Steaking a Claim on America’s Drinking Culture
From Cocktail Carts to Private Wine Lockers
At Chicago’s incredibly stylish steakhouse Swift & Sons, diners may request that the cocktail cart make a stop by their tables. An old-school dessert transporter that’s been transformed into a mixology masterpiece, it’s stocked with vintage stemware, spirits and garnishes from the kitchen with which guests can customize their drinks.
The presentation is a bit flashy for the average consumer, as the bartender explains the process while he’s whipping up Manhattans, Old Fashioneds or one of Swift & Sons’ seasonal offerings, but it’s certain to add an element of excitement to the overall dining experience.
“When you mention steakhouses, people typically think of business dinners and suited-up guys looking stern, but now the image is changing with the influx of unique mixology programs found at the likes of Swift & Sons,” said Natalia Cardenas, who works as a mixologist at prominent distributor/wholesaler Southern Wine & Spirits. “There’s a hedonistic aspect to drinking cocktails during dinner.”
She adds that cocktails are becoming more prevalent at steakhouses because of aesthetics like Swift & Son’s cocktail cart or the whimsical, amuse bouche-inspired martinis guests get at the Chicago-based Maple & Ash. When other diners see these over-the-top productions they want them too, said Cardenas.
Plus, it helps that mixology culture is enjoying visibility at an all-time high right now. Cardenas said that’s because there’s so much more information available for the average consumer.
“It’s easy to find cocktail classes pretty much anywhere when you’re living in a big city,” she said. “You can find them at grocery stores such as Whole Foods. You can find classes at William-Sonoma or the Container Store. Cooking schools are now hiring mixologists to teach cocktail classes.”
The dilemma occurs, she continues, when consumers attempt to replicate the cocktails at home. Because it can become overwhelming, expensive and frustrating for the average person to buy ingredients and equipment to make cocktails themselves, it’s more advantageous for them to visit a craft cocktail bar. And steakhouses are certainly cashing in on that enthusiasm.
But as consumers’ palates evolve, so must those of bartenders and beverage directors at more traditional steakhouses as well. Cardenas says that when they’re resistant to change to their bar programs they risk losing customers. But she reassures that while it might cost a little more and take more effort to add fresh ingredients, in the long run everyone will be happy.
“It’s more expensive to do craft cocktails, and their resistance stems from the unknown,” she said. “Every time I work with bars to improve their cocktail programs, they love them” and they make more money.
Cardenas says that there is usually a method to how people order cocktails at a steakhouse.
“People start their evening with a cocktail, have wine—usually a bottle of red—with dinner and end the evening with a cocktail, or a digestivo. When consumers go to a steakhouse they want the full experience,” she explained. “The sommelier and mixologist complement each other at the restaurant. We’ve both becoming familiar with each other’s offerings. Both are very important to the restaurant.”
At the very wine-focused Morton’s The Steakhouse restaurants across the country, all general managers are certified sommeliers. That allows them to customize the experience of each guest when it comes to wine service.
While Morton’s, which maintains its traditional, white-tablecloth image at each location, doesn’t do fancy cart services, it does enhance the drinking experience in at least one meaningful way. All locations offer a select group of regular diners complimentary private wine lockers. Each locker bears a plaque with the owner's name, and can store up to two cases of wine for them to enjoy at the location.
The nationwide program is more than just for vanity’s sake. Staffers work tirelessly to try to expand the sophisticated palates of their VIPs, and seek out really interesting wines that may not be available to the general public. Twice a year, in April and in September, each Morton’s location hosts an invite-only wine tasting, where wine locker holders can come in and sample wine that they might want to add to their wine lockers, including several selections that are not on the current restaurant lists. There’s always a waitlist—which is by invitation only—for the wine locker program, making it a coveted perk for Morton’s loyal diners.