Cocktail drinkers who don’t know exactly what they want provide opportunities for well-trained bartenders and servers to introduce them to combinations they didn’t know they liked.
Oftentimes a guest who likes a certain drink is not aware that he or she may prefer something similar but more interesting, according to several beverage managers and bartenders. Good staff training can make the difference between a ho-hum and an outstanding cocktail experience.
“What we see now is very different from five years ago, with the idea of the artisanal model,” says consultant Tad Carducci, beverage director/partner of Chicagobased Mercadito Hospitality. “We talk about how a brand is produced, its place of origin and the story behind it.”
The more personalized a recommendation, the more apt you are to upsell on brands, Carducci notes. “Craft brands bring value in a lot of ways for their uniqueness and proprietary value.”
At Bourbon House in New Orleans,a Dickie Brennan & Co. restaurant, bartenders will suggest brands produced within 100 miles of town, says beverage manager Barry Himel. The operator also trains bar staff to help customers choose from its vast selection of more than 100 American whiskeys.
A best-selling cocktail at Bourbon House is the New Fashioned. This update on a classic Old Fashioned changes seasonally, depending on what local fruit is ripe. In summer, for instance, the Bourbon cocktail is garnished with fresh peaches from North Louisiana.
Many guests are reluctant to try a $12 cocktail they may not know, says Karen Baker. So to encourage them to take that risk, the head bartender at Tortoise Club in Chicago tells customers that if they don’t like the drink, it’s on her.
Has she had to buy a lot of drinks? “I never once had anyone tell me they didn’t like it,” Baker says. It helps that Tortoise Club makes all of its own syrups and juices fresh fruits daily, she notes.
One popular cocktail she may recommend to a customer who likes Mojitos is The South Side. Originally introduced by The 21 Club in New York, this drink contains a floral gin, simple syrup, lemon juice and mint.
Baker is especially keen to promote gin to try to overcome customer misconceptions about the spirit. Many guests don’t see the spirit’s potential beyond the original Martini and Gin and Tonic, she says.
Bourbon House uses chalkboards to highlight the Bourbons it offers, which include those from small and more obscure distilleries, as well as household names. The chalkboards also promote membership in the restaurant’s New Orleans Bourbon Society.
Sales of a featured Bourbon often show a 20% increase over other brands during the promotion, says marketing manager Wesley Noble Janssen. The price difference in all categories of liquor at Bourbon House can be as much as $3 higher for a premium brand vs. a well brand.
“We never want to upsell to the point that people don’t see the value in the drink,” Noble Janssen says. And staffers do not recommend liquors based on price, he notes.
Living Room at the W South Beach hotel in Miami Beach tries to stand out by using premium liquors, says manager Liko Miles. “People are becoming more savvy about the things they put in their bodies and want more naturally based ingredients, whether it’s in their food or their drinks.”
One signature cocktail at Living Room is the Waverly Place Echo. The drink, which sells for $16, is made with mandarin-infused vodka, Chinese 5-spice simple syrup, lemon juice and a dash of seltzer water and garnished with pomegranate seeds, mandarin orange slices and kaffir lime leaves. “For us, it is about giving our guests the best quality and value,” Miles says.
But it’s also about giving the guests what they what. “Of course, we always get the occasional drinker insisting on a specific brand and drink, so we accommodate,” Miles says.
Carolyn Walkup is a well-traveled beverage and food writer based in Chicago.