By Brian Murphy, Foodable Industry Expert
Spring is an exciting season in the industry as establishments emerge from the slower, colder season and reestablish themselves in preparation for the busier days ahead. Guests react to social and calendar-driven cues, while businesses need to be more proactive. Spring offers the world a fresh start, why not embrace it and follow suit? The spring menu often offers more changes than menu changes throughout the rest of the year, and the quality and point in the growing season drives those changes. The beverage program needs to make similar changes, but often this is forgotten and save for the change of a tap handle or two, the offerings from the bar don’t change too much.
It’s time to change. Guests are increasingly more aware of what a change in seasons brings with it, and what it means for the world of ingredients. Don’t insult the bar patron or diner seeking an alcoholic beverage by simply offering a discount on a wheat beer with citrus. Two ways to make a big splash with the beverage program this spring include looking to the past for inspiration, and using fresh produce in clever ways.
Guests are thirsty for a seasonal offering that doesn’t seem contrived, so why not start with a foundation that is rooted in the past, but presented in a new and inventive way? Classic cocktails that seem to be anchored in the middle of last century are an important part of many beverage programs, and guests continue to desire the layers of flavor in a well-crafted cocktail. Drinks like an Old Fashioned or Whiskey Sour can go in several directions when substituting different ingredients. Use caution, as too many substitutions lead to a brand new drink, which is fine, but not the point of using drinks of yesteryear and calling it your own version. Subbing a premium rye for the standard, well or mid-range call bourbon is one way to change things up a bit.
The accompaniments to the beverage can also be tinkered with a bit to give a different look and flavor profile. Make a simple Old Fashioned, but muddle a blood orange instead of a regular orange wedge to create a completely different beverage. Doing this creates a classic cocktail that is somehow current, seasonally-inspired, and even more approachable for guests new to bourbon. The color that blood orange imparts on the classic will turn heads as the server delivers the cocktail, and suddenly, this is not your Grandmother’s Old Fashioned. The Whiskey Sour offers even more leeway, as the sweet and savory elements can be fine-tuned with many different flavors. Ditch the bottled sweet and sour mixer and have the bar staff take a little more time to elevate the flavors. The sweet element can be an infused simple syrup that offers just the right flavor that complements the bourbon and sour element. The sour element can be scaled up and down in the pucker department, depending on the type of citrus being used.
Tropical drinks are re-emerging as well, and these afford operators the opportunity to offer fresh juices, purees, or mixers in a variety of ways. Delicious tiki drinks can be made as specials in existing glassware, but use caution with overly sweet, pre-made mixers, as this is a way to let seasonal produce and a little extra prep time work in favor of the bar. Juicing everything for an extensive tropical drink menu should be left to bars that specialize in these beverages, but offering one option will get the bar noticed. Fresh pineapple juice, for instance, is brighter than the canned version. Roasting a portion of the pineapple and then juicing brings out deeper, caramel-like notes in the juice, taking drinks like the Zombie to new heights. Plus, nothing beats the April shower blues like a cocktail umbrella in a drink.
Mix and Modify the Produce
Changing up the produce order to include something other than the 175 count limes and 95 count lemons is essential in revamping the beverage program. Meyer lemons come in at a higher price tag, but costing out and managing the bar well is all it takes to add these to the drink menu and successfully offer guests a seasonal beverage that truly IS special, not just A special. Be sure staff knows the difference of the different lemons, in fact a few more minutes of labor with the bar prep can add even more interest to the cocktail menu. Once the Meyer lemons are wedged, borrowing a torch from the kitchen and charring the lemon wedges delivers an interesting look to cocktails, helps with word of mouth, and changes the flavor of the beverage. Suddenly that sweet and tart Meyer lemon has a bitter, deeper layer that pairs so well with many cocktails.
A simple way to modify beverages that need a sweet element is to forgo the shelf-stable simple syrup purchased by the case and make it in house. Maybe both are in order, and the in-house version is solely for spring specials in case that is easier to manage. Simple syrups can go in any direction, so experimentation is necessary to find the right flavor. Peppercorns, amongst many other whole spices offer a depth that complements many cocktails, and can be used to elevate simple beverages like iced tea and lemonade. Fresh herbs like lavender or even rose petals do well when infusing simple syrups, but use caution when steeping the fresh herbs, as too much time brings out undesirable vegetal flavors that will not make for a next-level classic.
A chat with the produce rep will help immensely when concocting the next bar special, as they will be able to tell you how long that sought after item will be in season, when prices will spike, etc. Should cost be an issue, start small and offer one or two special drinks. These drinks can highlight a few seasonal flavors without cluttering up the bartender’s station or taking them off their game (again, training and management is key.)