I was in a bar recently, and as I perused the beverage list, the first thing I noticed was that the names of the cocktails were so strange, almost annoyingly so, that it got me scratching my head and asking myself, Where did it all go wrong? Apparently, the bartender of this particular establishment told me that all of the names of the drinks where lines taken from poems by an illustrious author that I’d obviously never heard of. Why is choosing a drink in so many bars these days so difficult? And I’m not talking about the breadth of options on the menu, rather the silly, often cryptic monikers they go by.
This rather convoluted practice of naming cocktails is actually what led to my own philosophy of “twisted classics.” Not that this is anything new; bartenders the world over have been reworking and putting their own stamp on old drinks for centuries. Most of my cocktail menus are typically littered with familiar names that most people outside the bar industry have probably heard of: Gimlet, Smash, Cobbler, Fizz, Collins, Daiquiri, Sazerac, Sour, Swizzle, Fix and many others that are now firmly part of the cocktail lexicon.
Having this sense of familiarity on the menu makes it much easier for my guests to navigate and allows them to make a decision more quickly and perhaps with more confidence. Bars can be confusing enough places already without having to give people a long list of drinks with nonsensical names that don’t even begin to explain how it might look, smell or taste. When I’m presented with an unnecessarily large compendium of drinks, chances are I’m just ordering a generic beer.
Drinks with confusing names don’t take into consideration the needs of the guest. It’s like an inside joke that I either don’t get or I feel like I’m the butt of. Cocktail menus are too often created for other bartenders and not laymen who don’t have the same knowledge of the back bar that we professionals do.
Vermouth, left, and Garibaldi at Naren Young’s Dante in New York City
This format of twisted classics provides our bar at Dante with a very clear vision and a framework for the staff to be creative when contributing drinks for a new menu. It also conveys a message that first and foremost we’re a bar focused on classic cocktails and that these iconic drinks lay a foundation for us to look outside the box and be creative, depending on the time of year. Most of my menus acutely focus on the seasons.
As an example, my seasonal Sazerac has always proved to be very popular. This past spring, our chamomile version was extremely bright, floral and elegant. As we move into the fall, we’ll be launching our new version with bergamot. By having a Sazerac on the menu all year means that our staff already knows the history of the drink and how to make and articulate it; they just need to learn a new recipes with a few small tweaks that mark the changing of the seasons. Plus a lot of our guests have at least heard of the drink.
With our modus operandibeing mostly refreshing low-alcohol apéritifs (except perhaps that Sazerac), the Pimm’s Cup is another great example of how we rework something familiar twice a year to make it appropriate. Most bars only highlight this drink in the spring and summer, but our version has proved so popular that we keep it around all year. During our spring menu launch, it was spiked with a whisper of floral Hendrick’s gin, while come October, we swap that out for a little smoky Bowmore Islay single-malt Scotch whisky.
Most people find comfort in the familiar, and more than anything, a bar should do everything it can to make its guests feel comfortable. This can be achieved in myriad ways, but menu engineering is one that is often forgotten by many operators. I was really impressed with the approach taken by Proprietors LLC, the creative force that owns and operates The Normandie Club in Los Angeles.
On the Normandie menu are some reworked classics, though the title at the top reads “Inspired by the classics, it’s sort of like a …” and then goes on to list its own interpretations of the Spritz, Martini, Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Daiquiri, Collins and Bloody Mary—genius and yet so simple. See, folks, it doesn’t have to be that difficult, right?