Is it time to overhaul your cocktail list? Cara Devine finds out when and why you should

Story by Cara Devine. Cara is our Melbourne-based drinks writer. She is the manager of Bomba in Melbourne and the face and talent behind the cocktailing YouTube channel Behind the Bar. You can email her at

The official start of autumn in Australia is the March equinox – whether or not we want to admit it, summer is over. With that, bars around the country will be looking at shaking up their drinks list to suit the change in season. So, what does that actually entail? I’ve chatted to some bar professionals who take point on this in their venue about their creative process and the less glamorous but equally significant practical considerations of launching a new cocktail list.

First of all, is refreshing your menu necessary? Everyone I consulted was unanimous in feeling that it very much is, both for guests and staff. It is important, says Anneliese Grazioli, owner of Hanky Panky Lounge and Bar Kokomo in Darwin, “not just on a surface level of providing new things for our guests but also excitement for our team to be able to discuss and chat about new drinks, techniques and their input to the menu.” Alejandro Archibald, owner of Maggie’s Snacks and Liquor in Melbourne, agrees, especially regarding neighbourhood bars. “If you have lots of regulars, it gives them something new to get excited about every time they come in. And let’s face it, it’s also for ourselves – who doesn’t get bored of serving the same things over and over?”

The creative process for this change will vary depending on the size and style of the venue, but for most I talked to it is a collaborative process which can be used to highlight seasonal produce and specific products. At the Waratah in Sydney, Creative Lead Andie Bulley uses the separate bars for a two-pronged approach. “Upstairs, we change our cocktail lists seasonally. We believe in telling honest stories that highlight the unique produce that makes Australia special. Each season, we unveil a menu dedicated to a specific region of Australia, featuring drinks crafted using ingredients sourced from different regional suppliers. By changing our lists seasonally, we can showcase new ecosystems and suppliers across Australia, placing them on a pedestal and celebrating their produce when it’s at its peak. Downstairs, our weekly menu rotates, with a new bartender taking full creative control, showcasing their unique style and ideas… each menu reflects the bartender’s individual creativity while keeping our offerings engaging and new.”


“If you have lots of regulars, it gives them something new to get excited about every time they come in. And let’s face it, it’s also for ourselves – who doesn’t get bored of serving the same things over and over?” – Alejandro Archibald, owner of Maggie’s Snacks and Liquor, Melbourne

For Grazioli, guest preference is paramount. “When we opened [Hanky Panky Lounge], I knew I wanted to change the menu often as we were the first classic cocktail bar in Darwin, and I wasn’t sure of the guests’ perceptions or the skill level of our team. So, I ordered menus that were easy to change and print in-house on recycled paper. Very quickly, I had a very skilled team, and Darwin’s response was amazing, so we took on the process of always becoming better. That process is still led by me, and I am all about balance in the menu, but based more on what our guests are after. If I see interest in a certain style of drink I do tend to offer more options in that category, whether it be a spirit or cocktail style. The creation of the drinks is definitely a team effort.”

Variety in your menu is important as well. At arkhé in Adelaide, Beverage Director Grace Rawlins makes sure her seasonal drink list – only seven specialty cocktails – still has something for everyone. “Most of the time, I will either assign a team member a certain spirit or give them free rein with a creative idea, then work out what spirit may pair best with what they have come up with. I like to have a mixture of different spirits, a stir down, a spritz, something long and refreshing, a sour and something boozy and stirred.” Archibald also highlights the importance of visual presentation through glassware and colour – “ever seen a menu where 80% of the drinks are red? Ugh.”

Of course, we love the creative aspect but at the end of the day, bars are businesses. So how to make sure your list makes money? Grazioli emphasises the importance of staying on top of the numbers. “Costing every cocktail and ingredients has been a great way to stay on top of cost of goods (COGs) – when costing I don’t believe in a set percentage. I look into volume of sales, dollar gross profit (GP), menu balance and prep time into the drink. I would put some easy, fast drinks for a slightly higher GP if it means I can offer something that is a little more special, that sells less, at a lower GP so guests can still try it.” Controlling your COGs makes all the difference, so being savvy about what goes into the drink makes sense. “Chatting to reps to snag those sweet, sweet cocktail list discounts is a must, but also sticking to house spirits and cheaper back bar products helps. I’m also a fan of using fortified wines and other lower ABV products as modifiers which does wonders,” advises Archibald.

Minimising wastage is a smart move as well. “Being connected to a restaurant/kitchen has its perks,” says Rawlins. “For example, currently, we have oranges as an element in one of our house desserts, but not all of the orange is used – I am taking the peels from these oranges and doing a burnt citrus syrup and zest infusion for one of our cocktails. Making sure as much as possible is being reused, recycled and revamped is highly important!” For Archibald, seasonality is paramount: “Why wouldn’t you want to use produce that’s at its best and cheapest?”. All in all, a cocktail menu should be looked at holistically – if there’s a tasty drink but it has a huge amount of prep time, for example, it might not be worth it. Bulley says for a drink to make the cut, “it involves assessment of taste, concept, and logistical considerations. We look for compelling concepts that add depth to the drinking experience and align with our brand identity.”

Ensuring your guests are aware of a new list is key too. For all of our experts social media is the main way to drum up interest in new drinks, but some also engage guests in venue through rotating specials. At Hanky Panky, for example, “we offer a monthly ‘Something Special’ menu, where it explains that it is drinks our team have been working on as well as a ‘Lucky Sip’ drink, which is how it sounds – they can pull a tag out of a little cobbler shaker and we have three rotating drinks matching the tags. All are drinks we are proud to put forward, some are created as a cocktail focus and trials for the menu and others are sometimes experiments on ingredients and how they can work in drinks. It’s also a chance for the team to put their competition drinks on the menu and get feedback. Drinks from these menus usually are the ones that end up on the menu when they are well received and if they fit the balance of the menu.” This drives engagement and gives guests a sense of inclusion in the process of a new menu.

So, with all of this in mind, I look forward to tasting new drinks in the coming months – winter does have some upsides!