Freedom of Choice

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Build-your-own bars cater to cocktail connoisseurs, adventuresome spirits, and creative tipplers.
By Camper English November 2013 Spirits

I’ll have something bitter with Tanqueray gin and no citrus. Up please.”

While a custom-directed drink order like this is not unusual to hear in a top-quality cocktail bar, I overheard it in a little neighborhood watering hole that doesn’t even offer a drink menu. Customers are getting so educated about spirits that they want to take charge of the ordering process, often eschewing the cocktail list even if there is one. And while not every bar in every city is full of punters quite this sophisticated, there are a variety of ways to cater to customers who aren’t satisfied with the standard cocktail.

Of course, for a decade or more, some bars have been giving customers the option of building their own drinks via a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar. Bartenders serve a glass containing ice and a shot of vodka (sometimes a spicy house-infused variety), and allow drinkers to pick their own tomato/Clamato juice, hot sauces, spices, and garnishes from a drink-ingredient salad bar of sorts.

In the years since, bartenders have expanded on this model and brought it to new levels.

At Tortilla Republic in West Hollywood, California, they offer habanero-infused mezcal as a Bloody Mary base spirit. Other bars offer gin and tequila options for crafting Red Snappers and Bloody Marias. Honey Salt in Las Vegas brings the Bloody Mary bar to you, with a caddy carried to the table that includes the usual sauces plus additional fun ingredients like Manchego cheese and Slim Jim snacks.

Brasserie S&P at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco offers a fine-dining version of the Bloody Mary bar with a Build-Your-Own Champagne Cocktail bar for $25, which includes a glass of sparkling wine with a table full of various bitters, citrus peels, sugar cubes, and even some liqueurs and juices.

Beyond brunch, a few fancy hotel bars have promoted nighttime versions of this: New York’s Pegu Club and London’s Connaught Bar offer a variety of bitters and tinctures that can be added to a martini.

At other full-service restaurants, the bartenders do the mixological work but the guest makes the selection. At New York City’s rooftop venue Soaked at the Mondrian SoHo, a variety of lemonade-based cocktails—available by the glass or pitcher—are on offer. The guest chooses the base spirit (Absolut vodka, AviÓn tequila, or Bombay Sapphire gin) and a flavor of lemonade from choices like strawberry-mint and watermelon-basil.

At the Big Apple’s landmark Lincoln Ristorante, customers can build their own Bellini. They choose a Prosecco, a fresh fruit purée, and a liqueur that pairs with that specific juice. There are three Proseccos on the menu, three purées, and each purée comes with a choice of three liqueurs. That makes for a lot of options, yet it’s easy for customers to make a choice, like ordering sides for a dinner meal.

Lincoln Ristorante also offers a Negroni Bar with a choice of six each of base spirits (mostly gin), aperitivo bitters (Campari, Aperol, and the like), and vermouths. Several Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse locations offer a build-your-own Old Fashioned program, with the customer’s choice of three each of whiskies, bitters, and sweeteners.

At MKT restaurant at the Four Seasons in San Francisco, the menu lists a large selection of gin brands (focusing on local Bay Area brands like Rusty Blade and Junipero), plus a half dozen specialty gin cocktails including the Last Word (Lime, Maraschino, and Green Chartreuse) and Martinez (Vya Sweet and Bitter), all of which can be made for $2 extra.

Still other venues offer fresh ingredients meant to be mixed into cocktails similar to a catch-of-the-day from the farmer’s market. Copa d’Oro in Santa Monica has long offered a Market Menu, which lists base spirits, plus herbs, fruits, juices, vegetables, and even jams and marmalades. The customer selects one or several of the ingredients, and the bartender creates a custom drink on the spot.

Similarly, the Mulberry Project in New York has a chalkboard with a list of fresh ingredients du jour that can be chosen for one’s cocktail. Its sister restaurant, the Greenwich Project, does it a little differently—with a small Bartender’s Choice section of the menu listing just a few suggested flavors including “boozy,” “refreshing,” “spicy,” and “savory” for customers to choose.

San Francisco’s Comstock Saloon offers 12 drinks on the cocktail menu, but according to co-owner Jonny Raglin, by far the most popular one is the “Barkeep’s Whimsy,” which merely specifies “Let the barkeep decide your fancy.” For this delicacy, Raglin or one of his staff asks the patron if he’s in the mood for something strong and stirred, or light and refreshing. They may choose to make a classic or something wholly original, or let the drinker decide exactly what he wants. The latter is often the case—after all, this is the town where I overheard that request for “something bitter with Tanqueray gin and no citrus. Up please.” Consumers have strong opinions here.

While not every venue employs bartenders who can concoct new drinks on the spot, nor has clientele so confident in their decisions, there are many ways to expand the self-directed cocktail experience.

One of the easiest, as employed at MKT, is to merely list a selection of base spirits and the selection of cocktails in which to have them, such as the bar’s selection of rye whiskies—any of which can be made into a Manhattan. Of course, this can be done at nearly any bar in America, whether those drinks are specifically listed on the menu or not, but highlighting it as a unique feature of the bar makes it seem more special. Other drinks for which this format will work include the martini, margarita, and daiquiri.

This is easily extendable to two- or three-ingredient cocktails, similar to Lincoln Ristorante’s Negroni program: List two or three columns of ingredient options and let customers pick one from each. Drinks for which this type of program could work include the Pink Gin, herb or fruit gimlets, mojitos, cosmopolitans, and the like.

Leading from the mixer rather than the base spirit, a ginger beer-driven program could start with that ingredient and build on it with lime and mint, making a Moscow Mule (vodka), Gin-Gin Mule (gin), El Diablo (tequila with cassis), or Bourbon or Rum Buck (with added bitters).

The self-serve version of this, similar to the make-your-own Bloody Mary or Champagne Cocktail concept, can be most easily executed with drinks that include a single base spirit, one mixer, and one or several garnishes.

A Gin & Tonic (or Vodka Tonic) bar could offer choices of each, plus garnishes ranging from different citrus wedges, peels, and a variety of spices like anise and peppercorns—plus the option of having it served Spanish-style in a big goblet over lots of ice. A Paloma program might include a choice of tequila and an option of commercial and homemade grapefruit sodas, specialty salts, and citrus wheels.

One of the easiest (and least expensive) options could be a Michelada bar, though I’ve never seen one in the wild. The customer could be served a beer over ice in a salt-rimmed glass and given the choice of lime wedges, hot sauces, and tomato juice—or you could simply leave out the very same set-up as the make-your-own Bloody Mary bar leftover from brunch.

Regardless of whether the patron or the bartender is making the drink—or which drink is being customized, it’s always a good idea to give customers what they want. And what customers want these days are options.