Just as the weather gets warm and blossoms begin to appear, it’s time to enliven cocktail menus and set the stage for the summer ahead. Flavors get lighter and fruitier in the spring and that sap-rising energy gets creative juices flowing, and pouring. Barkeeps and managers from coast-to-coast this year are going back to basics with new versions of old classics.
With all the exotic concoctions that are showing up in bars today, it’s not surprising that some patrons want something a little simpler. At Kincaid’s in Washington, D.C., Mark Holland, bar manager and bartender, still sees his customers wanting to experiment and try new flavors, but at least at his venue, the over-the-top drink is fading. “I don’t think people want things like kumquats or what I saw recently, small octopi, in their drinks. It’s just too far out,” he says. “We serve probably 400 to 500 drinks a night. It’s hard to pacify the gin and tonic drinkers while they wait for me to create a kumquat cocktail.”
In general, Holland says customers will be looking for slight variations on the classics and that bars will move away from using purées and the like, especially at large operations.
At Kincaid’s, Holland generates excitement by employing color in the drinks, but garnishes are scaled back so that guests are more likely to see a citrus twist than a wheel of kiwifruit at his bar. For example, he may serve simple Martinis (such as one made with a raspberry flavored vodka with a lemon twist) as opposed to 30 different variations using many different ingredients.
Because Kincaid’s clientele tend toward having cultivated tastes, most don’t really want to experiment or be educated, he says. What they want instead is something well crafted that can be made quickly. What Holland will serve this spring are the classics, with slight variations.
“My patrons want the simpler cocktails, something that can be done quickly and done well in a straightforward manner,” he says.
At Nizza La Bella, a restaurant with a 40-seat bar in Albany, CA near Berkeley, guests are entertained with classic cocktails and specialty drinks made with a flourish. Evelyne Sloman, co-owner with Eleanor Triboletti, runs the front of the house and the bar with the sensibility that comes from being a former chef.
Sloman trains her bartenders the way she would train a chef. “Just like in the kitchen, when a dish is made right it has to be made right every time. I take that same energy into my bar. My bartenders are fast, and they are well trained, just as a good chef is fast,” she says. Her barkeeps have researched new drinks for the spring, and they’ve tweaked and taste-tested a lot of cocktails to get just the right balance of sour, sweet, bitter and strength.
“The proportion is really important in any cocktail. Just a touch of sugar syrup, for example, brings out everything in a drink, and helps you taste all the elements. Sometimes a cocktail needs a little acid and sometimes, if it’s mostly alcohol, you may need to back off on the alcohol. You should be able to taste all the ingredients,” she says.
Part of Sloman’s mission is to introduce properly made, classic cocktails to the younger generation, and newer cocktails like the French Fizz and the Cosmo to the older generation. But she thinks the proper technique, the “show” involved with making the drink is also important, no matter what time of year.
One of the techniques she has taught her bartenders is the flaming of lemon and orange twists (see sidebar). “It’s such a great thing to do in front of guests. People love to watch the show, and experience the smell and the taste. Flaming the zest makes a flash and disperses the oils over the top of the drink adding to the flavor of the cocktail,” she says.
One of Sloman’s signature drinks is ideal for spring. In fact, she calls prime drinking time the Violet Cocktail Hour, after her cocktail the Violet, made like a Perfect Martini with Citadelle Gin, parfait d’amour (a liqueur made with orange, spices and violet petals) and dry vermouth in equal portions, garnished with a candied violet. Selling for $7 in a standard-sized Martini glass, the drink appeals to men and women alike.
“I don’t serve cocktails in oversized glasses because they get too warm. There is a proper size for a cocktail. Large drinks encourage gulping. Cocktails should be sipped and savored, not belted down,” Sloman explains.
Spring is the time in her restaurant for rum drinks, cocktails with fruit and drinks with fizz. “One thing we are planning to do this year is to add fruit to drinks. I see us muddling fruit and adding the liquor, and reviving drinks like Rum Punch and the Gin Smash,” she says. She plans to have some flavored vodkas and rums, though Sloman is more apt to add vanilla extract or syrup to vodka if she wants a vanilla flavor.
The Kit Kat Club and Supper Lounge in Chicago is all about the show. Appealing to a younger crowd that wants to be educated and to experiment, the club offers drinks that catch attention. Co-owner Edward Gisinger has noticed, however, that even the younger crowd is starting to pick less sweet cocktails.
One is the Spring Bouquet, made with champagne, vodka and white cranberry juice with an edible flower floating on top. Another popular drink every year at this time is Somebunny Loves You (Absolut Vanilia Vodka, Liquor 43 and a dash of heavy cream garnished with a marshmallow Bunny Peep).
Mojitos are also popular with the warmer weather at the Kit Kat Club, where they are made in a variety of flavors, using a splash of peach, strawberry or mango juice. And because the fruit juices are already sweet, less sugar is added to the cocktail.
The restaurant’s always-popular Sock It To Me (made with saké and Absolut with a cucumber garnish) works well in the spring, says Gisinger. Mango Martinis, Passion Martinis and Ice Tinis (Absolut infused with tea bags) come back into favor in the spring, too.
“We get a mixed crowd. The women are more likely to order the unusual drinks, but the boyfriend will then taste the drink and order it himself. The names sometimes scare the guys, but once they taste it, they want to have one of their own,” he says.
The Kit Kat Club may get an edge by promoting Easter, although St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day or Mardi Gras may have their charms, as a spring drinking holiday. The club has a huge Easter brunch with an all-you-can-drink Bloody Martini Bar. An infused jalapeno-horseradish Martini with a “garden salad” garnish (cucumber, tomato and olive on a stick) placed on top is one of the special drinks at the brunch.