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How To Best Use Fresh Ingredients in Cocktails without Breaking the Bank

How To Best Use Fresh Ingredients in Cocktails without Breaking the Bank

Secrets from the Bar

Benjamin Schiller is like a kid in a candy store at The Sixth, his whimsical craft cocktail lounge on Chicago’s Far North Side. He’s infusing freshly squeezed grapes, lemons, oranges and raspberries in ice cubes for a wildly popular, Instagram-worthy drink dubbed “Silly Rabbit.” Inspired by the classic South Side gin cocktail, the colorfully layered masterpiece is also injected with house-made mint bitters—which imbibers get to add themselves with medicine droppers—as well as freshly squeezed lime juice. 

“Silly Rabbit” is one of the signature cocktails found on the menu year-round, but Schiller also experiments with seasonal sippers just to keep it fresh. Distinct autumn flavors like apple cider and pumpkin spice, for example, amp up bourbon and rum drinks. And during warmer months, his obsession with tangerines pops up in many forms, from infused ice cubes to tinctures.

Be Cost-Effective

And while he’s having the time of his life behind the bar, the veteran mixologist is always mindful of The Sixth’s budget. While the bar’s become quite the destination in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, it doesn’t charge downtown prices. Depending on the establishment, prices for craft cocktails of this caliber typically range between $18 and $40. Schiller’s drinks range $12-$15, which means he must be super crafty with the budget.

“When you’re buying in bulk from farmers or wholesalers, it’s surprising how cost effective things are,” says Schiller. “And always remember that it’s better to buy wholesale than retail.”

Promote Your Daily Selection

Schiller offers another practical tip for those wishing to be budget friendly with fresh ingredients: “Consider a feature where you’d take a cocktail, format or special, and just refer to it as ‘the daily selection’ or ‘market offering.’ For example, let’s say I wanted to make a simple daily cocktail like a daiquiri and I wanted to use market-fresh ingredients. I might call it the ‘market daiquiri’ or ‘daiquiri du jour,’ so everything would be coming from the market that day. Today it’s raspberries. Tomorrow it’s blackberries. The guest would obviously be intrigued by that, and it’s a great way to open communication with that person.”

At Middle Branch, the slick, two-level lounge in the Murray Hill section of New York City, they refer to the “daily selection” cocktail as “bartender’s choice.” While that allows flexibility with ingredients and spirits, it also assures there’s no waste. “Changing the menu on a regular basis, or offering a bartender's choice, allows us to use ingredients that are fresh in a certain window of time,” explains Middle Branch managing partner Lucinda Sterling.

Everything Doesn’t Have to be Fresh

“Limiting the number of fresh ingredients also minimizes potential waste from unused produce.” She admits, however, that fresh ingredients fluctuate with guests’ preferences, and “dictates how often we order a fresh batch of mint, grapefruit or blackberries.” At other times, she continues, “we will create a homemade preserve or syrup made from fresh fruit.” Reliable produce includes apple cider, blackberries, grapefruit, mint and pineapple, while she’s found certain herbs to be a waste of money.

In her role as national brand educator for Heaven Hill Brands, Lynn House travels the country training and mentoring bartenders on all facets of mixology. The company serves as the nation’s largest independent, family-owned-and-operated spirits producer and the world’s second-largest holder of Kentucky bourbon.

Growing Your Own – Quality & Profit

One of House’s favorite subjects is creative menu planning on a budget, and as a self-described green thumb, she believes in growing as much produce as she can to save money. “It’s a shortening of steps, so you’re taking the middle person out as far as they’re going to put their thumb on it to make a profit,” House explains. “It also allows you to ensure a better quality that you may present to your customers, then you can, in turn, charge them more. That turns into profit for the restaurant.”

There’s a garden in-house at Seattle-based Salare restaurant, and bar manager Elmer Dulla takes full advantage of it whenever possible. They grow herbs (mint, thyme, basil), lettuces and even hops, which he has used to make simple syrup.
“It’s better than buying things that have been processed already,” he says. “You can grow just a little number of things instead of buying from a retailer.”

Collaborate with the Chefs

Pam Wiznitzer follows the lead of the culinary team at popular date-night spot The Seamstress, located on New York’s Upper East Side. While the creative director/mixologist’s extensive cocktail menu covers the classics in 50 options, like the Aviation and Philadelphia Fish House Punch, she loves to play off ingredients they’re using in the kitchen with seasonal drinks as well.

“Collaborating with the chefs is great because it helps cut down on bringing ingredients into the restaurant,” she says. “It also helps cut down on costs.”

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