Signature Style: 7 Tips for Creating Specialty Cocktails

Signature cocktails can help set your bar or restaurant apart from the competition and enable you to offer guests a distinctive experience. It’s also fun for the bar team to unleash their creativity when developing specialty drinks in-house.

Some signature cocktails are more successful then others, however. Here are a few tips for developing and improving a specialty drink recipe or menu.

Keep up with current trends

There’s always something new and exciting in the craft cocktail world. Kathy Casey, a celebrity chef and mixologist and president of the consultancy Kathy Casey Food Studios—Liquid Kitchen, predicts that that ginger flavors will continue to be big behind the bar.

Sable War of the Roses1

The War of the Roses: Pimm’s, Ford’s gin, Chase Elderflower liqueur, Mint, Fresh lime juice, Peychaud’s bitters. By Sable Kitchen & Bar, Chicago

Apple and other orchard-fruit cocktail flavors are also gaining popularity, capitalizing on the hard-cider trend, she says.

How are some operators tapping into these flavor trends? A popular drink at Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, MA, is the Always Sunny ($10). It incorporates Privateer silver rum, raspberry, lime, Regan’s No. 6 orange bitters and house ginger beer.

The tavern’s barrel-aged Norman Holiday cocktail ($10) blends Laird’s Applejack, Pommeau De Normandie, Blanche De Normandie apple brandy, honey and lemon. Russell House has three comprehensive cocktail menus, says bar manager Ashish Mitra: standard, brunch, and dessert.

Since vintage cocktails continue to be in vogue, one way to create a few unique drinks is to tweak the classics, particularly with seasonal or local ingredients and spirits.

Russell House offers several unique variations of popular cocktail staples. For example, the Harvard Yard No. 3, made with Laphroaig 10-year Scotch, Croft Distinction port, green Chartreuse and salt ($13), is a take on a Manhattan.

Use unique ingredients

Incorporating rare and local ingredients will make your specialty cocktails stand out. At Chicago’s Sable Kitchen & Bar, one of the most popular cocktails is the War of the Roses ($14). It’s a blend of Pimm’s, Ford’s gin, Chase Elderflower liqueur, mint, fresh lime, and Peychaud’s bitters. Head bartender John Stanton thinks the drink is a hit because of its unique mix of flavors.

Meanwhile, Mitra says Russell House Tavern’s Battle of Trafalgar cocktail ($10) tastes unlike anything he’s ever had before due to its unique combination of spirits: Pimm’s No.1, Batavia Arrack, St. Elder elderflower liqueur, honey and lime juice. The drink is consistently one of the top-selling items on Russell House’s menu, Mitra says.

As you are combing spirits and flavors, be sure to document every step of the process. That way, if you prefer the taste of earlier versions of the drink, you have the ingredients and measurements saved so you’’ll know how to correct the flavors.

Have some fun with the name

Creative naming definitely affects signature cocktail sales, Stanton says. All Sable bartending staff come up with the names for their custom-crafted cocktails, using the drink’s ingredients, books, songs, movies and so on for inspiration.

For example, The War of the Roses cocktail was named after the series of historic wars between the two English houses of Lancaster and York in the 15th century, because the drink incorporates two English spirits (gin and Pimm’s).

The “Dusk ’til Dawn” (High West Double Rye, East India sherry, Ramazotti amaro, Angostura bitters) was named after the classic Robert Rodriguez movie because the cocktail is classically built from the ground up. Both cocktails sell for $14.

Customers are often intrigued by unusual drink names on the menu, says Mitra. “Someone may not know anything about a ‘Corpse Reviver’ or a ‘Suffering Bastard,’ but they have names that are simple and evocative,” Mitra says. “That person might, at the very least, ask about the cocktail when hearing it aloud or reading it on a menu.”

Nico OsteriaBella MelaChloe LIst

Bella Mela: Germain-Robin apple brandy, Atsby vermouth, Brigallet china-china, Seedling apple cider, Chocolate bitters. By Nico Osteria, Chicago.

Mitra advises sticking to simple names that are short and easy to remember. At Russell House, the Whippersnapper cocktail ($9), made with Four Roses bourbon, raspberry, lemon, Creole shrubb, Angostura bitters, has a catchy title and is one of the bar’s top sellers.

Keep in mind that catchy cocktail names may cause people to order a drink regardless of whether or not it suits them. That’s why Stanton tries to ensure that the name of the drink reflects the nature of the cocktail in some way.

What’s more, “I try to come up with names that are as gender neutral as possible,” Stanton says. “A name like ‘Pretty in Pink’ will most likely only sell to women, no matter what ingredients go into it.”

You don’t want to name a drink that people are embarrassed to say, Stanton adds. “I remember going to a diner and seeing a turkey club I wanted, but it was called the ‘Super Birdy,’ and I didn’t want to say it, so I didn’t order it. I try to keep that in mind when naming my drinks.”

Consider your concept and location

Signature cocktails can also be created to enhance a region-specific menu. Nico Osteria, a seafood-focused Italian restaurant that opened in the Thompson Chicago hotel in 2013, designs specialty cocktails to incorporate Italian liquor and ingredients.

For instance, the Starlight ($13) combines Old Forester Bonded bourbon, Medley Bros. bourbon, Lazzaroni amaretto, maple and pomegranate, shaken with citrus.

You always have to consider your location and audience when developing signature drinks, says Matty Eggleston, head bartender at Nico Osteria and the hotel bar Salone Nico. “Chicago is a vodka and whiskey town,” so Nico offers a vodka cocktail—the Gilder, made with vodka, sorbet, hazelnut and prosecco.

“Even though [vodka cocktails] might not be the coolest thing these days, we make a really good one and it sells for us,” he notes.

Start small and simple

While some cocktail-centric operations have success with multipage specialty drink menus, start with a smaller selection that isn’t intimidating for your guests or your bar staff. Casey suggests making room for eight to 12 cocktails, allowing room for base drinks as well as seasonal selections.

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The Crimson Crow #3: Sobieski vodka, Lime, Raspberry, Rothman & Winter crèmede violette, Pavan liqueur. By Russell House Tavern, Cambridge, MA.

“We always keep the menu to ten drinks or less. It makes it easier for the customer to make a choice,” Eggleston says. Another thing: “All of the cocktails are simple so the bartenders can make them quickly.” The Nico (Sipsmith gin, Amaro Braulio, Cocchi Americano, mineral water) has only four ingredients.

Extreme simplicity is key for cocktails at certain operations, such as Gilley’s BBQ, a restaurant and saloon dance hall in the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Because of the fast-paced atmosphere of that location, director of food and beverage Paul Pace has opted for a smaller specialty cocktail menu consisting of just five drinks.

One is the popular Kentucky Highball, made with an in-house spiced bourbon (Jim Beam blended with cinnamon, vanilla and allspice) and Fever Tree ginger ale ($11).

All of Gilley’s cocktails are drinks the bartenders can make quickly, such as the Rattlesnake ($11), with Jim Beam Devil’s Cut bourbon, lemon sour, simple syrup and rhubarb bitters. “From my perspective, people want a quality drink, but they don’t want it to take 10 minutes to make, and they don’t want to be confused by the selection,” Pace says. “We keep things simple, and make sure we can make the cocktail properly and fast.”

Change them out

As with any menu, most operators want to keep their specialty cocktail offerings fresh, innovative, and seasonal. So rotate your cocktail offerings on a regular basis—at least twice a year, Casey says. Updating the menu three to four times a year is better, she notes.

“Holidays are basically their own season, and you can have a Christmas drink that doesn’t really work once you get into January,” Casey says.

Stanton rotates most of Sable’s multipage cocktail menu four times per year. He prefers to feature seasonal varieties whenever possible, such as this past winter’s Hot Buttered Sazerac ($14), with Bulleit rye, cinnamon syrup and Fee’s Old Fashioned bitters.

But you do want to keep some specialty standards available all year. One page of Sable’s menu is devoted to “The Keepers,” a selection of 10 specialty drinks that remains fairly consistent. Popular offerings on this menu include the Kentucky Grazer, made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, Pimm’s, mint, lemon and celery bitters.

Nico Osteria also updates its specialty cocktail menu on a rolling basis. About 80% of the drinks rotate to incorporate seasonality and traditional Italian ingredients. One example is the seasonal Chestnut cocktail ($14), which includes roasted chestnut-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, fresh lemon juice and chestnut honey; it’s served on ice and topped with grated nutmeg.

Ditch the dogs

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The Chestnut: Roasted-chestnut-infused Buffalo Trace bourbon, Fesh lemon juice, Chestnut honey. By Nico Osteria, Chicago

When you’ve put the time and effort into developing specialty cocktails that you and your bar staff love, it can be hard to let go of them. But sometimes you have to.

You can’t get too attached to your menu, Eggleston says: You have to be willing to try new things based on customer demand. “There are a lot of drinks we love that have come and gone, but if something’s not selling, there’s no sense in letting it take up valuable space on the menu,” he says.

That said, you have to do what’s right for your concept. Sable keeps certain drinks on the menu even if they aren’t necessarily top sellers, because Stanton wants to maintain the restaurant’s reputation of being a cutting-edge cocktail destination.

“It’s important that our menu showcases what’s important to us and what we’re capable of,” he explains. “A unique cocktail may only appeal to a small number of people, but those guests who are seeking an innovative cocktail experience will continue to drive our business in that category by recognizing our dedication to the craft and recommending us to others.”

Melissa Niksic is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Showcasing Specialty Cocktails With Events

Just as many restaurants offer beer or wine pairing dinners, some operators are doing the same with specialty cocktails. Russell House Tavern in Cambridge, MA, offered a six-course dinner option with cocktail pairings for $75 per person this past December.

Each course was paired with a handcrafted Privateer rum cocktail. For example, the Blackstrap Cured B.L.T. (house-cured bacon, smoked tomato and peppercress) was paired with the Ipswich Daiquiri (Privateer silver reserve rum, lime, celery juice, simple syrup and celery bitters).

“Cocktail pairings can be harder to do than beer/wine pairings, but the event was very successful and really elevated the profile of our restaurant,” says bar manager Ashish Mitra. He hopes to hosts more cocktail pairing events this year.

Restaurant Nico Osteria in the Thompson Chicago hotel recently hosted a Thursday evening cocktail series called No Key Required, says head bartender Matty Eggleston. The first theme of the series was Paris, 1920-1930s, and the event featured drinks inspired from Parisian cocktail handbooks from that time period.

Selections included the Spa Water (absinthe, mint, aloe vera, cucumber), and the Pompadour (Jamaican rum, Pineau de Charentes, lemon); drinks ranged in price from $13 to $20.—MN

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