Creating Dynamic Drink Menus

It’s not enough these days for bars and restaurants to list a few drink options on a laminated menu and call it a day. Just as guests today now look for cocktails that are creative, flavorful and interesting, expectations for drink menus are higher as well.

For one thing, customers want to know more about what they’re drinking, from what the base spirit is and where it’s from to the inclusion of rare or unique ingredients and tales behind the tipples. In some case, they also want to learn something or be entertained by the information in the modern drink menu.

We looked at a few beverage programs to see how some operators are updating their menus and presenting the offering in a compelling way.

Travel-inspired tastes

Princess Cruises recently made a significant change to its cocktail offerings to add flavors from every corner of the world. The cruise line, which is owned by Carnival Corp. and operates 17 ships, this past August revealed a globally inspired menu of 10 libations with destination-specific ingredients.

“We were inspired by the most diverse itineraries of any cruise line,” says Princess Cruises director of beverage operations Bob Midyette. “We wanted to weave in as many elements of our destinations as possible, while still affording guests the familiar and the experimental.”

The Princess team began with the overarching theme of travel and engineered the menu around it, with new drinks created by master mixologist Rob Floyd. Once the project was 95% complete, they went out to focus groups to gauge response. The feedback didn’t necessitate any tweaks in this case, so the staff wrote and distributed an extensive execution guide to the fleet to facilitate the roll out.

Any drink menu needs what Floyd refers to as “The Three Ts”: Taste (interesting ingredient combinations that produce delicious flavors); Technique (the skill and craft that goes into creating each drink); and Tale (a creative and fascinating inspiration behind each cocktail.) All drinks on Princess Cruises’ new menu keep the Three Ts concepts front and center.

For example, the Ver-Jus, made with St. George Terroir gin, muddled green grapes, lemon juice and simple syrup, takes its name from a cocktail dating back to the 1600s. It also refers to the French practice of using crushed green grapes for drinks in the 19th century, when citrus was a rare commodity.

The Mayan Heat cocktail, with Patron silver tequila, triple sec, blood-orange puree, lime juice, agave and muddled jalapeño, is named for the sensation of heat that an imbiber gets from the chile pepper. The Egyptian Zombie incorporates Bacardi Superior rum, Gosling’s dark rum, blackberry brandy, sweet and sour, orange juice, pineapple juice and grenadine.

Princess Punch

Princess Punch aboard Princess Cruises is inspired by the origin of the Sanskrit word for punch, which means “five.”

Princess Punch is a build-in-the-glass drink with Absolut Elyx vodka, St. George raspberry liqueur, lime, simple syrup and Gosling’s ginger beer. It was inspired by the origin of the Sanskrit word for punch, which means “five” and refers to the number of ingredients found in the classic beverage—usually lemon, water, sugar, tea/spices and alcohol. It’s also a reference to how British sailors brought punch back to Britain after sampling it in 17th-century India.

“Intelligent creativity is rewarded and expected—both in what is offered and how it is presented via the design of the menu,” Midyette says. That extends to Princess’s new zero-proof options, which he believes offer a great opportunity for imagination, as this category of beverages is usually under-represented on menus.

Non-alcoholic cocktails include the Strawberries on Fire, with fresh strawberries, lime, agave, jalapeño and soda, and the Zero Mojito, with fresh mint, lime, simple syrup and Sprite. It’s critical to set a high bar so that guests not only enjoy the beverage during the cruise, “but remember it after they are home,” Midyette says.

In addition to the new cocktails, the cruise line has added 20 high-end and exotic spirits, 39 new wines by the glass and 17 new international and craft beers to the menu. The updated beverage offerings were available aboard all Princess ships as of fall 2018.

Drawing on history

Scarfes at the Rosewood London Hotel unveiled a whimsical and fun caricature drink menu this past April. The 90-seat bar is named for Gerald Scarfe, a caricaturist whose drawings adorn the marble walls.

A recent iteration of the menu at Scarfes was inspired by influential Brits from 2001 to present day, including author JK Rowling and actor Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s presented in the style of an old bartender’s manual and includes caricatures of the subjects by Scarfes.

The project required eight months, from idea to prototype to research, recipe creation and testing, selecting the vessels and glassware and formatting the menu. The entire bar team was involved in the process.

“No two drinks are alike, and both visually and taste-wise, they provide our guests with a truly unique drinking experience,” says Martin Siska, the bar manager at Scarfes. “I believe this to be the principal goal of dynamic cocktail menus, which should offer a broad selection of different flavor profiles and vessels.”

Each year is represented by one drink and one influential citizen. The Zingy Stardust is both a play on David Bowie’s alter-ego and a descriptor for someone full of zest and with a spark for life. It mixes Absolut Elyx vodka with house-made “zingy cordial” (a combination of lime, zara lebu citrus fruit skin, lemongrass, shiso, makrut lime leaves and sugar) and Electric Bitters (made with the tongue-numbing, buzz-button flower), shaken and strained into a coupe and garnished with Bowie’s signature lightning bolt.

Neck It at Scarfes Bar

Neck It at Scarfes Bar.

The Neck It cocktail pays homage to Richard Branson’s “outlandish spirit and success as an entrepreneur and his thirst for adventure.” The name refers to Necker, the island that Branson owns in the British Virgin Islands, as well as the British term used for enthusiastic alcohol consumption.

The tropical drink combines Zacapa 23 rum, Redbreast Lustau Irish whiskey, Covert fig leaf liqueur, banana wine, marzipan horchata and lime. It’s served over crushed ice and garnished with cardamom leaves and dried bananas.

The menu ends with 2018’s Off the Market (shown atop), a reference to Prince Harry’s relationship status after his marriage to American actress Meghan Markle. It fittingly combines Royal Salute 21 Year Old Single Malt Scotch whisky with saffron, Algarve figs and a “ginger effect” to mimic the younger prince’s shock of red hair. Cocktail prices range from about $22 to $33.

Scarfes has also added zero-proof cocktails to the menu, as the team has seen a significant number of guests opting to indulge in an alcohol-free way. Siska points out that these are held to the same standards as the bar’s regular drinks.

The floral-tinged Silver Spoon named for Prince George and priced at about $13, combines jackfruit, orange, jasmine, roses and ginger. The herbaceous Doc. No. 9 ($14), a nod to Doctor Who, has a base of Seedlip Garden, a non-alcohol botanical “spirit” that’s mixed with cucumber, green pea, avocado oil and the English herb lovage.

The entire menu is presented on a four-quadrant chart that divides the drinks into “Fresh & Floral,” “Dry & Bitter,” “Fruity & Spiced” and “Sour & Sweet” categories. Those closest to the chart on each label will align more strongly with that profile, though there is some crossover.

“In such a competitive market, it is crucial to provide something unique and to deliver a ‘wow’ effect, with the cocktail menu harmoniously reflecting the overall concept of the bar,” Siska says. “There is much greater emphasis on the presentation of the beverages, along with an increased demand for a variety of unique flavor profiles.”

Infusions of fun

The drink menu at The Continental, a 200-seat Parisian-influence steakhouse in Naples, FL, includes an “Out of the Orb” section. These five cocktails, all priced at $15, contain spirits and liqueurs that are mixed together and left to meld and macerate. When a guest orders one of the Orb drinks, bartenders mix them up à la minute with fresh juices, syrups and bitters to complete the recipe.

The cocktail An Italian in NYC is a Manhattan-Old Fashioned hybrid, says Ross Kupitz, beverage director for parent company D’Amico and Partners, which operates 15 concepts. The drink combines Bulleit bourbon and Nonino Quintessentia in an orb to infuse; it’s then mixed with brandied cherry juice and orange bitter and peel.

Detroit In The 1920’s mixes lime juice with St. Augustine gin, green Chartreuse and maraschino liqueur.

The Orb drinks were part of founder Richard d’Amico’s vision, and the vessels serve as a striking focal point on the back bar. The Continental team wanted to present modern versions of classic recipes and use a full range of base spirits to appeal to a wide variety of cocktail fans. After creating and testing recipes for balance, the bar staff conducts taste tests, followed by a tasting group that includes chefs, pastry chefs, staff and management, with a wide mix of palates and a variety of perspectives.

“To me, a dynamic drinks menu means…not being afraid to experiment with all types of flavors, from citrus and bitter all to way to full-on savory,” Kupitz notes. It should also have a range of relatively unique products that complement a cocktail as salt and pepper may do to a food dish, he says.

“It is paramount to have a synergy among all aspects of the location,” Kupitz adds. “Everything from the ambiance, decor, service style, food and beverage functioning on the same level makes for a better all-around experience.”

At Campiello, a 300-seat upscale D’Amico concept also in Naples, Kupitz wanted a Paloma with an Italian spin. The Columba ($14) starts with a traditional base of tequila and grapefruit, complemented with elderflower, orange bitters and grappa infused with chamomile, which elevates the overall profile, he says.

And at D’Amico’s Cafe Lurcat, a 365-seat American eatery in Minneapolis, the Blood & Smoke ($13) is a smoky, citrusy combo of Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Meletti Amaro, Salers Aperitif and Solerno blood orange liqueur that is spirit-forward, bitter and dry.

“With so many adventurous bartenders elevating service, guess are exposed to more than ever before,” Kupitz says. “Keeping our cocktail menus relevant is now the challenge.”

Local color

Jenn McCarthy, general manager/sommelier at the 42-seat Deacon’s New South, a Southern-focused bar/restaurant in Nashville, agrees that relevance is key to dynamic cocktail menus. “Guests rightfully expect a knowledge and history behind the cocktails and knowledge on the ingredients,” she says. “What drives our staff is figuring out what guests want by asking the right questions about their preferences and guiding them to a cocktail they will enjoy.”

Deacon’s updates its menu four times a year with the seasons, focusing on refreshing, light and low-ABV cocktails during the spring and summer, and bourbon-based, “soul-warming” beverages in the fall and winter. .

All drinks on the menu list their inspirations, be it a book, building or bartender. The Beacon cocktail ($15), for example, was inspired by the Life & Casualty Tower that houses the restaurant. Once the city’s tallest skyscraper, it was topped by a beacon that changed color with the weather.

The cocktail is made tableside with Corsair gin infused with butterfly pea flower extract. The natural dye, which turns liquids blue, also changes color at different pH levels.So when the other ingredients (falernum, Luxardo Maraschino, orange dry curaçao and lime) are added, the drink changes from a dark purply blue to a pinky red.

The Monk’s Dilemma ($13), a Martini riff, was inspired by the 1934 Old Waldorf Astoria Bar Book by Albert S. Crockett. It stirs Ford’s gin with Maurin Quina, Kina L’Aéro D’Or and crème de noyaux, topped with grapefruit oil.

“Inspirations pay homage to the creative minds before us—the ones who inspire us to make it our own version,” McCarthy says. As for the concept of a dynamic menu, she says, “it speaks to our staff, who come up with and execute our vision.”

Kelly Magyarics, DWS, is a wine, spirits and cocktail writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area.

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