Restaurants can gain a competitive edge with a good bar, says cocktail historian David Wondrich, who adds that sales of spirits are still hot despite the struggling economy. Wondrich, who has developed cocktails for New York’s 5 Ninth and Fatty Crab, is a contributing editor to Esquire as well as the author of several beverage books. He is also a founder of Beverage Alcohol Resource (BAR), an intensive “boot camp” for spirits and mixology education.
When it comes to creating an effective cocktail menu, less is more, he says, as complicated drinks can slow operations and overwhelm guests. Instead, a few simple, tasty concoctions are all it takes to build a bar menu that keeps both sides of the bar happy.
What trends have you noticed recently in restaurant cocktail menus?
Even the restaurants are starting to get into the classic pre-Prohibition cocktail thing. That I find very interesting, because that was a small cocktail bar trend—sort of the boutique speakeasy bar trend—that’s suddenly kind of jumping to even fairly large restaurants, and suddenly they’ve got cocktail lists abounding with their takes on aviation cocktails and all these other truly classic pre-Prohibition type drinks.
What advice would you give to a restaurant that was planning to revamp its cocktail menu?
First, appoint one person to be in charge of it, somebody who really cares about drinks. That’s the important thing because otherwise you end up with a menu full of “-tinis.” Banish the -tini. That’s very, very 1980s. That’s always a bad sign. Keep the drinks simple. You don’t have to be super creative.
How do you go about creating a good cocktail list?
You really need balance. If you look at a list and see eight vodka drinks, you’re only going to get one kind of consumer with that. You want to try to appeal to everybody. That doesn’t mean you need a huge amount of drinks either. You can just put one for each type and that will work fine.
I think I prefer a short list, especially in a restaurant, because otherwise the list takes forever to navigate and people have too much choice to make a choice.
Are there any general rules of thumb as far as getting the most bang for the buck from cocktails?
In general, for cocktails, you don’t need to use the most luxury ingredients. If the cocktail is delicious, the cocktail is delicious. Bourbon is a great bang for the buck. You can use a $20 bottle of bourbon and make truly delicious top-shelf cocktails with that.
What are the common downfalls on specialty cocktail menus?
Execution. People will get a consultant in to draw up a nice cocktail list, and then the guy who the consultant trained will leave, and then you go in and they’ll hand you the cocktail list, and you’ll order and they’ll be looking around behind the bar for where they put that bottle. Then they’ll pour things without measuring them into a shaker and wiggle it around once and strain it out through their fingers into your drink… The other [downfall is] trying to do too much. You know, you have a fine-dining restaurant and you have a creative chef, and he wants to influence the list, and will make 28 different herbal syrups, et cetera, et cetera, and suddenly the bartenders are in the weeds looking for all the different bottles and trying to assemble these very complicated drinks.