Mastering a Unique Beverage Program

You have a balanced cocktail list, you have your drinks all costed out, and everything looks ready to start pouring. But do you have people coming in the door to drink your cocktails?  Once someone comes for dinner and has a cocktail, are they coming back for your cocktails?

Take a step back and look at your broader drink menu; does it fit your brand?  If someone saw your drink list, would they guess your concept?  If they had been in, and saw the drink list somewhere, would they immediately associate it with your restaurant?  Or would they not be sure if it came from your venue or the one a block down the street?

You will do just fine with a balanced, cost effective menu.  Your bottom line numbers should look good, and to the extent you have a great marketing or PR team, or that your food is enough of a draw, you should be able to get everyone drinking and increase the top and bottom of your P&L.

That being said, if you’re going to have a bar, and pay for a liquor license, it might as well also draw its own clientele.

The way to do that is to create a beverage program which is uniquely yours.  There are three ways to do this: style of cocktail, ingredients, and menu names.

First of all, let’s look at the style of drinks you’re offering.  Are you doing classic cocktails, original cocktails, or sweet and fruity concoctions?  Or some combination of them?  Especially if you go with the classics (which are in right now), are you doing it because people want a Manhattan when they eat, or because a Manhattan fits your specific concept?

Remember two things: With a fully stocked bar and competent bartenders, almost any well-known classic should be available at your bar.  A Manhattan, unless you are a steak house or it specifically fits your concept, doesn’t need to take up valuable menu space.  Second, just like you can make a Manhattan, and people will love it, so will your neighbor.  Unless you have the best darn Manhattan in the city, is it worth putting it on your menu?  Does your Manhattan stand out enough that you think it will build a clientele?

If you have a regional or time period theme, by all means fill the menu with classics that fit it.  I currently manage a New Orleans style bar and restaurant.  Our cocktail menu (along with originals, of course) features a French 75, a Sazerac, a Ramos Gin Fizz, a Vieux Carre, and a Frozen Hurricane. Notice that even before we filled in the gaps with some original creations, we have a balanced set of cocktails.

If your concept lends itself to a particular spirit or style of drink, those should be reflected in your original creations.  If you are running a Mexican restaurant, unique drinks using tequila and mescal will fit right in.  Perhaps even take a classic that usually uses another spirit, try it with a spirit that fits your concept, and tweak it until it tastes great.  Be careful though as originality and creativity will never be more important than quality.  Don’t put a mediocre drink on your menu just because it was created by your staff.  Remember, the point of creating unique drinks is to be memorable, in a good way. 

The second way to customize your drink menu is ingredients.  I hinted at this earlier, but try using ingredients which are unique to your concept.  If you’re a Spanish restaurant, throw a sherry cocktail on the menu, or make a version of a classic using sherry either as the base, or instead of sweet vermouth.  If you’re a French or Cajun concept, try to use French liqueurs and wines in your drinks.  You can also house make infusions, bitters (depending on the legalities of your location, of course), tinctures, shrubs, syrups, reductions, sugar and salt rims, and a million other ingredients.  If you really feel the need to throw a Manhattan or Old Fashioned on your menu, an infused whiskey base or a house made bitter may actually set it aside enough to justify the ink and space you’ll use up. Make sure to taste your cocktail made with house bitters next to one made with Angostura. Can you tell the difference between the two?  Is yours arguably better?  If you answered no to either of these, save yourself the labor, time and storage space, and buy a pre-made product.

Finally, the names. Remember that while quality of food, drink and service should always be your first priority, we are in the business of creating an experience that justifies spending three to five times what it would cost a guest to make the same food and drinks at home. If you want to set yourself apart, don’t name your drinks something generic like “Blackberry Smash.”  Come up with a creative name that fits your concept and location.  For instance, at my New Orleans themed bar, we named a drink after a famous New Orleans Voodoo princess.  You can also name a drink after a local celebrity, a neighborhood, a landmark, or something personal with a story behind it.  Did your grandmother always keep a bottle of plum brandy on the top shelf, and feed it to anyone who so much as sneezed at the dinner table?  Make a plum brandy hot toddy and call it “Nana’s Remedy.”  Assuming a guest likes the drink, and gives you an opportunity to explain the name, you have drawn them in emotionally, and made them feel like they got a little slice of something they could not have gotten anywhere else.

Remember, liquor is where you make the money.  It is hard to run an unprofitable bar program.  But by keeping balance, cost effectiveness, and uniqueness at the top your mind, you can maximize the positive impact of your bar program on both your top and bottom lines.


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