The first thing that many of us do when we sit down at a restaurant or belly up to a bar is pick up the beer menu, the wine menu, and/or the drink menu. Some of us take a break from old faithful and try something new on occasion. It is for these reasons that we (bartenders and bar managers) develop menus and lists.
Rotating each of these lists is vital to an operation. It keeps you engaged in what we do. Seasonality is a movement in the industry. In a perfect world, this would be the industry standard, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. Too many establishments can’t break themselves from the pre-mix sours or hyper-red cherries. We should be giving our customers the freshest ingredients available. Does this mean that we shouldn’t be making margaritas in the winter? Some would argue yes. but I’m not one of them. I know that we need to use bulk ingredients sometimes. We need to buy limes and lemons that come from Argentina or Chile and not just Florida or California. But on occasion, we should try our hands at sourcing verjus (a pre-wine juice that one can substitute for acid) or encourage imbibers to try rice milk instead of cream in drinks. Need for these substitute ingredients is where a drink list comes in.
Having just finished revamping the cocktail menu at Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar, the making of such a list has been on my mind lately. Ours is 64 drinks deep, broken into eight sections based on body, alcohol, beer pairings, and modern vs. classic, but the final decisions didn’t come easy. Building a drink list properly takes time, testing, and, above all, patience. It’s about balance of sweet vs. bitter and acidity vs. basic. It’s about the approachability of the drinks and making sure that there is something for everyone. Too often, I will walk into a cocktail lounge and see nothing more than the creator’s ego on the list. Too many bitter drinks, too many high acid drinks, and nothing for the common drinker. It is very important that execution of the recipes is spot-on as well. There should be no drink on the list that the staff can’t execute. If it has egg, bartenders should know how to shake and emulsify. If it has raw lime or lemon, we should know how to temper it with a sweetener or liqueur and bitters.
Another confusing aspect of a drink list can be the re-imagining of a drink with its ingredients, but at the same time keeping the name. This confuses the guest. If it’s a Tom Collins, label it as such. If you take the time to change the ingredients and follow the pattern, then rename it. It’s a good thing to pay homage to the original drink. It’s even better when we know it’s been tinkered with. The perfect example of this is anything that ends in “tini.” A martini is gin (or vodka), vermouth, and either bitters and a twist or an olive. That’s it.
For having such a “down-home” feel, Charlottesville has some pretty spot-on places that have some really nice additions to their lists. Some are paying homage to the classics, some are straight out of their makers’ heads. Certainly the list we’ve put together at Commonwealth tops my list, but here are a few other favorites that really hit the spot.
Zinc: A nice list that is put together with thought. I really dig the Ford. It’s an elegant and very old cocktail from the late 19th century.
Fossett’s Bar at Keswick Hall: Liquor selection is top notch and I pray that the Rhubarb Collins is still on the list every time I visit.
Mono Loco: Things just get crazy there. My favorites on the menu are La Pina Loco and the Salty Loco.