While cocktail bar competition has heated up, there is a lower barrier to entry for starting or improving a craft beverage program, according to mixologist Charles Joly. A force behind Chicago cocktail hot spots such as The Aviary and a founder of bottled drinks brand Crafthouse Cocktails, Joly noted how the industry has changed during a May 23 presentation at the National Restaurant Association’s BAR event.
When Joly was opening up The Drawing Room in 2007, for instance, cocktail books hadn’t been written, and products weren’t available. There were just a few vermouths on the market, and Angostura was the only bitters.
The Angostura didn’t get much use, either, Joly said: The joke was the bitters bottle was something you bought with the bar and sold with the bar, “unless someone had the hiccups.”
It’s much easier to start a craft cocktail program today, he noted. The information, tools and products are more readily available, and consumers are more open to “cocktails with challenging flavors an textures.” Here are some of his tips for developing or improving a craft program.
1) Begin with fresh citrus and sugar. The first step is fresh-squeezed juices and house-made simple syrups, Joly said.
The base for sour drinks is spirit, citrus and sweetener. And 85% of the cocktails out there are fancy sours, including the Daiquiri and the Margarita, he added.
2) Master some simple, classic cocktails. The Daiquiri, for instance, has been turned into “a frozen, beat-up cocktail,” Joly said. But the traditional recipe is easy and delicious: 2 oz. white rum, 1 oz. citrus and ¾ oz. simple syrup; shake with ice, strain into a chilled coupe.
3) Start with just a few specialties. Aim to offer “thoughtful, interesting cocktails to guests,” Joly said. You should check on what your chef is using in the kitchen—maybe there’s a way to incorporate it into the bar. But go slow: You might begin with a chalkboard list offering just three cocktails and test to see what works.
4) Price it right. “I never want cost to be a factor when someone chooses a drink,” Joly noted. But you should treat your bar inventory as the chef does in the kitchen and be mindful of par levels, cost of goods and margins.
Depending on your margin goal, if you have a $1.50 pour cost, you can charge $8 for a drink, said Joly, noting that the national average price for a cocktail is $11 to $12. If you use special ice, garnishes or spirits, build the extra cost into the drink price.
5) Make your own modifers. Fresh citrus is important, but when other fruits are out of season, you can get creative and use jams, teas and shrubs (drinking vinegars), Joly said. If there’s produce in the kitchen that’s about to go bad, make a shrub or syrup with it and use it in your cocktail program.
6) Adjust drinks to customers’ tastes. Kitchen chefs don’t get to watch the customer take the first bite and see the reaction, Joly said; bartenders do. And as front-of-house staff, bartenders have the chance to save the interaction if the guest doesn’t like the drink, for instance, by adding another quarter ounce of simple syrup if a drink is too tart.
7) Keep up on trends. Craft cocktails have not only moved out of niche markets and well into the mainstream, they’ve gone beyond the bars and into consumers’ homes, Joly said. “Operators need to be the resource for the guests on trends—they can’t be behind what the guests know.”