Fancy Cocktails Have Now Arrived at Your Favorite Chain Restaurants

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That strip mall Strawberry Daiquiri isn’t what it used to be. (Photo courtesy Islands Restaurant)

Suburban living has a lot to offer. Say what you want, city folks, but it’s true.

Reasonable housing prices, good schools, accessible parking spaces. Great if you are starting a family. This is what led my husband and me to move to the hinterlands north of Los Angeles. For the most part, we are content.

Except where are the cocktails?  The real cocktails.  Not Mudslides and Appletinis, but serious drinks for serious drinking. Let’s face it, the average suburban restaurant isn’t exactly the epicenter of the craft cocktail movement. But recently the trickle-down theory has reared its head and higher-end chain restaurants are starting to catch up, offering old-school cocktails for their customers. Suddenly, the ‘burbs are drinking like they mean it.

The realization began with an innocent lunch foray this past summer. I walked into the California Pizza Kitchen near my house and, rather than having only the choice of a Lemon Drop or a Cosmo, I noticed a Strawberry Rhubarb Martini made with Art in the Age Rhubarb liqueur on the menu. Not exactly your average chain-restaurant cocktail.

On a different day, I learned that Islands, purveyors of the Pipeline burger and Yaki tacos, was infusing its tequila with house-roasted pineapple for its Makaha Maggie margarita. And then, during a road trip through Arizona, I found myself in Applebee’s, which bills itself as a “neighborhood bar and grill.” On the menu: an Old Fashioned and a Brandy Smash. I wondered if Jerry Thomas, the proclaimed 19th century godfather of the cocktail movement, was rolling drunkenly around in his grave.

I wondered what led these restaurants—with business already booming—to plunge into the classical drink world. For Mike Hurt, beverage director at Applebee’s, it was as simple as making a good business better. “Momentum behind the bourbon segment of the category is really strong,” he explains. “Consumers have been trending toward brown spirits for some time. Combining that macro-level consumer trend with the trend toward an appreciation for things that are authentic and have some historic relevance led us in this direction.” Business speak, sure, but if Applebee’s is serving up an Old Fashioned and a Smash, you can could certainly argue that craft cocktails are now reaching the masses, not just the cocktail cognoscenti.

Wisely, Applebee’s focused on familiar, basic cocktails without a lot of shaker bells and infusion whistles. Its Old Fashioned and Brandy Smash have several things in common. As Hurt summarizes, “They are really clean, straightforward drinks. They focus primarily on the flavor of the spirit, they are seasonally appropriate and, from an execution standpoint, they are not complicated to make and can be made pretty quickly.” Crafty thinking in a competitive market.

Islands experiments with grilled pineapple–infused tequila in its house cocktails.

Islands Restaurant has a similar concept. “Pineapple is one of Islands’ key ingredients,” says vice president of food and beverage, Tim Perriera. “We use 14,000 pounds of it every week—and we’ve been grilling it for our signature Hawaiian Burger since the first restaurant opened more than 30 years ago. With the popularity of infused liquors on the rise, we started experimenting with how to incorporate it into our tropical cocktails. We infused tequila with grilled pineapple and used the tequila in our Makaha Maggie margarita.”

Much like today’s craft cocktail bars, Islands has always tried to use fresh ingredients and has rotated its cocktail menu seasonally. Though known for the house Mai Tai, the majority of Islands’ drinks are more prosaic. Then, recently, the chain introduced a hand-shaken Strawberry Daiquiri and a spicy Mango Shandy.

To me, though, California Pizza Kitchen is at the forefront of this strip-mall cocktail boom.  During the summer, that Strawberry Rhubarb Martini I so willingly embraced took artisan spirits brand Art in the Age’s Rhubarb tea liqueur and blended it with fresh strawberries, Monin organic agave nectar and fresh lemon. The result? Pretty damn tasty—even if it isn’t strictly a Martini according to the textbook definition.

CPK’s upcoming menu continues to play on its philosophy of fresh ingredients with a California twist. Like Applebee’s, CPK has created a Smash. The Blueberry Ginger Smash combines Jack Daniels and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur with agave nectar, blueberries, lime and cranberry juice. In another example, the Svedka vodka–based California Roots plays with fresh avocado and mint, as well as, shockingly, a fennel salt rim.  When a chain restaurant starts rimming its glasses with fennel salt, the cocktail-shaking times are a-changin’.

As craft cocktail bars in big cities chart even more experimental territory, suburbia is starting to catch on—and catch up. Spirits are one of the biggest parts of a restaurant’s business. It pays to play the game. As Mike Hurt of Applebee’s says, “We view the spirits category as a place to be a little experimental.” We in the strip mall jungle thank them.

Lesley Jacobs Solmonson is co-author with David Solmonson of The 12 Bottle Bar (Workman Publishing, 2014), based on their Saveur-nominated, a site dedicated to making classic cocktails accessible to the home bartender. Her book Gin: A Global History was published in 2012 and she is currently writing Liqueur: A Global History. She is the spirits/wine writer for the LA Weekly and on the editorial staff of Chilled magazine, as well as a member of the advisory board for the Museum of the American Cocktail.

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  • keisha.allen.547 posted 3 years ago

    In many states it is not legal to serve a 3oz martini, let alone a 3.25 oz martini. If it was watered down tasting, she didn't add water to it genius. She didn't use the proper amount of ice, then shook the crap out of it instead of stirring it. P.s., there isn't one ratio set in stone for a gin martini, there are tons, even specifications depending on the style and brand of gin.

  • pouringpro posted 3 years ago

    Note: They way that drink is shaping up in the rocks glass, shows me that the bartender over poured, thus failed to measure the ingredients, cost the bar inventory and never makes the same drink twice in a row.
    Never sacrifice consistency and accuracy for speed or show.
    On a positive note, it is good to see mixology and craft cocktails reaching new territory.

  • pouringpro posted 3 years ago

    As usual we have major hygiene issues when articles are written by writers, not bartenders. Although
    I have watched many how to videos by major bartenders who also have bad habits behind the bar.
    A mixing glass inside a Boston Shaker. You drink It!, not the best way to educate your readers.

  • phillipgindergmailcom364448039 posted 3 years ago

    Super gross.

  • jules.winnfield.9674 posted 3 years ago

    Who the fuck told you 3 ounces is the correct amount?

  • jules.winnfield.9674 posted 3 years ago

    You're kind of a bitch aren't you? Sapphire gin? God, aren't you really original? Are you a real bartender or something?

  • chadmichaelgeorge.582ea82 posted 3 years ago

    Craft cocktail article. Headline photo shows a bartender using a glass to strain the drink. A glass they most likely just had in their hand to shake the drink. Gross.

  • alex.cavanagh.370 posted 3 years ago

    Ouch.... calm down folks...! God forbid someone walks into a chain restaurant! It's good to at least see they are trying to make an effort in their cocktails rather than not do anything at all, is it not?!

  • subina posted 3 years ago

    Yeah, ok, but are you actually watching them make your drink? Don't be fooled. I have one or two Bombay Sapphire Tinis, made by me, every night before dinner (as I'm preparing). I know what a correctly prepared one tastes like. Ordered one in Applebee's (Ugh---forced to go). It was big and beautiful and crystal clear BUT, there was no bite at all. Why was it big? Because they fill it with water and mix it with tons of ice, more than is necessary! I went up to the bar with my glass and asked the lovely young lady, "You're not a real bartender, are you?" Deer in headlights. I told her I wanted my Tini to contain 3 ounces of Bombay Sapphire which is a correct amount and 1/4 oz of dry Vermouth (6:1 ratio). She said I'd have to pay a few more dollars for that. The advertised Signature cocktail was already $10! Moral of the story: WATCH them prepare your drink. They may put the correct brand mame liquor in, but NOT the appropriate amount.

  • argol posted 3 years ago

    I'm so glad you like the suburbs, please stay there. I'm glad you like chain restaurants for they suit your "culture".

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