The changing face of cocktail menus: Naren Young explains why simplicity is key

Story by Naren Young

In the last issue, I spoke of the changing ways that many of us in the industry and our guests have been drinking differently during these dark days of Covid. I’d like to expand on that a little more and talk specifically about the changing face of cocktail menus and what that means in terms of how I and some industry leaders I’ve spoken to have shifted their focus from their usual offerings and looking at ways that they’re presenting their menus in this new normal.

From my days at the Bayswater Brasserie where we had a beautifully curated compendium, to my time at Dante which was twice nominated for World’s Best Cocktail Menu at Tales of the Cocktail, menus have always been something I’ve been proud of and passionate about. Many bars all around the world put an obscene amount of time and money into their menus and indeed their entire concept is often brought to life throughout those very pages. But times have changed and many of us have had to adapt in the face of how new tastes and demands are evolving on a seemingly daily basis.

Recently I came on board at The Orchard Townhouse in New York in May of this year, one of the first tasks was to create a new menu that would initially focus on the new phenomenon of take away drinks, a first for the city. Like every bar everywhere, our main concern was cash flow, so we weren’t in a position to purchase much, if any, product.
Besides calling in favors from every brand I had a relationship with, I needed to look over the inventory in house to fashion the menu from what we had on hand, including some batched cocktails from the previous program that was in place before the shutdown. It was the first time I’d put together a menu using this as a starting point. It was enlightening and educational.

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While the menu at Dante would eventually grow to 70 drinks, a ridiculous number to be sure, over the last few years traveling the world I have noticed that there was a growing trend towards smaller menus, surely a good thing. And that’s where my mind is currently at. Our menu at The Townhouse currently sits at about 16 drinks (plus a few daily specials), a manageable number that is easy to execute.

The way I’ve approached my current menus is to list drinks that are familiar, comfortable and satisfying with nothing too weird or esoteric, while working with what we already have in house. Being in the height of a typically stifling New York summer and with all beverages served in plastic cups, the menu needed to be populated with drinks that were conducive to that style of service and still be privy to the season.

It’s time to be resourceful kids. If you have a ton of, say, bourbon on hand, like we do, then guess what? It’s time to bust out a few of your favourite American whiskey drinks. Maybe they’re favourites from menus past, while I also really enjoyed scouring through cocktail books recently, looking for recipes that I’d forgotten about or were new to me. Once I go through one brand, then I’ll move onto another brand and use that in its place until we can afford to stick to one preferred brand. Same goes for any base spirit across the whole menu. The less we can buy (at least for now) as we get back on our feet, the better.

The cocktail menu at Orchard Townhouse New York

The role of the back bar is also changing over here because as of time of writing, guests are still not allowed inside our venues, which of course means that they can’t gaze curiously up at these beautiful back bars that we’ve lovingly and passionately curated. As a result, almost all of those rare, expensive or exotic spirits that we covet are just going to sit there indefinitely, gaining dust, taking up space and most worryingly, tying up much needed cash in holding stock. As a result, I’ll start using, say, that Glenfiddich 18 year in a whiskey drink because getting money in the till is way more important right now to our very survival.

In terms of the physical aspects of the menu, well of course this is the most obvious change for all of us. Less or zero contact menus have become the norm, with the widespread use of QR codes putting our guests more at ease. Trying to convey your menu ‘concept’ is less pertinent than ever and frankly, no one really cares about that right now, which should make for interesting discussion come awards season, if such a thing even exists right now. One thing every bar should be getting an award for right now, is sticking it out and making a go of it.

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