The Warren Column: Is this drink good?

20 January, 2017

Jan Warren on the forensic detail that goes into creating every drink on a bar’s menu

Is this drink good? it is a question I hear about five times per shift and one that has never made sense to me. If we didn’t believe it was good, why would we put it on the menu? After all, a menu is a primary interaction with the customer, one of the most important points of service. Why would a bar put something on it that it didn’t stand behind? As usual, though, it is our task to figure out how to tell the customer this in a way that is graceful or funny.

I was lucky enough to work under Audrey Saunders and Kenta Goto at Pegu Club in lower Manhattan. Working on the menu was something we did as a team and one of our favourite tasks. First we came up with a concept, normally pulling from some revered classic and making some small but impactful changes. We would work on our own initially, often for a month or more, on a single recipe before, of course, getting some input from our peers behind the bar. We might email back and forth with either Audrey or Kenta or both, and get some feedback that way as well. All this led up to a general staff meeting where each bartender presented a drink. If that drink passed muster, Audrey would ask us to adjust the volumes of the respective ingredients either up or down by 1/4 ounce in pursuit of the perfect balance. Once all of us agreed on a recipe, Audrey and Kenta would order about five or 10 brands or styles of the respective spirit in the drink, and you would make the recipe with all of them until you came to an agreement about which was best in the particular drink. If the drink had a twist, we would experiment with the size of the twist, and whether it was best utilised by expressing its oils into the glass before or after pouring the drink into the glass.

The point is that for an individual drink that makes it to the menu, in most excellent bars, there is an almost unbelievable level of scrutiny and an incredible amount of time devoted to what sort of glass it is served in, the ingredients, and how the garnish is presented and served with the drink. If we are paying that much attention to single drinks, imagine what it takes to put together a total menu. Keep in mind that a good menu will be a combination of several different drink types, and several different types of alcohol. I’ve always put together ‘simpler’ menus, especially when compared to bars like The Thief in Oslo, Artesian in London and The Sign in Vienna, which all make use of incredible glassware and presentation techniques, or The Dead Rabbit in NYC, whose cocktail menu is vast and wondrous. My aims have always been to minimise the choices on a menu to expedite the process of customer choice. Ultimately, I’ve been mostly brought up in a bar tradition that originally eschewed the menu in total and has always made simple menus when forced to, offering about two drinks from five or six categories.

“Is this one good?”

I widen my eyes in mock surprise, lean in, and conspiratorially whisper: “No. That is the trick drink. The booby trap. Everything else on the menu is excellent, but the one drink you chose is the one we put on as sort of a joke, a prank, a mean tease, meant to put off the customers that have chosen it, forever.”

They usually figure it out.

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