The Guide to Cocktail Menus
So, you’re putting the finishing touches on a new menu for your bar, after weeks or even months of exhaustive and costly research and development, and are bursting with excitement to share your vision with the world. “This menu is going to fucking annihilate the universe," you think. “It will place us atop the mountain of the world’s greatest bars and we will rain clarified, lactofermented everything down upon humanity while doing our part to save the planet and foster peace on earth….what could go wrong?” Well, as it turns out, quite a lot. After over a dozen years of working with cocktails and bartenders around the world, and making a ridiculous amount of mistakes in the process, I have identified, at least I think, some general do’s and don’ts for cocktail menus. Do heed my advice and consider these factors when creating your next menu, or don’t, and risk being sucked into the menu abyss.
Audience The first (and most important) factor to consider when creating a menu should always be the audience. In order to determine exactly who your audience is, ask yourself a couple of questions: Where is my bar located in the world? and Who is my clientele? Are you working in a city with a rich and storied cocktail history such as New York, London or San Francisco, where the general drinking public is well versed or are you working in a newer market, where cocktails have only recently become relevant? In historically strong cocktail cities almost anything is fair game, so long as it’s well executed, and competition is intense, so bars must stay one step ahead by being innovative and original. A menu of ‘twists’ on Margaritas and Negronis may not be enough to keep up with the big boys and girls there.
The average imbiber in cities like these is somewhat savvy & in newer markets too much innovation and originality could be intimidating to the general drinking public, who may not be ready for your vision. In these parts of the world you may want to consider scraping some the overly complex stuff in favour of a somewhat simplified, but technically sound menu that delivers a clear message. I’m not discouraging innovation or originality, far from it in fact, but the last thing we want to do as bartenders is build barriers between ourselves and our guests by running a menu that’s too far ahead of the curve for a particular place and time. Lure your guests in with El Diablos and Penicillins, earn their trust, then guide them toward your signature creations. New cocktail markets need time to crawl before they can sprint…. ….Unless you’re working in a part of the world that’s a total anomaly, like parts of Asia Pacific, where the local community has become incredibly well versed and knowledgeable about all things mixology in a very short amount of time due to a rapid influx of investment and international talent. There, a hyper competitive market has emerged which places immense pressure on bars to stay as current (read: trendy) as possible with cocktail menus. Wherever you are in the world, understanding your audience is a crucial step toward creating a successful menu. Drink Selection This is, in many ways, directly linked to your audience, whom you’ve hopefully identified. Your mission is to tailor a menu of drinks that appeal to that entire audience. This isn’t to say you should create a menu full of bangers and crowd pleasers, but rather the scope of your menu should aim to please a range of discerning palettes. Ideally, there should be something for everyone. Unless your venue’s concept calls for a heavy dose of a particular spirit then the goal should be to represent a variety of different spirits. If your menu has been compiled correctly, a guest looking for vodka options should be as comfortable as a rum drinker. At least that’s what I’ve heard (I’ve never actually done this in practice). The quantity and complexity of drinks on your menu should be only what your operation is able to handle considering space restrictions as well as the manpower at your disposal and skill level of your team. A menu that’s too labor intensive can negatively impact other aspects of your operation. Also, it’s advisable to consider the needs of your guests when deciding on the number of drinks to list on your menu (as well as the length of their descriptions). Remember - bars are where people go to converse over drinks, not read book-sized menus. Libraries are where people go to read books and drink. Don’t confuse the two.
Location and venue type can also play a role in drink selection: is your bar nestled in a financial district where after-work business types will fill the venue at half past seven looking for low-ABV drinks and stirred down aromatised cocktails, or does your bar attract a more adventurous clientele looking for signature sours and fizzes? Unless you’re content to occupy a fair amount of menu real estate with slow moving items, it’s best to keep the drinking habits of the local clientele in mind. Additionally, it’s advisable to consider the climate around you, both seasonally and annually. Bars operating in countries that experience defined seasons have the flexibility to run menus that reflect those seasons while also having the freedom to play with temperatures (think cobblers in the summer and toddies in the winter). Bars operating in tropical or desert countries are a bit more limited in this regard because it’s always hot. When I was working in Asia Pacific, I was always dumbfounded when I saw a menu full of spirit-forward drinks offered poolside. Hanky Pankys and Manhattans served poolside? No thanks. While I love them both, but the idea of drinking either of them whilst floating on a raft in a hotel swimming pool under the sun in Phuket makes me never want to drinkHanky Pankys, Manhattans or pools ever again. Which is a bummer because pools are delicious. It’s often said that the success of a drink is predicated upon how it is received by those who order it, and a good measuring stick on a drink’s overall success is how often it’s re-ordered. Keep this in mind when selecting which drinks will make the cut on your menu. That barrel aged, smoked Negroni never gets re-ordered. Don’t lie. I don’t want to break any hearts here, but it’s important to understand that when a drink is described as “interesting”, it’s really just a polite way of saying “this is offensive and you’re a terrible person for serving it to me.”
Organization & Design This too should take note of your audience (are you seeing a pattern here?). There are a number of ways to organise your menu: you can divide your drinks by base spirit(s) or cocktail families or light-to-heavy, just to name a few, but don’t feel limited to these three options. Let your creative flag fly - just be sure your idea of organisation makes sense to the people who will read it. Regardless of the direction you choose, bear in mind that unless you are working in one of the aforementioned “historically strong cocktail cities” there’s a fair chance that your menu will be read by people who won’t know the difference between a Mai Tai and a Boulevardier. Offer some clues by organising drinks in a way that helps guide your guests toward flavours and qualities they like.
If you have the means, hire a designer to transform your vision into hard copy. A good designer will create something engaging that’s easily navigable. Adding an illustration of the type of glassware used or a chart that maps out a drink’s flavour profile can help guests more easily select something that they will enjoy whilst simultaneously steering them away from things they dislike. We’ve all seen what Campari can do to the uninitiated; that traumatised look of violation and heartbreak that comes from expecting “fresh and fizzy” and getting “bitter, brown and stirred”. If only it could have been avoided…
Concept Concept & Wording For me, nothing can make or break the impact of a menu quite like the implementation of a concept. I love a good conceptual menu as long as it’s done honestly. If you’re using ‘film noir’ or ‘folk musicians' or ‘conspiracy theories of the 20th century’ as sources of inspiration, it should be because you’ve seen the films and heard the artists, or actually believe in the ridiculous conspiracies - and are inspired by them! When a menu concept comes from an honest place the results can be fantastic. If not, you risk coming across as pretentious and we bartenders don’t need to toss anymore gasoline on that fire. Just stay honest, friends. Drink descriptions Drink descriptions also have the potential to overly complicate a menu and weaken it’s impact. Unless you are sure that the vast majority of your guests will know what each small batch product, obscure ingredient, or overly technical preparation method is, it’s advisable to keep the descriptions nice and concise. In other words: try to lay off the fancy talk. Who is the audience for that clarified cactus needle tincture paired with a vague ingredient such as “wind”? (Don’t steal that idea please.) Does anyone care if the rosemary that’s been incorporated into a cocktail was done using sous-vide infusion? Do we need to list every piece of equipment that we have access to our menus? Don’t fall into the dangerous trap of writing self-indulgent menus that are only revered (or understood) by other bartenders.
In summary, creating a new menu can be an exhausting, tedious, labor intensive and expensive endeavour, and several factors must be considered, so it’s best to approach it with an organised game plan. By adhering to a few basic guidelines the process can become greatly simplified. Who knows, your menu very well may annihilate the universe…but if it does it will be because it resonates with a large number of people in a genuine way. Consider those who matter most when making decisions about each aspect of your menu and you’ll be on the path to greatness. Or don’t, and be sucked into the menu abyss…