Ah, brunch! Love it or hate it, the weekend-only meal isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. After all, the grueling American workweek demands that we celebrate its passing by overpaying for basic eggs and getting properly sloshed with a bottomless-drinks deal.
It’s clear where many in the hospitality industry stand when it comes to brunch, but that said, it’s a big moneymaker for any establishment that can do it right. Given the typically higher volume of brunch time, bartenders must figure out how to keep brunch offerings consistent and interesting while also quick and easy to execute. It’s also wise to consider low-ABV options for the sake of your guests.
So how can you upgrade your brunch cocktails? Think outside the Mimosa and Bloody Mary. Micheladas are ever more popular these days, as are fun and innovative coffee cocktails and boozy green juices. And don’t sleep on the versatility and range of sparkling wine, from dry to sweet, from Champagne to cava and prosecco.
To get your gears turning, we’ve tapped some of our favorite bartenders across the country for advice on how to create and execute a morning (and afternoon) cocktail program.
1. Keep Up the Speed
As important as creativity is, so too is efficiency. Speed is always a desirable factor of good service but perhaps even more so at brunch, where eggs and toast are flying out faster than dinner entrees. Prepping ingredients in advance and choosing easy-to-make drinks will help your bar staff keep up with their kitchen counterparts.
“People at brunch typically want a drink fast, whether to soak up what’s helping them recover from the night before or to continue that night into the day,” says Jeremiah Schenzel, the co-owner of Daps Breakfast & Imbibe in Charleston, S.C. “Just like any efficient bar program, being prepared, and more often overprepared, will set you up for success. No one wants to get their Bloody Mary after their eggs and bacon. We often find that less standard preparation measures also are a huge help: rolled cocktails as opposed to heavily shaken, ‘dirty’ dumps and even kegging cocktails are all measures to help you move more quickly.”
In the same vein, mise en place is all the more crucial here. With a typically smaller menu being offered during brunch, consider premixing things you normally wouldn’t for evening service.
“The ‘turn-and-burn’ factor is extremely important, as restaurants often get hit hard from the very beginning of brunch service,” says Evan Danielson of City Winery in Nashville. “A bar might premix spirits and liqueurs in proper ratios into one bottle so that the bartender is only grabbing that bottle and a couple of others to make the drink. Or try a fully prebatched cocktail, which is fastest. Having a proper mise en place with all garnishes prepared and ready to go, with backups on hand, will drastically improve the speed and execution of service, reduce stress on bar staff and just generally help to improve a guests overall experience.”
2. Save Time, Save Money
In addition to saving time, batching your cocktails will inherently help cut costs, according Dzu Nguyen, the bar manager at Horsefeather in San Francisco. Additionally, large-format presentations play well into the inherently social group nature of brunching.
“Brunch at a restaurant with a competent bar will still always be about the food, so you can find that your drink order average is a bit low. However, there are creative ways to increase check averages while maintaining or lowering your liquor cost overall,” says Nguyen. “Shareable batch cocktails, when made right, can be cost effective. You offer ‘more’ out of less high-cost product that’s still refreshing and delicious but with a healthy markup.”
Rather than overcharge for low-quality sparkling wine Mimosas, batch something creative that doesn’t waste product. This will make your drinks stand out quality-wise.
“You’ll find that restaurants will offer bottomless Mimosas,” says Nguyen. “Don’t be fooled as that’s usually swill sparkling wine sold at a major up-charge. The idea is to make sure that you’re keeping costs low per cocktail by volume. It’s worth it to make a creative cocktail with interesting ingredients, but it’s important to make sure you’re not making a ton of wasted product from expensive esoteric ingredients or liquors knowing that this cocktail might only be ordered three or four times through brunch.”
3. Apply Your Brand to Classics
When it comes to differentiating your brunch cocktails from classics, the easiest way is to lean into the existing focus and strengths of your concept. At New York City Filipino restaurant Pig & Khao, for example, simple Bellinis are given Southeast Asian twists with mango, lychee and white peach. Meanwhile, at NYC Caribbean favorite Miss Lily’s, Margaritas are remixed with rum and Ting, a Jamaican grapefruit drink.
“Being that we’re a Mexican-style restaurant, we make Bloody Marys in the format of Micheladas,” says Tim Cluely, the head bartender at Vidorra in Dallas. “I’ve taken the traditional Mimosa and put some fun spins that coincide with our concept, such as our Paloma Mimosa, a mix of the traditional Champagne and orange juice with tequila, grapefruit juice and Aperol. Keep thinking outside of the box. Try twists on the classics that coincide with your concept and find ways to make them large formats, but always, always make them bright and festive.”
4. Think Past the Bubbly and the Bloody
Consider other morning-friendly formats that might work well for your restaurant. At Stay Golden, a popular new café-roastery in Nashville, that means leveraging the coffee program to create innovative originals like the Praline Cortado, fusing Lazzaroni amaretto with espresso and steamed milk.
“Since brunch is all about comfort food, I like to incorporate some richer and sweeter drinks with rum or whiskey to help complement that vibe,” says Nathanael Mehrens, the beverage director at Stay Golden.
If you have a garden on-site or have a seasonal focus, be sure to apply this as you would any other time of day. “When designing a brunch program, I’m always looking for freshness in my drinks; you want something that’s going to wake up your taste buds,” says Karol Ansaldi, the beverage director for Miami’s Groot Hospitality. “Having a rooftop garden at Planta is great because you can get inspired to make a cocktail using whatever you have available that season.”
In designing the menu at Planta on Miami’s South Beach, Ansaldi skipped bottomless Mimosas for a selection of bottomless cold-pressed Margaritas that include a Biscayne Breeze (carrot, orange and lime) and Rooftop Margarita (beet, lime and raspberries).
5. Don’t Forget the Fun Factor
While the food will take center stage, don’t be afraid to steal a little spotlight where you can, whether through garnishes or, if you have enough staff, a dedicated tableside presentation. At David Burke Tavern in NYC, beverage director Patrick McHugh amps up the classic Bloody with Bloody Mary ice cubes and riffs on a Martini using orange jam for a Breakfast Martini.
“Crazy Bloody Mary garnishes can often be prepared in advance to maximize efficiency and appeal,” says Russ Yessenov of Honey Salt in Vancouver. “Bottles of bubbles sold with O.J. are great for the table. Maybe Frosé? For Bloody Marys, extravagant garnishes can certainly turn the eye. We actually have a Bloody Caesar cart, which allows guests to customize their cocktails at the table.”