Courtesy of True Story Brands
At True Story Brand restaurants, the “Jackpots” cocktail features cider, lemon, Applejack, and thyme.

Crafting the Perfect Cocktail List, and Why it Matters

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Restaurant groups and small chains equip mixologists and servers to elevate cocktail orders.
By Alia Akkam June 2017 Spirits

Any restaurant that opens without a solid beverage program in place risks disappointing clientele who are increasingly cocktail-savvy. Furthermore, a loss of profit is inevitable when the menu makes only wine and beer the alcoholic priorities. As a result of this spirituous shift, enthusiastic head barkeeps are installed at restaurants across the country. 

But this scenario isn’t the only solution. For some businesses, it makes more economic sense to hire a well-regarded consultant to assemble drink lists and train staff on both technique and hospitality. Consider the recent $50 million renovation of the Loews Miami Beach Hotel, where local bar legend Julio Cabrera revamped the beverage offerings. 

Likewise, the cocktails served at Skyfall Lounge, adjacent to Alain Ducasse’s Rivea in the Delano Las Vegas, is the handiwork of Los Angeles–based Proprietors LLC, the consulting firm behind local hotspots Honeycut, the Normandie Club, and the Walker Inn. Both models work well for burgeoning restaurant groups eager to diversify their liquid offerings.

Tarallucci e Vino, a collection of five casual Italian restaurants in New York City, serves the likes of almond crumble burrata and shrimp ravioli alongside wine director Lorenzo Baricca’s wine list, which is laden with small-batch selections. When founder Luca Di Pietro felt it was time to heighten the customer experience, he turned to Damiano Coren—most recently an alum of the Standard, East Village—and made him bar manager. “We knew the value in bringing Damiano on board, and felt his knowledge and creativity aligned perfectly with our restaurant goals.” Now, there’s a proper cocktail menu, with Coren’s version of the mimosa, the Tuca Tuca, starring Lambrusco and clementine juice. In a centrifugal machine he makes celery juice, which pairs with Prosecco, vermouth, and smoked black cardamom for his Gin & Juice cordial. This is exactly the kind of boundary pushing Di Pietro craved, and Coren ensures the drinks uphold the brand’s ethos. 

“I enjoy working with fresh, seasonal ingredients, which is the approach Tarallucci has always had in the kitchen,” says Coren, who likes popping over to the nearby Union Square Green Market and seeking out produce for his creations. He adds, “It’s important to have a strong selection of classic cocktails, but also be able to offer customers something new.” 

With Baricca’s roster of wines already one of Tarallucci e Vino’s biggest draws, Coren says the team “preserved our identity by offering cocktails that wouldn’t overshadow, but would complement, our wine list. I have always believed in a short but effective drink menu.” Among the approachable and imaginative creations are the Lucky Lucano (fresh green apple juice, Amaro Lucano, mint, club soda) and the Zipper (tequila, fresh pineapple, jalapeño, Campari). 

Although kicking back with a Guinness is a beloved ritual among customers of the Flying Cock, the New York pub best known for its hearty brunches, it is also possible to savor a raspberry Bellini while waiting for the Smoked Salmon Chive Scramble to arrive. At Farmhouse Hospitality Group’s follow-up, the Horny Ram, cocktails are also an integral part of the offerings. Cody Goldstein—head bartender at Upholstery Store: Food and Wine and founder of the cocktail consultancy Muddling Memories—developed the playful drink lists for both establishments. “It was important to make sure they had a cohesive feel. The brands are innovative in style, and that’s what attracted me to them,” Goldstein explains. “We wanted people to feel comfortable ordering the cocktails, and to say, ‘Wow, this is just like ... but better.’”

Goldstein underscores the importance of relatable three-to-four-ingredient classics, showcasing riffs like a Margarita with smoky mezcal and sweet peach, and a Manhattan flaunting notes of chocolate, sesame, cayenne, and cinnamon. A spin on the New York Sour combines bourbon, lemon, vanilla, and orange bitters. “We then float Pinot Noir on top to lend that beautiful spice and color contrast from light to dark. It will definitely turn heads when brought out from the bar,” Goldstein says. He’s also passionate about When Doves Cry, a take on the Tom Collins with blue pea flower tea that, when spiked with citrus, dramatically turns purple. 

A slate of whimsical cocktails is indeed powerful ammunition for a restaurant, but Goldstein knows the libations are only as good as the bartenders crafting them. That is why he favors hands-on training sessions with employees, frequently leading tastings, and then observing the staff self-assuredly speak about the drinks. Still, he likes them to “have their own voices. Nothing should feel robotic. It’s important to keep them excited and constantly learning.” Goldstein also enjoys his own enlightening shifts behind the bar, “to understand what the bar staff does nightly. This allows me to find flaws in service to make them more efficient moving forward. It can be as simple as how they set up their well.”

Sean Gleason, who worked at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur, Georgia, before joining the True Story Brands team in Atlanta, says he is lucky many of his bartenders at Biltong Bar already have a craft cocktail pedigree. “The bulk of training is really focused around the backbar—we have a lot of different products—and [making sure] that people fall in line with my own neurotic idiosyncrasies.” Biltong Bar, located inside the Central Food Hall of Ponce City Market, is one of restaurateur Justin Anthony’s South African concepts, which include the flagship 10 Degrees South, the steakhouse Cape Dutch, and the breezy Yebo Beach Haus. The street food–inspired space attracts patrons with both peri-peri–infused jerky and the Old Fashioned 2, with bourbon, rye gomme, oleo-saccharum, and bitters. The See You Space Cowboy (bourbon, spiced rum, ginger, yuzu, lime, prickly ash) is another favorite. 

“People like a rendition on a classic, and that’s the kind of program I strive to create, one that celebrates unique ingredients and house-made elements, but doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel,” Gleason says. ”

As a fine-dining restaurant, 10 Degrees South’s beverage program focused on wine. Now, before ordering ostrich medallions, diners peruse a cocktail list whipped up by Eduardo Guzman, longtime consultant for local chef and owner Ford Fry. Perhaps they will start with a Lion’s Head, a play on the Horse’s Neck and Kentucky Mule, with bourbon, ginger beer, and lime, or the white rum Riptide with papaya juice, lime, and sugar, before cracking open that bottle of Tower of Babel Chardonnay from Stellenbosch. 

For True Story Brand restaurants, Guzman “wanted to create a sense of origin, since each restaurant has its own personality.” Yebo Beach Haus, for example, which morphed into a ski lounge pop-up for the winter, served Jackpots with Applejack, cider, lemon, and thyme. Guzman believes that streamlining the restaurant and bar into one unit is imperative, forging new guidelines and changing the training process. 

He spends ample one-on-one time with the bartenders, exploring  strengths and weaknesses, and offering “the right tools to boost their confidence behind the bar.” He also leads the restaurants’ servers, presenting information to them and “breaking it down so they understand the concept and how to deliver it. Servers guide guests through the menu for a flawless experience, so giving staff the most knowledge possible is crucial. It’s about taking the obstacles away.”