Fresh is the mantra of modern cocktail culture on-premise. Freshly squeezed juices; seasonal fruit purees; mixers; and house-made sours, syrups and infusions rule the bar. High-quality sodas like Fever Tree can also add to the complexity of cocktails. This ground-to-glass movement is fueled by the same impulses that have carried the farm-to-table trend on the food side of the menu. Many of the top brands of mixers, purees and sodas are following the trend and providing operators with a host of all-season advantages.
“We take a fresh approach,” asserts Stuart Melia, vice president of beverage at Chattanooga, Tenn.-based CraftWorks Restaurants & Breweries, Inc. The company operates nearly 200 restaurants under 14 different brands, including Old Chicago, Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom. “Despite our brewery craft beer focus, high-quality cocktails and wine are still a substantial part of our business,” he adds. Concepts have different price tiers but cocktails range $8 to $9.50.
“We’re very green oriented,” adds Elijah Venanzi, a bartender at 606 R&D, a recently opened restaurant in the Prospect Heights area of Brooklyn, New York. “On the food menu, we serve a lot of fresh, local produce and that carries through to our seasonal cocktails,” he adds. A current experiment is a Martini made with ramp-infused vodka (see sidebar). On the mixer side, a unique offering is a classic New York Egg Cream, spiked with Old Forester Bourbon. Cocktail prices range from $10 to $12.
DIY: Profusion of Infusions
Operators turn to premium mixers as they deliver consistency and quality throughout the year. “When I think of fresh, I think of hand juicing at the bar, we can’t do that,” says Melissa Davis, director of adult beverage for HMSHost, the Bethesda, Md.-based airport foodservice company that operates about 400 bars and restaurants serving adult beverages in about 85 airports in U.S. and Canada. “Drinks using mixers always taste the same and they are always in season,” she points out. As a concession to freshness, many HMSHost operations will use fresh citrus wedges to add a spark of flavor to cocktails. But hurdles to using more fresh products are insufficient space in airport facilities and not enough time, as travelers turn tables quickly. Prep is another concern. Davis recalls an LTO that involved fresh pineapple. “I got so much pushback from the field because of the time and labor needed to core and cut pineapples.”
Given the mix of HMSHost accounts, says Davis, “We have gone mainly the commercial mixer route.” She relies upon leading companies such as Finest Call, Master of Mixes and Monin. “We have mandated a prepared strawberry fruit puree because it seems fresher to guests than a syrup,” says the beverage director, “and we use a sweet and sour mix because it really is a premium product.” For a signature drink at its Tequileria concept, HMSHost contracted for a proprietary Bloody Mary mix incorporating Cholula Hot Sauce. “The concept is sort of affiliated with Cholula so it made sense that our Bloody Marys get that spicy kick,” points out Davis. A Skinny Margarita is also made with sugar-free syrup. “That’s another great application for mixers,” says Davis. “It’s an easy way to make low-cal drinks.”
Master mixologist Patricia Richards, at the Wynn Encore Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, who oversees 25 bars and outlets, says that she tries to use as much fresh product as possible. “Sometimes the purees offer a more consistent flavor profile and are less labor intensive.” She uses Boiron and Perfect Puree of Napa Valley. The signature Pear-A-Sol ($15), for example, blends Absolut Pears, with pear liqueur, pear puree and house-made sweet and sour. “When I create a recipe, I test whether the fresh fruit or the puree tastes best,” Richards adds.
Cheeseburger in Paradise also uses mixes and purees in many of its cocktails, says Monica McGill, vice president of beverage and training for the Tampa, Fla.-based Paradise Restaurant Group, operator of the Cheeseburger in Paradise casual dining concept. She cites the Finest Call and Monin as some of her
go-to brands. “The mixers and purees we use provide the cocktails with a great balance of flavor that complements the drink we have created,” adds the vice president.
At Craftworks, Melia will sometimes use Monin syrups to enhance flavors and provide consistency. As an example, he cites an LTO of a Watermelon Margarita that used fresh melon as the key ingredient. However, he found that the flavor would vary from one melon to the next; adding watermelon syrup to the mix ensured greater consistency. “Our focus on fresh is supplemented with high-quality mix ingredients,” he says. The company also uses organic agave nectar instead of simple syrup, because he believes that it is a healthier and more authentic sweetener in Margaritas.
One major mixer trend is the proliferation of house-made infusions with spirits and syrups by operators. They “are a great way to enhance some of the natural flavors of the spirit while complimenting it with the rich flavors from the fruit or herbs used to make infusions,” says McGill.
Cheeseburger in Paradise’s newest infusion is fresh pineapple in a blend of Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum and Skyy Infusion Ginger Vodka. The Twisted Turtle is simply the same infusion mixed with lime and sugar; and the Tsunami blends a pineapple infusion with orange, pineapple and lime juices and Blue Curaçao, topped with ginger ale. Drink prices range from $4.99 to $8.79. Infusion jars full of fresh chunks of pineapple on the back bar attract customers’ attention, says McGill and the house-made products are highlighted on the drinks list and dinner menu.
To facilitate that volume at the Wynn, Richards commands a bar kitchen to produce house-made mixers such as organic, roasted pineapple and sage puree, sparkling lemonade mixer, white and red sangrias, organic agave sour mix, various infusions as well as red jalapeño agave syrup, kumquat-Kaffir simple syrup and lemongrass-ginger simple syrup.
CraftWorks’ Bluewater Grille concept infuses vodka with hot chile peppers for use in its signature Bloody Marys. And Melia is working on a pineapple infusion now for Gordon Biersch, which when it rolls out, will be very visible on the back bar, “Because it conveys the impression of freshness,” he says.
Many operators also find that mixers can also provide a flexible shortcut for preparing premium non-alcoholic beverages for adult and underage guests alike.
Davis is launching three virgin mocktails at HMSHost. “We can charge a premium for those drinks over a soda or iced tea,” she points out. A new Berry Lemonade is a variation on a Strawberry Mint Lemonade cocktail—but minus the vodka and mint. Similarly, Davis employs agave nectar as a sweetener in many cocktails—and will be using it in the mocktails as well—such as the English Afternoon, which muddles cucumber and basil leaves with lime juice and agave syrup, topped off with tonic water.
At the CraftWorks concepts, the two most popular non-alcoholic beverages are lemonade, made from freshly squeezed juice, and a signature house-made root beer. “It’s definitely a ‘wow’ root beer experience,” exclaims Melia, “You can really tell the difference from the bottled product.”
Fresh or prepared, mixers are a crucial ingredient in the bartender’s tool kit, adding depths of flavor and nuanced accents to cocktails.
“Our goal is to create a hand-crafted cocktail list that hits all the senses and covers all the taste profiles with mixers sweet, sour or savory,” concludes Melia.