Whether you call them “Bartender’s Choice,” “Dealer’s Choice” or “Tender’s Whim,” personalized cocktails offer an intriguing gamble to customers, and a willing challenge for bartenders. For operators who can make the concept work, custom-created concoctions draw the guest into the bartending experience, and give the venue a chance to flex its mixology muscles.
The menu at Eleven Madison Park, an 80-seat contemporary American restaurant in New York’s Flatiron District, includes a line that says “Bartender’s Choice: Allow us to tailor a cocktail to your tastes.” Unless guests choose to continue the conversation, head bartender Jim Betz and staff focus on three straightforward questions to glean the perfect sip: spirit preference, shaken and refreshing or stirred and boozy, and aversions or allergies.
“Guests love the experience, and feel more ownership to the cocktails,” notes Betz. The Bartender’s Choice concept especially appeals to Eleven Madison Park regulars. “I know their preferences and just start making a drink when I see them come through the door,” he says. “Or if they change it up, I’ll wait to see what they are feeling today.”
The personalized cocktails cost $16, but if a specific spirit is requested, there is a $3 surcharge. Custom cocktails are Eleven Madison Park’s most-popular drinks options, comprising 40% of all cocktail sales.
What’s your fancy?
Most bars start the process by engaging guests in a conversation about cocktail preferences and aversions. Park Restaurant and Bar, a 160-seat modern neighborhood eatery and nightspot in Cambridge, MA, offers an $11 “Tender’s Whim” option.
The menu description for the “Tender’s Whim” drinks states “Feeling Adventurous? Feel free to tell us about yourself.” Bartenders will inquire about a guest’s predilection for spirit category, type of sip (refreshing or boozy) and ingredient aversions.
Park bar manager Chris Balchum has also discovered that preferred glassware can quite be telling. Asking a customer if he or she is “looking for something in a cocktail glass versus a highball can really give you a sense of what style of drink a guest wants,” he says. Added to the menu in early 2013, “Tender’s Whim” quickly became the restaurant’s top-selling drink, Balchum says. They seem to appeal to all demographics and now account for 20% to 25% of all cocktail sales.
Founding Farmers, a farm-to-table American restaurant and craft cocktail bar, with two locations in the Washington, D.C. area (and another slated to open in the fall), has been offering personalized “Dealer’s Choice” drinks for more than four years. “The concept started as an opportunity to showcase the bar’s depth of knowledge, and to give our loyal fans a little something extra they could enjoy,” says beverage director/chief mixologist Jon Arroyo.
Along with gaining an idea of guests’ spirit preference and the type of tipple they usually order, bartenders at Founding Farmers will also poll their penchant for something sweet, sour or savory. They will then draw on the bar’s 200-recipe database to, as Arroyo puts it, “create something spectacular that fits the flavor profile or mood that the guest is in.”
Founding Farmers guests love the option, and it has garnered buzz around town. “Dealer’s Choice” drinks account for 10% of the operator’s cocktail sales.
An intriguing liquid journey
Balchum sees two major benefits of personalized cocktails. For one thing, they present a perfect opportunity to introduce guests to the unfamiliar ingredients behind the bar that appear on drinks menus.
If a customer perusing a bar menu sees an unknown ingredient listed in a description of a drink whose other components sound appealing, he or she may end up being disappointed by the outcome. “But being able to take what a guest tells you they like and make something unique for them takes a lot of the pressure off thinking about whether or not they’ll be happy with their decision,” Balchum says.
Second, when the bartender steers the customer in a certain direction while still allowing the guest to have input into the final product, it results in an eye-opening, intriguing liquid journey. “It makes a great guest experience to offer them a progression of drinks during the course of their night—taking what they have been drinking and modeling their next cocktail off of it,” Balchum says.
Drinks menus at ambitious craft cocktail bars can be intimidating, with unfamiliar ingredients and lots of choices. The “Bartender’s Choice” option at The Gin Joint was designed to address this. “Our menu can sometimes be a little overwhelming; [this] allows people to enjoy and learn about what we are doing in an unintimidating manner,” says Jared Lane, bar manager for the 54-seat pre-Prohibition cocktail bar in Charleston, SC.
Guests at The Gin Joint select two descriptors from a list of 16: refreshing, tart, savory, fruit, strong, spicy, sweet, fizzy, licorice, herbal, vegetal, non-alcoholic, bitter, unusual, floral and smoky. A bartender then makes a drink that falls into that flavor category.
The $10 drink is wildly popular, and responsible for about 60% of The Gin Joint’s cocktail sales. “Guests love it. They get excited because it’s different, and it gives them some control in the final product,” says Lane.
It also allows The Gin Joint to vastly expand its cocktail offerings. “We can’t have a cocktail menu with two hundred drinks, but the ‘Bartender’s Choice’ allows us to pull from a large library of cocktails…which makes our menu fun and interactive.”
Lane says the concept’s biggest benefit is that it keeps things interesting. “We stay hungry to learn cool new drinks and share them with guests.”
Most challenging is getting stuck in a rut and turning to the same recipes again and again, especially when the bar gets busy. Continuously rotating the house-made ingredients—from violet cordial to smoked maple syrup—allows The Gin Joint to keep things fresh.
Getting it right
A bartender’s choice option offers many benefits, but they can pose several challenges as well. “The hardest is when people say they like everything, and refuse to give any preferences whatsoever,” notes Betz. “You are shooting blind.”
Indeed, the “Tender’s Whim” inspires some guests at Park to leave it all up to the bartender. But Balchum prefers a little more direction.
“Some guests tell us to just go wild, but we’d rather not take a shot in the dark,” Balchum says. “It’s always nice if guests can tell you about a recent cocktail they had that they really liked, even if it was one at another bar.”
That’s why staffers need adequate training about the program, as well as buy-in about the philosophy and the process of creating drinks that are subject to change with every guest, every time.
Providing plenty of reference material helps bartenders get better at matching drinks to guests. Park stores several industry books behind the bar, as well as an ever-expanding, 30-page recipe book stocked with classics, house creations and popular sips at other bars around town.
Balchum also requires new bartenders to focus on drink recipes from the house recipe book until they get more comfortable, rather than invent their own. “This teaches them recipes and allows them to straw-taste classics.”
It may seem tempting to take a “sky’s the limit” approach and offer an endless amount of options, but Arroyo cautions against being too liberal with the number of drink recipes in a bar’s arsenal. He recommends having a list of go-to cocktails based on spirit categories and flavor profiles—and ensuring that all bartenders know how to make each of them.
Personalized cocktails can cost more to execute. Because they require conversations with guests, they take time, so they might not work for high-volume bars.
And when trying to make sure that a Bartender’s Choice drink appeals to a guest, you could be running up costs. Balchum suggests pricing personalized cocktails $1 to$2 more than other drinks.
“Remember that for every higher-end spirit or cordial you put into a drink, you’re going to make many more with your well spirits and citrus juices.” He points out that operators can still create fantastic drinks with lower-end spirits.
Take the basic Daiquiri, which can be shaken with different kinds of rums, and often flies under the radar for many guests, Balchum notes. “You’d be surprised at how many people have never had a classic Daiquiri!”
Above all, Arroyo says, you need to understand guests’ requests. “The challenge is really listening to what the guests want, and making something that suits them and suits the drinks program at the same time.” The greatest benefits to such a program, he says, “are guest satisfaction and culinary integrity.”
Betz agrees: Remember that it’s not about you. “Bartenders need to leave their ego at the door, and be able to remove themselves and their preferences from what the guests are asking for.”
The Varnish Takes a Shine to Classic Cocktails
The Varnish, a 45-seat Los Angeles bar operated by the 15-concept 213 Nightlife, has offered a “Bartender’s Choice” option since it opened five years ago. But all custom libations at The Varnish are classics or variations on classics—none are conceived on the fly. “We never improvise cocktails—the choice is always from our compendium of recipes to ensure consistency,” explains general manager Max Seaman.
Bartenders initiate a conversation with adventurous guests to get a feel for their preferences by first asking to which style of cocktail they are generally drawn: one with fresh citrus juice that’s shaken (such as a Daiquiri or a Sidecar) or one that’s more spirit-forward and stirred (like a Martini or Manhattan.) Follow-up questions ascertain guests’ preferred spirit preference and flavor profile.
“Managing expectations can be a challenge, since everyone has a different frame of reference when it comes to cocktails,” notes Seaman. “Some guests are expecting wild concoctions with rare ingredients and liquid nitrogen, and what they get here is a straightforward classic.” He addresses this by training staff to explain that The Varnish views a well-made cocktail as part of a social experience, not as the destination itself.
Bartender’s Choice cocktails, which cost $13 at The Varnish, appeal to anyone who’s interested in discovering something new, says Seaman. “It’s fun for guests and helps demystify things for people who aren’t familiar with classic cocktail bars.”