Home bars are all the rage, as cocktail lovers attempt to recreate at home the well-crafted drinks they sip at bars and restaurants. Venues are capitalizing on this trend by giving guests the chance to dabble in bartending through promotions including build-your-own Bloody Mary bars and create-your-own-cocktail stations. Operators who feature DIY mixology were more than happy to speculate on its appeal for their patrons, describe how guests use the available ingredients to craft drinks differently, explain how alcohol regulations factor into this type of promotion and offer logistical tips for setting up a successful build-your-own beverage bar.
“Bringing cocktails to the people,” is how Erik Holzherr describes his “Choose Your Own Adventure” drinks program at FruitBat. The owner of the 40-seat cozy bar with a South American coffee shop vibe in Washington, D.C. (who also operates nearby Wisdom and Church & State) especially encourages experimentation during slower times early in the week.
“We keep the formula simple, and show the power and importance of fresh ingredients.” Bartenders fill a glass with a preferred base spirit—gin, vodka, rum or whiskey—as well as an herbal, bitter or fruity modifier, like Aperol, Crème de Cassis or St. Germaine. Guests then have their pick of mixers, spices, garnishes and sweeteners at a station similar to that found at a coffee shop. Each customized creation costs $8; drinks upgraded to a premium base spirit cost $10. “The concept empowers the customer and gives them real options and a real knowledge of drinks, rather than just following the proven formula of what sells well in every other bar,” explains Holzherr.
Holzherr notes that logistics and legal considerations are also present with rolling out this type of drinks concept. Depending on the jurisdiction, the guest may not be permitted to physically add any ingredient containing alcohol, so a well-trained staff that can pour accurately and consistently is a must. “A simple cocktail formula can yield hundreds of variations, but correct ratios are most important.” While not accurately measuring ingredients and using too much alcohol can both easily ruin a drink, so can adding too much sweetener. FruitBat places the agave, honey and simple syrup at the end of the self-serve station, so customers can sample their creation before sweetening it.
Keeping it Simple
While a wide selection of ingredients can translate to endless cocktail variations for the guest, it can also be overwhelming. Offering the chance to create riffs on one type of libation may make mixology more manageable. Before recently closing for extensive renovations, the Asian-inspired, 322-seat Silks Restaurant at the 158-room Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco featured bottomless, create-your-own Champagne cocktails for Sunday brunch. For $20, guests had a choice of two Champagnes, as well as a table stocked with sugar cubes, bitters, lemon twists, Crème de Cassis, muddled berries and pineapple.
Perhaps the best- known and most frequently executed make-your-own-cocktail concept involves another brunch favorite. During Sunday brunch at the 138-seat Paramour Restaurant in the 40-room historic Wayne Hotel in Wayne, Pennsylvania, bartenders provide guests with their choice of either vodka or tequila before turning them loose on a self-serve Bloody Mary Bar. The laundry list of components includes twenty hot sauces, pickled vegetables, marinated shrimp, freshly grated horseradish and house made beef jerky. The cocktails cost $10 to $14, depending on the base spirit.
Almost a year and a half ago, Poste Moderne Brasserie, a 176-seat modern French brasserie operated by the San Francisco-based Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, started offering a build-your-own Bloody Mary bar and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “Everyone seems to love using the infused spirits and house made garnishes and sauces,” notes head bartender Jason Wiles. Guests start with regular vodka, or one of three infused varieties crafted in-house: horseradish and chili, garlic and habanero, or—the most popular—bacon.
Wiles has always enjoyed a savory Bloody Mary during weekend brunch, but was often disheartened by messy, poorly re-stocked DIY stations at restaurants. For his own Bloody Mary bar at Poste, he strives to offer quality products—and lots of them. “Keep it fresh, keep it stocked, keep it clean!” he says. “And most of all, think about what you would want when you go out to a bar.” For him, that means plenty of bacon to adorn the tomato-tinged tipples.
Poste’s Bloody Mary station boasts a bevy of house-made components, including hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, pickled cucumbers, ramps and okra. Garnishes run the gamut from Ancho chili powder, soy sauce and olive juice to cucumber and Cayenne pepper. “It seems as if every person’s Bloody Mary looks different from the person next to them!” Each cocktail is $8.
Carefully Tailoring a Cocktail
That touch of personalization has immense appeal for guests, many of whom revel in the pouring, sprinkling and dashing. But Poste also makes it easy for guests unsure of amounts to use, or who don’t know where to begin. A bottle of ready-to-pour house made Bloody Mary mix sets next to one of regular tomato juice, and chef Dennis Marron’s favorite Bloody Mary recipe is also displayed as a cheat sheet.
Operators wishing to let guests try their hand at mixology may find that seeking out a sponsorship from a spirits company helps to offset costs: FruitBat works with Cruzan rums and Poste exclusively uses Ketel One vodkas as the base for their Bloody Mary Bar.
Holzherr also offers up some additional logistically tips for self-server stations. Staff must be well-trained at mixing and balancing ingredients, must understand and embrace the concept and really need to be patient with guests. Finally he says, “You have to stock the bar with fun and exciting ingredients that will be able to take a base spirit on all different [and something uncharted] paths.”