Restaurant Briefing: The Cocktail Experience

Promote Your Business Restaurant Industry By American Express February 9, 2015

More and more restaurant bars around the country are barrel aging and bottling their own cocktails. Many are replicating or reinventing classic recipes. Some are working closely with local producers and chefs to create new flavor combinations, and others are offering cocktails in large and small formats in order to appeal to an ever-growing interest in cocktails. What some are doing around the country to keep their cocktail programs top of mind:

“I think there’s more emphasis on restaurant bars today – people want to eat when they’re drinking and, as a result, the caliber of the drinking experience at restaurants is going through the roof,” says Kevin Denton, Beverage Director, Alder, New York, NY. Four of Alder’s seven cocktails are on tap and/or carbonated and are available as ‘shorts’ – a ½ cocktail for half price. “’Shorts’ are perfect for people who want to try a couple of cocktails or don’t want to drink as much,” says Kevin, adding that they account for 30% of spirits sales during the week and 10% on the weekends. Sometimes customers order all four as a flight. He says that pre-batching cocktails is key for a busy restaurant bar. “We’re still doing the same steps just two hours before the guests arrive, and the consistency of the cocktails is guaranteed.” Kevin says they built their own tap system, which has a temperature-controlled line, but that one could use a kegerator.

Julep, Houston, TX, features a large-format cocktail called “Bottled in Bond” that is popular with groups – a Manhattan-style cocktail made with bonded bourbon, bonded rye, vermouth from Torino, and aged bitters, which is served in a whiskey decanter for four or more people ($60). “While larger format cocktails are easier to produce, I don’t believe they are necessarily a better experience for the customer,” says Alba Huerta, owner. “It shouldn’t be just about getting the drinks to the table faster, so we concentrate on presentation, using a decanter which is accompanied by cherries, almonds, and dark chocolate.” She cautions that when creating large-format cocktails to remember that they are consumed over time and, therefore, it’s important when creating them to taste them over time to see how the flavors change”.

Ryan Valentine, Beverage Director, Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, Columbus, OH, says he, too, is seeing an explosion of interest in great cocktails. “We are reinventing some of the classics, plus barrel aging, carbonating, and bottling cocktails, as well as serving seasonal punches for four. Guests come specifically for these punches and the punch bowls with four glasses and a ladle look terrific on tables in the dining room. Using barrel-aging and bottling methods, we can make a great cocktail of any complexity prior to each shift, and have not only consistency, but we can get the cocktail in the hands of the guest quickly.” Cocktails are barrel aged for 45 days, Ryan says, which allows the spirits to become well integrated, softening them a bit, making them more appealing to a wider audience, and ultimately accounting for 45% of spirit sales. Flights of three, one-ounce barrel-aged cocktails ($15), served in shot glasses, which sit in slots on a small wooden tray, are very popular. Almost 15% of spirit sales are from bottled cocktails. Ryan adds that when they began, they built a carbonator because they couldn’t find one on the market but since then, some good ones have become available, including the Perlini commercial carbonated cocktail system ($600).

At Craigie on MainBoston, MA, Jared Sadoian, Lead Bartender, says that for the past year they have had two cocktail menus – a larger one with approximately 30 cocktails for the bar and a smaller one, featuring eight, for the dining room. “When we were using only the large bar cocktail menu in the dining room, we noticed that guests were not taking as much time with it as we had hoped, so we created a smaller list of some our lighter, more aperitif-style cocktails.”  As a result, cocktail sales in the dining room have increased 15%, and, most importantly, he says that cocktail sales have not negatively impacted wine sales, which was a concern. The large “Libations List” at the bar is divided into four sections: Originals – their own creations ($12/each); Classics – recipes from classic bartending books ($11); themed drinks – low alcohol, cocktails based on a specific spirit or liqueur, etc. ($10); and non-alcoholic drinks ($6-$7). Jared adds that sometimes bar customers are given a “bar amuse,” presented in miniature cocktail glassware from the restaurant’s collection.

Raven & RosePortland, OR, also has two different menus, one for the restaurant (quick, food-friendly drinks) and another for the bar (more crafted drinks that take time). “The cocktail menu in the restaurant is built for speed and features a seasonal sangria and easily-executed classics to fit any flavor profile ($8 – $12), as well as a seasonally-inspired draft cocktail. We have seven single-barrel spirits, including bourbon, whiskeys, tequilas, and apple brandy that are bottled exclusively for us,” explains David Shenaut, Beverage Director. These single-barrel spirits are featured in a rotating list of five classic cocktails named after the people connected to the building’s history ($11-14). The most popular cocktail is the Sim’s Old Fashioned, made from one of the single-barrel spirits. He adds, “While I think pre-batched cocktails on tap are great for events – for consistency and ease of service – we like to build drinks for people; there’s romance behind having a bartender make a drink, which is still important and we think provides a better experience.”

Adam Chumas, Beverage Director, Tom Douglas Restaurants, Seattle, WA, believes that concentrating on execution and product knowledge is the biggest trend today. “I feel we should be doing the work for our customers – curating the spirits we offer, and helping to educate those who want to know more.” He says often when customers don’t know what kind of cocktail they want, after finding out what flavor profiles they like, bartenders will recommend a cocktail, and while making it, they’ll put the individual ingredients in shot glasses for customers to taste.