Kurtis Bosley: the psychology behind the best cocktail lists

Reading a cocktail menu in a bar today can see you take two routes: either you take a journey of exploration whilst you sample some of the bar’s best tipples, or you end up confused and frustrated and not ‘in the know’ because you can’t decipher the menu. As I currently write my new menu for Corretto Dee Why, I wanted to know how others approached the psychology and design of their menu.

Whether we like it or not, marketing and mindset are incredibly important in ensuring we can cater to each guest’s needs. It relates to subliminal messaging and the power of suggestion (or manipulation) that has been championed in the restaurant world. As the bartending world further breaks down the wall between kitchen and bar, it’s all the more important that we keep these thoughts prominent when designing our menus, ensuring we aren’t leaving customers with more questions than when they started browsing the menu.  

At Burrow Bar, they structure their menu to be an introduction to their venue, says co-owner Bryce McDonough. But they stray from the norm when it comes to how they describe their drinks on the list: they use a short story, he says, to describe their drinks with little in the way of reference to ingredients and techniques. This allows the guest to have fun whilst ordering their drinks and promotes the ‘escapism’ of the bar’s experience. When listing ingredients the team highlights tinctures, oleos and other acronyms as they invest in the time to work the guest through each of these during service ensuring no confusion. 

To get a little more technical, Greg Rapp of Menu Technologies has studied the visual and verbal psychology of why people order certain items and utilises this information to maximise the profits of restaurants. He says that on average, customers spend just 109 seconds reading a menu — so first impressions count. Of that 109 seconds, the first and last menu items receive the most attention.  

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And it might be time to lay down the obscure descriptions of bar technique on the menu.

Think of an everyday guest reading a menu full of centrifuged tonka whey, redistilled coffee amaro, lacto-fermented re-carbonated cinnamon spiced caramel; it’s just too much and too confusing to list. But how do some of our best bars approach this?

“Menu structure is one of the primary ways that guests can learn… what a venue is about,” says Sydney bartender Kate McGraw (of Isabel, Bondi).. She says that you shouldn’t list all 20 steps in a recipe. It’s better to keep a menu concise, and just listing the primary flavours makes a menu easily understood. 

A key point McGraw notes, however, is to “take the ego out of it and focus on the information that the guest actually wants.” Craft the menu for your guests, not your bartending buds.

Menu engineering is nothing new, and nor is taking advantage of the way human psyche works to maximise your venue’s profit. Psychologists have suggested that restaurateurs should limit options per category to around 7-10 items as it’s believed that 80 per cent of guests are unsure of what they will order prior to entering a venue and that majority of these guests will order the first item that grabs their attention. 

When Elise Godwin of Fremantle’s Strange Company designed their latest list, she didn’t want to alienate her guests. “We don’t want to intimidate or confuse people,” she says. As such the menu is concise and lists flavours — along with a few techniques — as they understand that this will sell more drinks. But some techniques and ingredients can be a turn off for guests: listing fat-washed or egg whites both pose problems, so they listed them as Burnt Butter Bourbon or Whites instead, which gives the guest information without scaring them off. 

In short, know your venue and your guest while ensuring your staff are well trained on each drink ingredient as guests will continue to question ingredients and drink recipes. By taking the ego out of drink menu listings though, you may find you can increase service speed and sell the more obscure drinks on your menu.  

Kurtis’ tips for writing your next cocktail list

  • Don’t overcomplicate the menu with all the technique and skills going into each drink. List key flavours rather than each step of each ingredient
  • Guests on average take just 109 seconds to decide what drink they are after with most time spent at the top and bottom of a menu.
  • The ‘paradox of choice’ states that the more options we have, the more anxiety we feel, so keep it simple and concise. 
  • Take your guest on a journey and think outside the box when putting together menus, allowing guests to have fun while ordering their drinks.
  • Don’t let your ego or self indulgence be a feature of your menu, remember the majority of people who are ordering the drinks on your menu aren’t bartenders.

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