Creating a great cocktail menu is hard. Like really hard. It can take months, or even years, to curate a document that’s insightful and inspiring. Naren Young has lived for the last two decades on both sides of the bar. In this ongoing series, he dives deep into cocktail menus from around the globe revealing what makes them work and why.
As guests are led to their table or seats at the long, cherry wood bar at Manhattan’s BlackTail, one of the members of the polished floor team, led by Laura Torres, explains how best to navigate the bar’s 88-page cocktail tome01.
A Lilliputian glass filled with an ambrosial frozen Daiquiri is placed before every guest gratis. In much the same way that one might receive a glass of daily punch on arrival at The Dead Rabbit’s second floor Parlor, the complimentary Daiquiri is a welcome touch. It brings instant civility. The version at BlackTail is a sharp mix of four white rums, made into a delightful aperitif with a generous lashing of fresh lime. Oh, and there’s also complimentary still or sparkling water.
After this little “amuse booze” and the cocktail menu’s encyclopedic portal into the annals of drinking lore is where Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon want the similarities between their two venues, BlackTail and the legendary Dead Rabbit nearby, to end. Leading from the front here is the extremely talented Jillian Vose, who has steered The Dead Rabbit for three years, and Jesse Vida, another Dead Rabbit alumnus, who came over to manage the bar at BlackTail.
Creating world-class menus that make a splash around the world is nothing new to this crew. Bringing the group’s menus to life, so to speak, is Richard Ryan, the brains behind Drinksology, a Belfast-based specialist design studio.
“The BlackTail menu is incredibly complex in concept and detail but hopefully quite simplistic in effect,” says Ryan. “Outside of the drinks, I genuinely believe no drinks menu in history has received the level of consideration that this menu has. The overarching BlackTail project was a nine-month labor of love.”
I’ve been to BlackTail a lot recently, mostly in the name of researching this article. On one early visit, I was sat directly in front of Vose in the middle of the bar, an imposing mural of Columbus by John Vanderlyn looking down on me. Under the whirring fans and fake palms, I am supposed to feel like I’m in Cuba, if only for a fleeting moment—or as long as it takes me to slurp down all three Daiquiri incarnations on the menu02.
All the Daiquiris, for the record, are wonderfully balanced and don’t resemble some of the sad, saccharine versions to be found in their Cuban homeland. They’re all shaken and have remarkable freshness from using the sous vide method to infuse both the house-made flavored syrups and the base spirits.
As Vose begins to take me through the minutiae of the menu, it seems fitting to start with a Highball03, one of five sections that make the menu’s imposingness easier to follow. Each section is also broken down by the glass the drinks are served in04, with a small icon underneath to indicate to guests how the drink is presented. It’s a step too overlooked in most bars. Alongside that, the price: $16 for all drinks.
Contained within each section, which also includes Punch, Sour05, Old Fashioned and Cocktail as monikers, are eight very intricate-sounding drinks. The descriptions for each have been simplified from their previous Dead Rabbit formulas, assures Vose. While Muldoon admits to not having a huge role in the drinks themselves, he does step in when it comes to naming and curbing what he says are “unnecessarily convoluted descriptions.”
McGarry concurs, telling me that they’ve pulled back to make the drinks more accessible and the menu more user-friendly. I’m not convinced I see the difference, with both menus littered with many esoteric ingredients and there’s a proliferation of combining two or more assertive base spirits, a philosophy that Vose brought with her from Death & Co. to The Dead Rabbit.
Running parallel to the drinks is the story of a failed writer’s Cuban odyssey in search of famed New Jersey publican Ed Donovan. The 16-part story takes the lead from the titles of Basil Woon’s 1928 book, When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba, with each section reimagined and painstakingly illustrated06. Cocktail historian Jared Brown also added historical context and lent his creative prose to the second section, which outlines the factual and fictitious journey of a bar room journalist in Cuba.
“The wording of any menu is really important. We don’t need to oversell it and try not to include anything that’s not relevant”, says Vose. “We leave a lot of room for interpretation, while trying to create some curiosity and intrigue.” Interestingly, there are no liquor brands listed on the menu, a significant shift from what we’ve come to expect as bargoers. As I scan the Highballs section, the Vodka & Celery07 catches my eye and seems like as good a place as any to start working my through the menu.
Each Highball, introduced on the menu as “the high priest of tall drinks,” is served in a preposterously oversize receptacle, filled with two large crystal clear ice cubes that fit snugly on top of each other. Each one contains a litany of unusual ingredients that take the drink far away from its humble origins as a two-ingredient mainstay. Árbol chile, makrut lime, sarsaparilla, verjus, black peppercorn and pear soda all make an appearance—thankfully not in the same glass.
BlackTail’s Vodka & Celery Highball, made with Canadian vodka, verjus, lemon, black peppercorn, celery soda; and the Pineapple Milk Punch, made with Puerto Rican rum, Brandy de Jerez, cream, pineapple, hazelnut, vanilla, cherry and aromatic bitters
Even BlackTail’s riff on a Rum & Cola is spiked with Champagne, a peculiar touch that works. I also try the Pisco & Green Tea08, which is light and refreshing, if a touch sweet, and I miss the bone-dry nuttiness of the fino sherry that it promises.
“In researching for the menu at BlackTail, we focused on cocktail books from the 1910s to 1950s”, says Jesse Vida, BlackTail’s bar manager. “All of our Highballs are served in traditional fashion, tall over ice and effervescent. We certainly believe this is a category on the rise, and we hope to be involved in its resurgence.”
As he has become known to do, McGarry spent an inordinate amount of time researching the drinks for the BlackTail menu. He was granted access to the vast antique drinks library owned by Greg Boehm of Mud Puddle in Manhattan, and in the end, he took what he calls “classic templates” of drinks and used these to create a sense of familiarity for the guests. From there, they could branch out creatively as a team to add their own touches.
“We had to make the drinks very different from The Dead Rabbit in terms of glassware, ice and flavor profiles,” says Vose. “At BlackTail, we’re using more tinctures and salt solutions to add nuance. And while rum is a big passion and part of our DNA here, it wouldn’t be very wise for us to only have rum drinks on the menu.”
One thing the two bars have in common is a devout love of punch09, though at BlackTail, it’s a different affair. It’s not served as a communal ceremony in an ornate bowl as tradition would dictate. Rather, each one is presented in a large wine goblet, kept cold by brilliant ice cubes provided by Hundredweight in Long Island City.
The Pineapple Milk10 seduced me with its Piña Colada-esque nuances, and though it was a little too sweet, it was also unctuous and delicious all the same, finished with lashings of nutmeg, a McGarry signature (though the drink is Vose’s creation). One of the more interesting-sounding cocktails on the menu does belong to McGarry: his Celery Sour. Tanqueray gin steeped with pineapple and shaken with Galliano liqueur, cucumber bitters and celery-seed syrup and given a savory tartness from both lemon and Greek yogurt.
They aim to change the BlackTail menu only once per year. Keeping drinks seasonally appropriate does present its own challenges with this direction though. Take, say, the Strawberry Daiquiri, for example. It’s going to be difficult to get that fruit’s intense sweetness in January, though McGarry tells me they have a strategy in place for this. Stay tuned.
As they have successfully done at The Dead Rabbit, a small insert of eight seasonal drinks was recently launched. It offers a more seasonal approach, one that will be changed more often and also gives all the bartenders an opportunity to showcase their creativity.
The third and final section lends credence to the BlackTail name and, as the menu says, “tells the true story of an aviation maverick that nearly made it.” These luxurious flying boats11 provide the muse, or the narrative, for the story of the bar and the time in history it encapsulates—a time, the menu also notes, when they “delivered the thirsty into the embrace of tropical sunshine, of decadent cocktails—of Cuba.”
In talking further with the designer, Richard Ryan, about the psychology of the menu, he offered some wonderful insights into the overriding philosophy. “Ultimately, a menu must afford customers the opportunity to concisely find a drink, and there are many simple mechanisms to do this,” he says. “We have a mantra that to be the best bar you must be a lot more than just a bar—you must be a brand—and the holy grail for any brand is to have a captive audience. Thereafter, you must immerse the customer in a story—a story that hopefully transports them into your brand world, and when you get it right, even the drinks taste better because of it.”