Creating Signature CocktailsBe innovative and trendy
What makes a great bar? What makes a great bartender? There are many things that attribute to making bars and bartenders great, from hospitality, personality, ambiance, and great food. Over the last decade or so, cocktails have snatched the limelight. A new restaurant with a great bar program used to be an added bonus to a night out. Now signature cocktails are as necessary as a great lemon tart or properly pulled espresso.
In a perfect world, the drink that you would be best known for would be innovative, captivating, striking in appearance, cost-effective, and made in under 30 seconds. Well, it’s never that easy. Bars all over the world battle it out, not only in their own neighbourhoods, but across their city, country, and planet. With social media, global cocktail competitions, and a new type of tourist that travels to eat and drink, bars are judged with exacting standards, whether they are a small Tiki Bar in Halifax, or a 300-seat brasserie in Montreal.
Recent innovations around Vancouver include on tap cocktails, the renaissance of the slushy drink, and bars with literally six different types of ice.
Signature drinks are one thing that will make punters come back! Competition is as stiff as the drinks within, and it’s the little details that will prevail. Before going abroad, I will research my journey, either through colleagues in the trade, reputable publications, or simply by browsing Instagram. A bar’s signature offering can literally be decided strictly by their social media pages.
Following is a list of the most important factors to consider while creating a cocktail program:
Type of Bar
Signature drinks for a great bar echo the vision of the proprietors, and live in perfect harmony on the menu, regardless of the size of the bar. Once the theme is rolled out, ideas for cocktails start flowing. What does this bar want to be known for? Classics with a twist? Throwback 80s all-inclusive resort drinks? Indian accents with a molecular flair? These are all themes I would love to sample. A great bartender can diversify his portfolio to match all types of programs, as can a great chef. Some may be classically trained in one background, but those classic techniques can be performed on many different stages.
Know your customer! Especially in Vancouver, neighbourhoods change very quickly, and so do guests. Bartenders will have loyal regulars who will follow their paths wherever they pour, but the majority of guests will be ones from the surrounding neighbourhood. Would you put a mezcal bar in Yaletown or a champagne bar in Chinatown? Probably not. A great bar will cater to those around them, without losing the vision of the partners. This can be a slippery slope, still “keeping it real” but giving the customers what they desire.
What type of experience is on the menu? Are we talking a five-star hotel with cocktails to match or a small, unmarked speakeasy down an alley that offers bespoke, pre-prohibition “stirred and strong” libations? Whatever the style, this will reflect in the beverage program. The size of the beast and number of staff is also critical. Projections like number of covers per evening to number of staff on, are things that will make or break a bar’s long-term existence. An efficient bar is just as important, if not more important, than tasty drinks. So when creating that list, put yourself in the bartender’s shoes that first Friday night. How many egg white drinks do you really want on the menu? Another point to consider is if your Monday night staff can deliver on the same level as your Friday night team? They better, because all those ODBs (off-duty bartenders) from other bars will be showing up on their night off, which, guess what, is Monday!
Implementing flavours like avocado, different types of peppers, even fat-washing flavours like bacon and microwave popcorn have been put in the glass!
What is going to set your bar apart? You never know what is going to be your most popular drink. While wanting to push the envelope and be captivating, a great bartender must also be mindful of costs, availability of products, and seasonality. The most exciting part of developing a new cocktail list is creation! I tend to start with a spirit or flavour that I am already passionate about, or have recently been inspired by. From there I will complement those flavours using bitters, fresh pressed juices, unique liqueurs, or syrups. The techniques in which these recipes are constructed have now become just as much of a show as what is in the glass. Recent innovations around Vancouver include on tap cocktails, the renaissance of the slushy drink, and bars with literally six different types of ice. These are all factors which are going to be discussed the next day at dinner, or shared with friends to gain that extra 30 likes on Instagram.
With all these things in mind, a great cocktail program is born. So what’s next? Here are some trends we are seeing now:
Trash Tiki – Ex-Vancouver bartender Kelsey Ramage has started a pop-up bar company, based out of London that is on a world tour. She and her partner, Iain Griffiths, are taking on sustainability and wastage in bars head on! The two are graciously travelling to bars all over the world hosting seminars for bartenders on how to get the most use out of pressed fruit shells, banana peels, and so on. The bar scene is late to the party on this accord, but better late than never.
Low Proof and Non-Alcoholic Cocktails – Gone are the days of the three Martini lunch. Here are the days of the Spritz, Americano cocktail, and G&T. Work days are longer, lives are busier, and driving under the influence just isn’t cool. Consumers can now go out, have a couple drinks, and still hit that yoga class in the morning, or ride their bikes home. Also, for those who prefer not to drink, bars are upping their non-alcoholic repertoire – no more sad cranberry and soda for the DD.
Savoury Cocktails – Cocktails and food literally go hand in hand, and they don’t have to come from the front and back of the house respectively. Implementing flavours like avocado, different types of peppers, even fat-washing flavours like bacon and microwave popcorn have been put in the glass! My measure of success with these innovations leads to one question: Would you have two?
Vintage – This trend hasn’t quite made traction in North America as strong as it has in Europe and Asia, but a few bars have obliged. Bartenders are sourcing vintage spirits and liqueurs all the way back to the 1800s, and mixing these in classic drinks. Think of a Sazerac with pre-phylloxera Cognac near one hundred years old or a Negroni with the sum of its three parts all from the 1950s? With the right connections, or the right bar seat and budget, it’s a thing! Keep in mind, you are drinking a part of history. It may not be the best Negroni you’ve ever had, but you are trying it in its true form.
It’s an exciting time in the world of cocktails, and the bars and bartenders that share them. Enjoy being creative!
45 ml Unruly vodka
15 ml Fino sherry
2 ml (1/4) Barspoon orange blossom honey
Method – Stir in a mixing glass with ice, strain into a chilled coupe. Flame an orange zest on top.
Glass – Fancy coupe
Garnish – Flamed orange
Gin Garden Smash
45 ml Defender’s Island gin
10 ml Sietes Misterios mescal
30 ml fresh lemon juice
1 handful parsley
1 handful basil
30 ml simple syrup
Method – Muddle herbs in a shaker, add ice, shake, fine strain into glass over fresh rocks.
Glass – Fancy rocks glass
Garnish – Parsley leaves
45 ml Montelobos Espadin mescal
15 ml Ancho Reyes Verde
15 ml Giffard Caribbean Pineapple liqueur
30 ml fresh lime juice
Method – Add Ingredients to a shaker, add ice, shake for 15 seconds, strain into a chilled coupe.
Glass – Coupe
Garnish – None