Creating a drink that reflects a location’s style, specialty, and sensibility doesn’t need to be difficult. There are many ways to incorporate a unique signature cocktail into your drinks menu–both for independents and chain operators.
Whether it’s a seasonal selection of drinks, signature cocktail on the menu or a drink designed specifically for a one-time event or holiday, expanding on the everyday drink menu offers an opportunity to experiment and create a truly unique offering.
“It’s important to give your customers something to talk about, something that tells them you’re the only place they can get a certain experience,” says Herb Westphalen, owner of SignatureCocktailCreations.com. “Every signature cocktail should be that unique selling proposition.”
Westphalen began creating cocktails because he was unimpressed by the drinks served at catered events. “I didn’t want to serve sweet drinks with savory food,” he says, “so I started coming up with cocktails using fresh herbs and spices–something appropriate to fit people’s flavor profile.” Since then, he’s created custom cocktails for independent restaurants, special events and holidays, focusing on everything from color palette to glass type to presentation to create memorable drinks.
Since then, Westphalen has created custom cocktails for restaurants,
special events and holidays, focusing on everything from color palette to glass
type to presentation to create memorable drinks. Where do you start when developing a signature drink?
“You want to make a visual statement, but you also can’t get crazy and do things that don’t work,” Westphalen says. “If you’re going to serve a Martini-style cocktail, put it in a Martini glass. Don’t put Champagne in a tumbler; make it appropriate. If you’re doing something with a creative edge, don’t be afraid to go outside the box, but always make it appropriate.”
Pleasing the guest isn’t the only benefit of offering signature drinks on the menu: The bar staff appreciates creative freedom to develop unique cocktails.
“Specialty drink creation is probably the most fun a bartender can have on a slow day or a day off,” says Nathan DeWitt, mixologist and owner of Half Time in Dallas. “When the concoction has perfect taste, balance and presentation, a bartender is proud to make it and sell it, which elevates their confidence and the quality of the bar they’re working behind.”
That said, it’s easy to overdo the creativity. “It’s a slippery slope,” DeWitt says. “You don’t want a cocktail menu that’s all dry ice and homemade tinctures, but you don’t want to be promoting mudslides either.”
“Specialty cocktails should primarily call attention to the overall beverage program,” says Allen Katz, director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine and Spirits. “If you have wine and beer, there’s no reason not to have well-made cocktails. A specialty drink list is the easiest way to demonstrate that to customers.”
FRESH AND SIMPLE
Katz sees two hurdles most operators need to overcome when embracing signature cocktails: ingredients and training.
“You need to be committed to real ingredients, specifically fresh juice,” Katz says. “You can’t just put a nice picture on a menu and see how it sells. Good drinks need not be complicated, but quality ingredients are instrumental in consistently good-tasting cocktails.”
Training employees in how to consistently make and present the drink can be as important as what goes inside the glass. “Especially at a chain level, training is difficult because of the sheer number of employees, but even though it’s difficult you need to ensure everyone gets the same message.”
One way to alleviate that problem is to stay away from cocktail menus with too many drinks on them, something all three mixologists recommend. “Limit the number of drinks, and make sure they taste damn good, Katz says.
Kepping the signature cocktails to one or two on a menu, along with rotating seasonla offerins, is more than enough for most independent restaurants.
Signature cocktails can help tell a story about the bar or restaurant, and show off a bartenders’ creativity. But they need to create a memorable experience for the guest to truly hit the mark.
“A signature cocktail should be entertaining and a performance piece,” Westphalen says. “I love the idea of taking things to the next level creatively–but I also want to entertain.”