How To Craft The Perfect Cocktail Menu
There’s a definitive art to crafting a cocktail menu. It’s similar to how a music producer sits down and decides which songs are going to make the cut for a studio album. He or she weeds out the weaker links and makes certain that each song flows effortlessly into the next one. And if the producer is really working on giving the fans a thrill, he or she starts off on a smooth, silky note and ends the entire project with a bang…something that they’ll remember for a long time to come.
That’s pretty much John McCarthy’s approach to his cocktail menus, particularly when it’s a spirit-focused concept. Thus far in his career, he’s run a gin bar, scotch bar and now he’s heading the agave spirits program at Masa y Agave in the trendy TriBeca neighborhood of New York City.
The approach at each establishment is pretty much the same, as far as he is concerned: Each drink on the cocktail menu has a specific slot. “And that slot fits a certain flavor profile that a certain type of person is going to want,” he explains. For example, his first slot is always filled with an aperitif, lower in alcohol content for that person who’s going to come in and doesn’t quite know what he wants, but wants to be part of the social interaction of drinking at a bar with everybody.
“Those drinks tend to use club soda or sparkling wine to make an easy drink for someone,” adds McCarthy.
On the other spectrum, he says, you need to make sure you have a slot for that person who wants a “strong, spirit-forward drink that’s going to shake them up a little bit and make them feel like they’re drinking.” Additional important slots, he continues, are for people who desire something bitter, such as a Negroni, as well as something that will be citrusy and herbaceous.
He applies this method to restaurant bars and stand-alone cocktail lounges, but, of course, there’s so much more involved beyond the creation of the actual menu. There is the very important task of deciding how much each cocktail should cost, and McCarthy has his method down to a science.
“I literally break it down,” he explains. “A case of lemons costs this much and I get that much juice out of it. I put half an ounce of lemon juice (in a cocktail), so then that costs .30 cents or whatever. I break down how much an ounce of spirits costs, I break it down if it has a lemon peel twist, how many lemon twists I can get out of a case of lemons. I get it down to how much the sugar costs to make the simple syrup (from scratch), how much was the mint, if it contains a mint garnish. I break down every ingredient by price. And then I know what my costs are.”
What he’s also learned through experience is that whatever cocktail he’s selling the most of is the least expensive drink for him to make. “If the drink that I am always making all the time is costing me a dollar, then I can afford to make a drink that costs $2.80 because I am offsetting it. I am still keeping my overall liquor costs low because I am selling a lot of the less expensive cocktail.”
For Caroline Galzin, a managing partner of Nashville-based Nicky’s Coal Fired with husband/chef Tony Galzin, the most important place to start when crafting a cocktail menu is on the opposite side of the bar. It’s an opportunity to figure out who the audience will be, but she cautions not to alienate anyone.
“I think it’s very important to have cocktails that will appeal to more than just one demographic,” she advises. “People don’t always want to try something new, but then there are those who do. I believe people should have both options.”
For those introducing a craft cocktail menu for the very first time, she recommends tweaking classics such as an Old Fashioned or Moscow Mule.
“Make some substitutions, such as changing a vermouth for amaro,” she suggests. “A lot of places are now doing Rum Old Fashioneds or changing up the Moscow Mule by replacing vodka with gin or tequila. They’re not reinventing the wheel, they’re taking what’s already great and putting their own spin on it.”