Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

6 Extremely Useful Tips for Holiday Menus That Make Sense for Your Bar

Elizabeth Reyes

There’s nothing like a good holiday-themed cocktail menu to help keep spirits bright. But beyond swapping out swizzle sticks for candy canes, how exactly do you celebrate the season with your drink list? Here, three bar menu pros share their tips for holiday drink lists that guests will remember into the New Year and beyond.

Don’t Be Too Literal

“Pick a theme, but use it as a broad idea instead of a direct interpretation,” says John Maher of The Rogue Gentlemen in Richmond, Va. “It makes for a much more creative menu, and it’s a lot more fun for the guest.” For example, a Christmas-themed menu doesn’t have to mean candy canes and Santa Claus, adds Maher. “What if your Christmas-themed menu was “A RuPaul Christmas Extravaganza”? It’s funny, off-the-wall and unexpected.” Now that’s a holiday menu we’d wait in line to experience!

For building a holiday menu from scratch, Joaquín Simó suggests starting with one sour, like this Winter Sour by H. Joseph Ehrmann.

Start Early

Especially if you aspire to professionally printed menus and other accouterments, like coasters, mark your calendar to start the brainstorming process as early as possible. “By October, it’s probably too late to get it to the printer,” says Morgan Schick, of San Francisco’s Trick Dog, who has masterminded drink menus printed to resemble calendars, record labels and more.

Bring in the Staff

“You’d be amazed at the skill sets that are hidden in your own staff,” says Joaquín Simó of NYC’s Pouring Ribbons. For example, he teamed up with Amanda Elder, at the time Pouring Ribbons’ creative director, to design some of the bar’s best-known theme menus, such as the “Route 66” and “Moody Authors” series. “She was free to explore her creativity in a very different way,” says Simó.

But Know When to Outsource

“Hiring a talented graphic designer is definitely key,” says Maher. He collaborates with graphic designer Chad Cariano on his detailed drink menus, which often resemble elaborately printed books. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve given Chad a general idea for a menu and he comes back with exactly what I had in my head that I wasn’t able to put into words.” If you don’t have someone in-house with the right skill set, ask your staff if they know someone with a design background.

Drink with holiday garnishes
Morgan Schick recommends breaking out the holiday garnishes, like in this drink by Carmen Polcyn, formerly of Chicago's now-closed Bar Toma.

Keep the Menu Varied

“You want to have something in it for everyone,” says Simó. “I think about a six-top, with drinks on a tray going to that table. Do four out of the six people look like they’re having a Manhattan?” For those building a holiday menu from scratch, he recommends starting with one sour (like a holiday-spiced Daiquiri) and one riff on a classic stirred drink (like a winter-inspired Old Fashioned) and then fill in the gaps.

Get Creative with the Drink Presentation

Whether that means unusual glassware, colorful garnishes or other visual presentations, this is the time to break out the whimsy. “Holiday garnishes are really fun,” says Schick. He also urges bartenders to find inspiration beyond the obvious. “Think about it: What do you do on Christmas? Maybe you take everything out of your stocking and stay in your PJs all day and watch ‘It’s A Wonderful Life.’” Those cues might inspire a drink served in a Christmas stocking, for example. “But unless you do the exercise of recreating the event you’re trying to evoke, you miss stuff.”