Elevating Your Cocktail Program Above a Sea of Competition

In dark basements, bright garden restaurants, hotel lobbies, food courts, and all spaces in between; great cocktail programs are popping up everywhere. Everyone is getting into the cocktail business, and many are becoming particularly good at it. This phenomenon is making it harder than ever to rise to the top and gain notice for a program that is both solid and unique all at the same time. The Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting Team has compiled some guidelines to help you ensure success.


Understand Which Lane You Play In

There are three groups that you can fall into, and each comes with quite different expectations.

  • Cocktail Bars. If cocktails are all that you do, you better do them well. Your menus need to be large; your drinks need to be delicious, and your offering needs to change seasonally.
  • Restaurant & Bar Combinations. These are businesses where both restaurant and bar carry equal weight. They can be bars with a full food menu served in the same room or restaurants that have an active bar scene in a different room. These businesses are expected to have cocktail programs of the same quality as a standalone cocktail bar but will probably have a smaller cocktail list and be built more for speed.
  • Restaurants with a Bar. These businesses are primarily restaurants. The specialty cocktail menu here relies more on the food style and is meant to compliment the food and increase check averages. The offering is typically 8 to 10 cocktails and usually with one drink marketed as the house specialty. There is less “show” and drinks are designed for quick production.

Understanding your lane helps you to plan, prepare and meet your guests’ expectations. When a restaurant with a bar tries to think big like a cocktail bar it ends up confusing guests and having a negative effect on sales. Likewise, if a cocktail only bar offers simple mojitos and flavored lemonade, quests will soon be saying “move along, nothing to see here.”

Master the Basics

No matter which lane you play in, to deliver great cocktails, your bartenders must work from a solid foundation. These building blocks include:

  • Use the right equipment. You need a stirring glass and a stirring spoon, a Hawthorne strainer and a chinois strainer, a channel knife, a hand juicer, and a muddler. Have several jiggers so you can build different cocktails at once without having to rinse every time. Likewise, have several shakers so that you can keep chilling and rotating them. It sounds simple but so many bars do not have all or enough equipment to efficiently deliver the details of a well-crafted cocktail.
  • Understand the role the ice. Whether in a shaker or in the glass, ice may be the single most important cocktail ingredient. Cooling liquor enhances flavors, shaking liquor through ice properly dilutes cutting the burn. Crushed ice has less surface area causing it to melt faster. Large spheres and cubes have more surface area and melt more slowly. Pouring a cocktail over crushed ice gives it texture by creating more of a “slushie effect.” Pouring an old fashioned over a large cube keeps it cold while allowing you to sip it without fear of dilution. Glasses should be chilled with ice, then the ice is discarded. Never pour a cold drink into a warm glass. If a drink is shaken and served on the rocks, chill the glass, toss the ice, refill the glass with fresh ice, shake the drink with ice, strain it over the fresh ice. Never pour the ice from the shaker into the glass. That is a lot to remember, and it is only the beginning. Days should be spent learning the proper ice to use in both technique and presentation.
  • Follow recipes. Pouring ribbons and tossing bottles is fun to watch but it does nothing for the cocktail which is really what is important. Recipes exist to be followed. Ingredients are carefully mixed for subtle flavors and balance. If you do not measure every ingredient, mix it in the order prescribed, and follow the dictated technique you will achieve neither subtle flavor or balance. Garnishes are the final ingredient. The quality and size of a garnish is all part of the recipe, ensuring that they compliment the cocktail but are not the main show.
  • Be Prepared. When you start to make a cocktail, time is of the essence. First of all, because your guest wants it quickly, but also to ensure ice does not dilute too much and ingredients interact with each other as intended. Have all your equipment clean, chilled if required, and in your workspace before you begin. Arrange liquors in the same recipe, together in the same area, use multi-tiered shelves and duplicate ingredients in each well to eliminate extra steps. Juice fruits for the day allowing you to still pour fresh product. Create production guides and take inventory daily to ensure that you never run out of syrups, shrubs, garnishes, and premixed batches.

Balance Tradition and Innovation

Begin with the classics. They are classics for a reason, and they usually fall into four categories. Those categories are spirit forward & stirred, sours, highballs, and swizzles and smashes. Start there and build. Having a mix of all four categories creates something for everyone no matter what mood they are in. Using house made and seasonal ingredients adds intrigue. Do not be afraid to combine mint and basil in the summer and figs and sage in the winter. Sherry and other fortified wines can add distinct flavors to all kinds of cocktails, while aperitifs like campari, aperol, and cynar can add a hint of bitterness. Remember the basic measurements in your foundation cocktails and make them different with new ingredients and flavors. No matter what, the final goal is delicious not interesting.

Glassware also plays a significant role. While each foundation cocktail has a specified style of glass, there are modifications available. A drink that normally goes in a classic martini glass can also be served in a coupe, nick and nora, or stemless martini glass. Delicate drinks can be served in glasses with lacey patterns. Spirit forward drinks can be served in heavy cut crystal or rocks glasses with fun duck hunting scenes or Scottish plaids. Themed drinks can appear in pewter mugs or gold and green abstract patterned glassware from the 60’s depending on the theme. Never discount the effect that glassware, coasters, and even music have on how much a guest enjoys a drink.

Have Fun with Menus

Here is your opportunity to “go for it.” Making your cocktail menu exciting also makes your cocktails exciting. The most fun part of creating a cocktail is creating the name. Clever names get attention and cause people to ask questions. Make sure every clever name has a great story. If you tell it well it will get repeated. Names that include the business name, the owner’s name or the street address automatically call out that cocktail as a specialty of the house and a must try.

We personally like to organize menus from light and refreshing to boozy so it is easy for guests to comprehend, but they can also be organized according to drink type or primary alcohol type. We love to help guests make decisions by providing an icon for each drink showing an outline of the type of glass it will be served in. Menus can have themed sections like “the Manhattan Project” highlighting several versions of the classic Manhattan. They can also be randomly and completely themed with sections that reflect the regions found when following butterfly migrations or sections with drinks that reflect the personality of different breeds of dogs. Small cocktail lists need to make every cocktail something to be talked about through both menu narrative and presentation. Large cocktail lists can rely more on overall menu presentation and the overall concept to pull the identity together.

Service, Service, Service

Yet it all comes down to giving your guests a drink they will love. That does not happen by just reading a menu and ordering a drink. It happens by establishing a relationship of trust between the guest and the bartender or the server. You do that by asking all the right questions, by gaining a good understanding of the types of drinks, liquors, and flavors they like. It also comes from understanding the mood they are in. Do they want to sip and relax at the end of a long week, or do they want to stimulate conversation without losing control on a first date? This skill must be taught, mentored, and practiced. It is also one of the most important pieces of a successful cocktail program.

Michael Maxwell – Partner, Blue Orbit Restaurant Consulting

Blue Orbit provides hands-on partnership and unparalleled industry insight to create new concepts and help existing restaurateurs.

Are you ready to talk with one of our expert restaurant consultants? Contact us today and tell us about your situation and how you’d like us to help.

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