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13 ways to create a world-class cocktail menu

New York bartender Naren Young runs down a list of cocktail program need-to-knows.

1. Know your audience
Don’t create a menu for yourself or to impress others bartenders. If you work in a high-volume lounge where Vodka & Soda is your most popular mixed drink on a Saturday night, then perhaps that lavender-scented Sazerac with the absinthe foam you’ve been tweaking for the past six months is not the wisest choice. Nothing is more important in business than knowing your audience. Think, what kind of people are visiting your venue? What are they drinking? Do their tastes change depending on what night of the week it is?

2. Find a balance
Try to create a menu that has something for everybody. You’re never going to please everyone all of the time – but you can get close. Ask, do you have a good cross section of spirits represented? This, of course, isn’t so important if your establishment specialises in a specific spirit. But I always ensure I have a vodka cocktail, two gin drinks, two to three whisky drinks, a cognac option, one or two tequila or mezcal cocktails and a couple of rum drinks. Then flesh this out with low alcohol and aperitif options.

3. Make sure to list no-or low-alcohol drinks
Low-alcohol cocktails have become increasingly popular in recent years and it’s a welcome change from the era of strong, spirituous libations. “Stirred and brown” was a catchphrase that became part of common cocktail vernacular and, personally, I couldn’t wait for it to end. Thankfully, today, more people are appreciating cocktails made with sparkling wine, vermouth, sherry, port, madeira and beer, not to mention countless amari and other bitters such as Aperol and Campari. Low-alcohol drinks are great with food and make good session cocktails. The profit margins on them are incredible, too.

libra
Libra at Trick Dog, San Francisco, nominated World’s Best Cocktail Menu, Tales of the Cocktail, 2014.

4. “Avoid overly precious cocktails”
Morgan Schick, Trick Dog, San Fransisco:
“We try to avoid overly precious cocktails – we try to inject a little bit of fun into it. We never want our menu to take itself too seriously. Some places a little pretension works in the menu. But it’s not right for us. We try to avoid making the menu too highbrow. I definitely pay attention to what other bars are doing and steal as liberally as everyone else. But I don’t think using an ingredient or a flavour or a technique because it’s trendy always works. But we are definitely sensitive to changes in popular palates. Our guests these days like a drier, more bitter drink than they did in the past so our cocktails are going that way. Our job is to give people something that they think is delicious and so being conscious of what is thought of as delicious is important.”

5. Don’t list too many cocktails
Enormous cocktail menus used to be the norm. One of my favourite bars of all time – Lab, in London – boasted 162 drinks. Is that too many? Of course. But at the time it felt right. But things evolve, tastes change, we learn. How many drinks you have on your menu can also be determined by the kind of venue you are. As The Dead Rabbit’s Jack McGarry explains (see number seven), a big menu is part of his bar’s identity and, for him, 65 drinks is appropriate and manageable. At Bacchanal, a new restaurant I’ve just opened in Manhattan, we have 22 drinks on our list, which by New York restaurant standards is considered quite ambitious.

6. “Don’t over do it on speciality produce”
Joaquin Sim, Pouring Ribbons, New York:
“Firstly, we look at the current menu and decide what’s staying and going. We take into consideration changing seasonality and a drink’s popularity. Once we’ve determined what is off the menu, we start to look at what holes need to be filled – so, shaken-gin- refreshing, or stirred-whisky-boozy – and try to devise new recipes accordingly. We also take into consideration a balanced array of base spirits, serving styles, glassware selection, ice needs, colours and garnishes. We don’t want too many drinks in pilsner glasses with crushed ice or too many stirred drinks. If we have seven drinks that call for an orange peel garnish then there better be a couple drinks that have orange juice in them otherwise we’re wasting a lot of citrus. Because we have so little back of house space, we also have to be careful to not overdo it on specialty produce or labour-intensive syrups. Our limited amount of storage dictates how many new products we can take in without shedding existing ones. Most important: make sure you can deliver. Consistency in execution by the staff, no matter who is behind the bar, or what day or time it is, is vital. Your drinks should be identical from staffer x on a Tuesday at 6pm as from staffer y at midnight on a Friday.”

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7. “No menu succeeds without the staff believing in its vision”
Jack McGarry, The Dead Rabbit, New York:
“Don’t have a big menu for the sake of it. There has to be a reason for everything you do. Our menus are large and that’s part of our DNA as a venue. There are pros and cons: on the plus side, it’s great PR, and it also makes a good talking point for our clientele: many guests come and work through the entirety of the menu. Cons: it’s a lot for the customer to take on board, which is why it’s absolutely essential our staff are well versed to help each guest select a drink: the success of every menu depends on the staff. Always be sure to have a small insert in each menu for anyone who wants to order quickly. Another challenge, from a bartender’s perspective, is that it’s very difficult to remember all the drinks. But we’ve tried to overcome that: recently, we installed iPads with all our recipes at each bar station. Our approach to creating new menus is democratic. We have a bartender unit that comes from very different backgrounds. Every bartender has their own style of creating drinks and that’s what I love. The menu should reflect different approaches, unique strains and each bartender’s personality.”

8. Work out how best to describe each cocktail
The way in which cocktails are articulated by your staff will determine what sells and what doesn’t. Again, this can be covered in training to ensure they know how to describe each drink’s flavour profile, texture, base spirit or modifiers. The wording on the menu is also key: some bars, such as The Aviary in Chicago, go for the minimalist approach, only using a few words for each drink (which means the floor staff need to be even more versed in how to describe each one). At the now shuttered Bayswater Brasserie in Sydney, we went for a much more poetic approach, where a drink such as a classic Bramble might be romanticised as such: “A hefty pour of Beefeater gin, poured over lashings of crushed ice with freshly pressed lemon and a whisper of sugar, crowned with wild blackberry liqueur and finished with finely grated nutmeg”.

9. “Not every cocktail generates the same revenue”
Jas Scott, Bramble bar, Edinburgh:
“We change our menu quarterly to adjust to the cost of seasonal ingredients and give ourselves the opportunity to list new products as soon as they hit the market. Not every cocktail generates the same revenue. We aim for 70 per cent GP. Some fall under that, some over, but we never try to push customers towards higher GP cocktails. We make sure they get what they want – simple.”

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10. “Top class menus should lead, not follow”
Zdenek Kastanek, 28 Hong St, Singapore:
“The key to a successful menu is truly understanding the identity and goals of your venue and your guests. At its simplest, we have eight basic spirit categories and two fundamental types of drink: pre-dinner and after-dinner. I’m from the old, European school of bartending so whenever I write a menu I always try to cover those two bases. I don’t mean every drink needs to scream ‘Aperitif!’ or ‘Digestif!’ Give it your own style; make it interesting; innovative but transparent, adventurous but humble and clear to the average guest. I’m all about simplicity. Anything over 25 drinks becomes confusing for the guest and you begin to compromise speed and consistency. Guests always want their favourite drink to taste the same and be with them as fast as possible. When I was writing the menu at Black Angels in Prague with Pavel Šima we had 24 drinks on the menu. People thought we were crazy. At the time, other bars in city had 100-plus drinks. But that was our idea and we stuck with it. Now go and look at bars in Prague today. I’ve always been a fan of David A. Embury’s idea of six basic cocktails. Six drinks probably won’t make a world-class menu but, you get the point, simple, well thought-out menus go a long way. Don’t follow trends slavishly. A top-class menu should lead, not follow. With each trend, we examine the practise, evaluate it, and decide if it has a place in our bar. Again, the key is to have a true understanding of your venue’s DNA and the discipline to stick to it. Just because some drink technique is cool, doesn’t mean it’s right for your bar.”

11. Photograph all your drinks
Yes, all of them. In this digital age, with magazines such as this one, as well as the increasing number of online blogs and other media outlets, you simply must spend money on a professional photographer if you want to stay ahead of the competition. If you put out world-class drinks across your bar, then there is always someone, somewhere that is going to want to tell other people about it. If you have top quality photos ready at the click of a button, then not only will you look professional, but these publications will come back to you again as a result.

Blind Pig, London, nominated for Best New International Cocktail Bar, Tales of the Cocktail, 2014.
Blind Pig, London, nominated for Best New International Cocktail Bar, Tales of the Cocktail, 2014.

12. “Give each drink a point of interest”
Gareth Evans, Blind Pig, London:
“A good menu should be short, accessible, easy to understand and fun to look at. We list our drinks with the ingredients and then add a point of interest at the end – something referring to the glass, or serve, something that makes people ask questions. So, for Rye n’ Air, it’s ‘Duty Paid’, for Cuba Pudding Jnr, it’s “Yogurt Powder’.”

13. Don’t underestimate the power of PR
When your menu is finished, use social media to promote it: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, WeChat – the power of these social media platforms to sell drinks can’t be understated. Try to promote a different drink every day. And, if you’re running any drinks specials, happy hours, promotions or launching a new menu, then these can be very effective tools to drive business to your venue.


 

Naren Young is a New York-based bartender and journalist who has created cocktail menus for dozens of bars around the world. You’ll now find him behind the bar at Bacchanal, New York, probably sipping on a Negroni.

Bartender interviews: Alexander Barlow

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