Explainer: here’s 8 steps to a better cocktail list

Story by Dan Knight
Since selling Hinky Dinks Dan Knight now travels the world in search of the perfect piña colada. He sometimes writes, sharing his thoughts on a life in hospitality at mybarsecrets.com.

What makes a great cocktail list?

If it was just a list of drinks then anyone with time and a decent collection of bar books could write and implement an award-winning menu.

Being creative, innovative and original is vital, but to make a list work as a whole you need to also have something that makes the list bigger and better than the drinks themselves.

After twenty years in the industry I have distilled down what I believe are the essential foundations to writing a great list. This won’t replace passion or the creative process behind developing delicious, original and thought provoking drinks, but it will help you pull together a list that works.


1. Have a vision that holds the list together.

A good cocktail list is more than just a collection of drinks. If you take your craft seriously then it should be like a thesis. You can explore place, time, feelings, seasons, themes, dreams… Treat it like therapy and explore your childhood if you really want. But the important thing is that you need to have some reason that ties the separate elements of your list together (apart from just liking the drinks). It’s also important to stay true to your venue’s narrative. If you’re a tiki bar then stick to tiki style drinks, otherwise you run the risk of confusing your guests, and the confused customer never buys!

2. Don’t write your list for other bartenders.

This is a common mistake and one to avoid at all costs. Remember that your list is actually for the patrons, not your bartender mates who you want to impress. (You’re probably going to comp half their bill anyway!) Think about your customers and their drinking habits and try to steer the list in that direction. Obviously, if you’re running a bar in Bondi that doesn’t mean writing a list with 12 variations on a vodka, lime and soda. You can still mix things up and challenge assumptions, but do it in a way that will encourage your customers to want to follow your lead. Otherwise they might skip cocktails entirely for a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc!

3.Make the most popular drinks more expensive.

That’s where the profit is! We all hate making vodka cocktails, but they will always outsell anything else. So mark it up and make some money. This will give you the chance to offset the higher cost of your mezcal and aquavit passion project.

4. Embrace the seasons

This sounds obvious, but is often ignored. Not only do your customers’ drinking habits change over the year, but when you use produce that’s in season it tastes better and is far more cost effective.

5. Think about the practicalities

I don’t care how good it is, nobody, I mean NOBODY wants to wait all night for a drink! Making a drink in busy service is very different to playing with ideas when the bar is quiet. Pay attention to what resources go into each drink and how practical all the elements are in real time. Make sure that you can bang the drinks out quickly and that you aren’t overloading one particular resource. If you can’t imagine a list without a few complicated drinks then consider possible solutions like pre-batching to streamline the process.

6. Mix it up

Shaken, stirred, blended, thrown; tall, tiki, rocks, up; block, frappe, rocks; – need I go on? There are a variety of ways to make drinks and there are a variety of ways to serve them. Don’t rely too heavily on any one form. From a practical standpoint this relates to point number 5 but it also shows a lack of creativity. Be better than that.
Each drink also has to have a high Instagram-ability! Gone are the days when you could simply serve up tasty beverages. Now your drinks must be visually appealing and instantly share-able across all social media platforms.

7. Use a variety of different products

Just because you’re in love with tequila doesn’t mean that every drink should showcase its versatility. And I don’t think anybody (except Dan Woolley) wants to see a list made up entirely of whisky cocktails. A good drink needs balance and so does your list. Embrace this multifarious world we inhabit and actively give a voice to a variety of spirit categories and producers.
A cocktail list (like a restaurant food menu) always needs to have its staples that people expect to see. But there is always a space to experiment and be curious. Whether you are following current trends or beating your own path, this is your chance to introduce your team and customers to new ways of thinking, tasting and drinking.

8. Less is more!

Offer quality over quantity and let every drink on your list be a hero. Instead of offering your customer a book the size of War and Peace (let’s face it, they’ll never read it anyway), focus down and make every drink earn its place. This can be a real challenge if you’re heavily locked up with supplier agreements but every challenge is just a creative solution waiting to be discovered.

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