The artisan cocktail trend is here to stay and consumers are demanding quality cocktails at almost every type of venue. At the same time, guests are looking for speedy service that doesn’t compromise that same quality.
“It’s all about time in this [economic] environment,” says Tammy LaNasa, the San Antonio-based, corporate beverage director for 19 Sullivan’s Steakhouses and eight Del Frisco’s. “People want something great and they expect it faster than ever.”
Bar managers and mixologists across the country are realizing that artisanship and lengthy prep times don’t always have to go hand-in-hand. With a few shortcuts and “tricks of the trade,” cocktails can be created swiftly and consistently.
At Sullivan’s, specifically, LaNasa keeps an eye on the time it takes to create a cocktail. “There is just no way to make a cocktail that takes two minutes,” she says. Instead she tracks the amount of steps in specific cocktail recipes. She adds that her bartenders may have a greater margin for error at Del Frisco’s.
Whether running a nationwide chain with some 30 restaurants or a single location with a bustling bar scene, bar managers agree that artisanal cocktails can be simplified with a mix of preparation, staff training and a few creative substitutions. Faster service and happy guests can also improve your bottom line.
Train for Success
When Stacey Smith, beverage director at Houston-based Pappas Restaurants, which includes the 33-unit Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen, recently made the switch to offering more hand-crafted cocktails, she focused on staff training to get the program up and running. “The most important thing was to get the bartenders trained in the proper drink-making techniques. Everyone knows how to muddle and about how much juice you will get out of a lime,” she says. “The next step was to make sure they have the appropriate tools: good muddlers, Boston shakers, strainers, etc.”
At Lemaire, a new American restaurant in the 262-room Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, Ben Eubanks, director of restaurants and wine agrees that bartender training is key. “Our bartenders start off in a training program that can take anywhere from four to seven shifts,” he explains. “They start out in the service bar making cocktails and perfecting technique.”
In addition the bar and lounge staff is trained on the finer points of opening and closing to ensure speed of service. “The closing bartender audits the mise en place at the end of a shift and leaves a list of items for the next day’s opening bartender to prep,” says Eubanks. “This communication helps save the opener time and helps them become organized very quickly. We also have recipes and prep lists for all our drinks laminated behind the bar for easy reference.”
Smith goes a step further at Pappadeaux, documenting the service bar and well set up with images for their various locations. “We load a picture of how the bar should be set up into a viewer for the staff,” she explains. “We set up our wells according to our featured drinks and whatever the specific market dictates.”
When you simplify the time it takes to craft a drink, you can—in theory—sell more drinks. “Making cocktails simpler takes less time for bartenders,” says LaNasa. “So you can make more drinks and therefore more money.” In addition, she encourages banquet managers to offer simple cocktails for parties to enhance guest experience.
Eubanks agrees. Simplifying the process makes the staff more productive because they spend less time making drinks and can therefore interact with more guests to sell additional food and beverage,” he explains. “In theory, this will make us profitable, but not because the drink itself costs less to make.”
The key to simplifying cocktails isn’t skimping on quality. In fact, many bar managers agree that all cocktails, even complex ones, should be made using premium spirits and fresh ingredients whenever possible. The challenge here is speed. To solve this, most bar managers utilize some techniques of preparing the bar that includes precutting fruit, garnishes and batching where appropriate.
“Being well stocked is crucial,” says Lara Pietropaolo, bartender at Local 121, a restaurant that offers local and organic cuisine in Providence, R.I. “There is definitely an art to getting your proportions down and keeping things clean and organized.” For her busy evening service, Pietropaolo precuts fruits, pre-skewers olives on toothpicks, pre-twists lemons and portions out other ingredients like mint for Mojitos.
In addition, Pietropaolo utilizes homemade vodka infusions to help with the busy rush. The current flavors are grapefruit-tarragon and vanilla-jasmine. On a busy night, she makes simple cocktails with the infusions. “All we add is fresh grapefruit juice and a splash of St. Germain to the grapefruit-tarragon and a lemon twist to the vanilla-jasmine,” she explains. “It’s easy to get customers excited about when they can’t make up their minds. By batching these drinks they take the same amount of time as it would take me to make a Cape Codder and I’m getting $10 per drink as opposed to $6.”
Eddie “Lucky” Campbell, bar manager at Bolso, a café and wine bar in Dallas, agrees. “The art is in the design of what you are prepping and in the efficiency of your prep schedule.” He precuts fresh fruit daily, with the exceptions of those that spoil, like apples and pears. “Technique is a major player in quality cocktail making, so start with the proper techniques,” he says.
In addition, bar managers tout the importance of utilizing your entire staff. “We have three bartenders on duty for each shift, one is designated for speed of service, with the other two taking care of the guests,” says LaNasa. There is also a bar back making sure all of the supplies are full. “We also designate that one manager is at the bar at all times, so the bartenders don’t have to run back to get a new spirit when one runs out. That manager has a sense of urgency to get the product.”
Thinking Ahead is Central
Beyond properly training your staff and having your mis en place ready to go, carefully structuring menu choices is also key. At Mez, a one-location upscale lounge in Charlotte, North Carolina, planning is essential. “In planning our specialty cocktail menus we did try to balance the number of cocktails that require several ingredients and more extensive preparation, such as layering or muddling, with cocktails that are easier to make and designed for speed,” says Brad Byrd, bar manager. For example, a popular drink going into summer is the Dark & Stormy ($11), made with Saranac Ginger Beer and Cruzan Black Strap Rum.
Some bar managers also find simplicity in aligning cocktails with ingredients already found in the kitchen. “Talk to a chef about how to make your flavors stand out,” Campbell notes. “Almost every chef will be glad to trade advice for a free drink or two!”
LaNasa adds, “I try to limit my artisan ingredients to those we have in the kitchen.” She not only utilizes the items in the kitchen, but she also has the kitchen prep things to make it easier for the bartender. Smith also has the back of house staff prep the garnishes for the bar to ensure consistency.
When simplifying cocktails, Eubanks says he likes to keep things to three ingredients, but couldn’t do it without the help of the kitchen. “We involve the kitchen in the cocktail program, which allows us to build interesting flavors into our drinks through special ingredients,” he says. “So while the cocktail may only have three ingredients, there is something compelling about the components.”
He adds, “Ninety percent of the work in cocktails is preparation and the final 10 percent is executing a recipe.”
At Lemaire, they grow their own herbs and vegetables for use in the restaurant. “It is a huge source of pride for the staff to say we use items that are grown on-premise,” says Eubanks, adding that it also saves money and avoids waste in lost product. “It has a lot of cache with customers in today climates.” This works well in the Garden Gibson, priced at $10, which is made with Hendrick’s Gin, juice of cucumber and rosemary simple syrup, garnished with a fresh sprig of dill. The infused rosemary simple syrup cuts out a step and removes the need for muddling.
Substitute Don’t Subtract
Making artisanal cocktails simpler doesn’t mean giving up the complex flavors that customers crave. It’s more about careful substitution or creatively combining key ingredients that remove a step in the cocktail creation process, but never skimps on flavor.
For example, When LaNasa was planning to roll out a Strawberry Kiwi Martini ($9.95), which included muddling kiwi, she substituted in Monin Kiwi at Sullivan’s. The Monin natural syrups have been helpful in ensuring artisan flavors without as much preparation, she explains. “They are nice syrups,” she says. In addition, she uses Perfect Puree of Napa Valley in her cocktails. “It’s something that’s ready-made with a lot of flavor,” she touts.
While Smith squeezes fresh juices to order for most cocktails, for Margaritas, she buys fresh juice to cut down the time it would take to squeeze enough juice. For example, the Royal Street Margarita ($9.95) is made with Patrón, St. Germain, fresh strawberries, lemon, lime juice and agave nectar.
Campbell touts the art of step elimination by using cross infusions. At Bolso, the Orange Pekoe ($9) is made with Grey Goose L’Orange infused with a Bay leaf, lemon and pekoe tea infused with simple syrup, served in a Martini glass rinsed with All Spice Dram Liqueur.
Campbell preaches something he calls “precision steps.” These include “stacking multiple technical cocktails at once and then shaking and stirring down the line producing four or more drinks at once. It essentially eliminates re-reaching for the same ingredients unnecessarily.” This particularly helps with service of a full room of more than 100 guests, he says.
With some training, proper preparation and creative recipes, any busy bar can churn out simple, yet flavorful artisanal cocktails. ·