As a customer, we can judge a restaurant quality by two things that have nothing to do with food. First, the cleanliness of the bathrooms. If the restrooms are clean, there is a great chance the kitchen is clean. Second, the cocktail menu. The quality of spirits used, the garnishes and even the number of drinks on the menu will indicate the mentality and essence of a restaurant.
Steve Olson, wine guru and cocktail expert, gave me some great advice while at a symposium in Colorado a few years ago. He is one of the most significant promoters of beverage education in the country and has been honored by most of the highest powers that be in the business. That means that I listen when he speaks. These are some tips from Olson about how to make, judge and evaluate a cocktail menu.
• There should be 10-15 drinks on the menu total.
Olson stressed this over and over again. Menus that have 30 drinks are not only being bought by a distributor, but they are not considering the bartender. During any type of influx in business, the bar has to be able to keep up. If there are too many signature drinks, they become more mass-produced and less “signature.” The cocktail menu is the greatest hits of the bar. Of course you can make all the classics, but the ones you pay to print should be special.
If you put them in print, they should be the best you can do at that time.
• There should always be a champagne cocktail on the list.
Making a distinctive and tasty mix with bubbles has a dual purpose. It shows that you know how to make delicate drinks with texture and flavor. At the same time, it provides something special for people that really love champagne. True finesse behind the stick is using any ingredient well. Showcasing a champagne cocktail on your list illustrates the ability to execute out front just as they do in the kitchen.
• Cocktails should reflect the food.
If a restaurant boasts about how good the food is and how fresh it tastes and that it uses only the finest ingredients, then the cocktail menu should echo that mentality. A place concerned with quality in its food that puts artificially flavored cocktails on its menu is contradicting itself. The bar has the ability to set the tone. After all, the drinks are the first thing the guests taste. If they are not good or poorly made, the food has to be twice as good to impress the guest.
• There should be no more than two vodka drinks.
This one is where we get it wrong most of the time. Vodka is the No. 1 drink on the Grand Strand. We know how to drink it. We know how we like it. Make one or two really great, distinctive vodka drinks and move on. I have seen lists with more than 10 drinks using vodka. Sure they use all the weird flavors, but it is still a vodka cocktail. Given all the great spirits out there, why not use them? Gin, tequila, whiskey. Make something memorable with those spirits.
• Sweet is only one flavor. Use them all.
We all know that sweet is the way to go when making drinks that sell. If you want people to like it, make it easy on the tongue. While this works, it does not serve the industry well. One of the first things I learned in my wine studies was the difference between sweet and fruity. The two are similar and, often, mistaken for each other, but totally different. We all know that making a drink sweet will make people like it. The same will be true if you make a drink fruity. Make it taste like a real orange, apple or pear. My mantra is “if you want it to taste like lemon, put lemon in it.”