Jasmines.

Then there were the ones who "never" drank brown booze. Well, at least not until they had their first Sidecar, Oriental or Jack Rose.

It was certainly more of a challenge to get them to drink their Negronis, because I think the bitter aspect of certain drinks takes longer to get used to. But an Americano cured a few people of their fear of Campari - and Audrey's Intro to Aperol cured the rest.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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On the chocolate angle, I immediately think about what Rick Bayless is doing at Xoco. Warm drinking chocolate could certainly be perked up with booze as well as spice. How about the Aztec with mezcal & chili or La Parisienne w/ cognac & orange peel...

That works for warm in a mug; I'm wondering about something cold and up....

Is there anything wrong with a couple of classics done properly?

Not at all! I think that those are relatively easy to pull off with standard bottles on the shelf.

As I sit here, I'm realizing that part of the challenge in my head is thinking about what has to be on the shelf to put some excellent, flavorful responses to overly sweet (chocolatinis), tart (pucker- or sour-mix-base drinks), or blah vodka drinks on the menu.

Chris Amirault

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Sir Luscious got gator belts and patty melts

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As I sit here, I'm realizing that part of the challenge in my head is thinking about what has to be on the shelf to put some excellent, flavorful responses to overly sweet (chocolatinis), tart (pucker- or sour-mix-base drinks), or blah vodka drinks on the menu.

One of the "methods" that always seems to work is the bartender basically offering a money-back guarantee. That is, when someone orders their apple-tini, offer to mix them up something else...if they don't like the drink, no charge. I've seen this work endless times and by mixing a Jack Rose or an Aviation, it's almost impossible to go wrong.

Of course, the bottom line is that you'd like the bar to make money. Nothing wrong with a properly made Cosmo, if that's what it takes.

Mitch Weinstein aka "weinoo"

Tasty Travails - My Blog

My eGullet FoodBog - A Tale of Two Boroughs

Was it you baby...or just a Brilliant Disguise?

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Here's a more specific question, then. I've been noticing boatloads of "Chocolatinis" out there, and the ingredients are quite, uh, horrifying. Any ideas for something we could make on the sweeter side but with a nod to something more classic that could make a first-timer say, "Wow, that IS better than the Hersheytini!" or whatever?

Chris, as far as I can tell, there are few to no great cocktails that involve chocolate as a predominant flavour. I'm not a fan of the Twentieth Century (mostly because I don't like the combination of chocolate and lemon), and while I like the Fox River just fine, it's not likely to convert Chocolatini drinkers. (Unless you use Canadian whisky? It's actually not bad, that way.) Alexanders (brandy or otherwise) are good, but the cream may be a tough sell. The cacao-bearing version of the El Floridita isn't bad, but I'm not sure I'd say chocolate is a predominant flavour there.

The best drink I've had lately with chocolate in it is the "2 If By Sweet" from Food & Wine's 2009 cocktail guide. Tequila, cacao, Cynar and mole bitters. Not an easy sell to Chocolatini drinkers, but quite worthwhile for the rest of us!

Of course, I'm also willing to accept that the problem here is the quality of my creme de cacao...

Matthew Kayahara

Kayahara.ca

@mtkayahara

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That works for warm in a mug; I'm wondering about something cold and up....

Well, chocolate, cold and up pretty much defines a choco-tini...so, working within those constraints it's going to be pretty difficult to avoid disappointment. I don't really enjoy chocolate in cold application, so I guess I don't have a lot to draw from. Maybe chocolate mousse could be the next cotton candy...

True rye and true bourbon wake delight like any great wine...dignify man as possessing a palate that responds to them and ennoble his soul as shimmering with the response.

DeVoto, The Hour

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That works for warm in a mug; I'm wondering about something cold and up....

Well, chocolate, cold and up pretty much defines a choco-tini...

I would add sweet to that list. Dry/tart/bitter applications of the chocolate flavor don't really seem to satisfy the needs of the "chocolate martini" crowd. They want to drink their dessert, often before dinner. My minor protest is to sneak Cognac into them...they wonder why it tastes better.

Andy Arrington

Journeyman Drinksmith

Twitter--@LoneStarBarman

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Would something along the lines of Elizabeth Falkner's Catch 22 fall into the choco-tini category? I've never tried it because some of the booze called for isn't available locally, I found it a while back while doing some research on dessert/cocktail pairing.

3/4 oz. batavia arrack

3/4 oz. manzanilla sherry

3/4 oz. clement creole shrubb

3/4 oz. homemade chocolate liqueur*

Shake with ice cubes. Strain. Garnish with an orange zest strip.

*homemade chocolate liqueur

1 liter overproof rum

2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise

1/4 cup cocoa nibs

Infuse for 3 weeks, shaking daily. Strain.

It's kinda like wrestling a gorilla... you don't stop when you're tired, you stop when the gorilla is tired.

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And the silence is deafening.

Here's a more specific question, then. I've been noticing boatloads of "Chocolatinis" out there, and the ingredients are quite, uh, horrifying. Any ideas for something we could make on the sweeter side but with a nod to something more classic that could make a first-timer say, "Wow, that IS better than the Hersheytini!" or whatever?

Ago Perrone's Mulata Daisy, is one of the best new drinks I've tried in recent years and one of the top sellers at Yatai on our winter menu.

A Mulata Daiquiri is also a good shout for a chocolate based cocktail, fantastic drink in my opinion.

Meant to add, I personally don't see these as sweet drinks, no sweeter than say a well made Daiquiri, but they can be tweaked slightly to suit the person buying the drink. but shouldn't every cocktail?

Edited by evo-lution (log)

Evo-lution - Consultancy, Training and Events

Dr. Adam Elmegirab's Bitters - Bitters

The Jerry Thomas Project - Tipplings and musings

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My minor protest is to sneak Cognac into them...they wonder why it tastes better.

My hero! :wub: Awesome way to get those Cosmo swilling girls to take off the training wheels. :smile:

Just because something is chocolate flavored and sweet doesn't necessarily have to doom it to gathering dust on the shelf. Certainly the Van Gogh Chocolate vodka is a decent enough product, as is their Double Espresso Vodka (as flavored vodkas go...). The Mozart Chocolate liqueurs are all very tasty and well made. Even the Godiva White Chocolate liqueur is tasty enough, if tooth achingly sweet. If we get over our own aversions to sickly sweet cocktails and realize that there's a whole host of folks out there that like their alcohol well masked (read: Masked Beyond Recognition) and that they help pay the bills, we can certainly find ways to make something they'll consider potable that won't make us want to shoot ourselves in the head or slit our wrists with repeated sawing motions of a bar spoon. Remember - we're only their Enablers. We aren't their Judges. :rolleyes:

I find that mixing the overly sweet chocolate with some other component like a shot of espresso for a mocha type drink or with an Orange liqueur like Grand Marnier for a different flavor profile seems to help. Think about all the various flavors you enjoy in a candy bar and work backward. Like Mounds bars? Malibu and chocolate. Almond Joy? Amaretto, Malibu and chocolate. Peppermint Patties? Creme de Menthe or Rumpleminz with Chocolate. With all of the various nut liqueurs and flavored vodkas and rums out there you can keep those sweet toothed customers busy for ages. It might make us shudder, but they'll think you're a genius...

Of course the easiest way to create an "original" drink recipe is to swap out a component of the recipe. So if the original iteration calls for Maraschino or Cointreau/Triple Sec as the sweetening agent, try it with something sweet and chocolatey instead. Certainly subbing White Creme de Cacao for Triple Sec isn't that far of a stretch. Sometimes the results go down the sink, but even blind pigs occasionally find truffles. No guts. No glory. :raz:

Edited by KatieLoeb (log)

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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Just because something is chocolate flavored and sweet doesn't necessarily have to doom it to gathering dust on the shelf. Certainly the Van Gogh Chocolate vodka is a decent enough product, as is their Double Espresso Vodka (as flavored vodkas go...). The Mozart Chocolate liqueurs are all very tasty and well made.

I don't know how widely available it is (my bottle was a sample from the company), so this might not be at all workable/real-world, but Mozart Dry is very good, and because it's unsweetened, it gives you a lot of flexibility in terms of your chocolateyness/sweetness balance. I had a "chocolate Manhattan" last night subbing Mozart Dry for half of the rye, for instance -- I don't think it'd be sweet enough to convert someone used to chocolate martinis, but it was a great drink with a prominent chocolate flavor. Using something like Canton, Chambord, or the various orange liqueurs makes a pretty respectable sweet drink too.

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i used to make a chocolate martini for people that requested it with some pedro ximinez in it.

1.5 oz. vanilla vodka

.75 oz. creme de cocoa

.75 oz. pedro ximinez

it always stuck and people would go for a couple rounds of it. we used really low budget brands of vanilla vodka and creme de cocoa so the sherry really elevates them and adds gentle depth.

this drink was a "solution" and not something we really wanted to promote. weddings would descend upon the bar in the hotel and ask for lots of mono-flavored drinks. we used to have a "wedding kit" with apple pucker and everything. we'd break it out and keep everybody happy while making nice margins for the bar.

dessert sherry and creme de cocoa is pretty cool. sub glen fiddich or highland park, stretch the proportions to 2:.5:.5, maybe add an egg yolk and you've got a real serious drink.

abstract expressionist beverage compounder

creator of acquired tastes

bostonapothecary.com

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