Not so long ago, bars and restaurants would need to tweak their beverage menus only occasionally, usually by adding the latest trending spirit or cocktail. As long as sales stayed steady and customers kept content, operators could focus simply on reliable execution.
Not anymore. The seasonally changing menu plays a major role in establishing a place’s cocktail bona fides today.
Beverage managers have plenty of reasons to update a cocktail menu when the seasons change. Temperature, of course, is a big one, as winter’s strong, stirred and more robust drinks don’t provide the thirst-quenching quaffability guests seek when the weather gets steamy.
There’s also the culinary desire to include briefly available fruits and vegetables. Especially at operations in which the bar is tied closely to the kitchen, drink- makers may be required to at least complement if not pair beverages with seasonally changing food menus.
And given the consumer interest in mixology, bars are under pressure to provide novel beverages to keep steady customers interested and involved. Bartenders, too, want the opportunity to stretch and explore, as well as stay on trend and in step with new and seasonal ingredients.
“We do four changes a year, in order to continue to make sure that we are innovating and developing new cocktails, and the seasons are a good way to measure the changes with the different ingredients that become available,” says John Stanton, head bartender of Chicago’s Sable Kitchen and Bar. “We try to make sure for every season we incorporate fresh ingredients as they become available.”
Given Chicago’s dramatic weather—icy, windy winters and stifling hot summers—the shifts from summer to fall and winter to spring are more dramatic than fall to winter and spring to summer.
“People’s drinking habits change: In the fall and winter in Chicago, they’re looking for things like hot toddies, egg nogs and flips, and those drinks won’t sell at all in the middle of summer,” Stanton says. “And the same is true for cocktails served on crushed ice when it gets cold.”
Sable’s recently introduced new menu has a theme as well. Inspired by the Chicago Transit Authority and fashioned after a vintage train map, the menu is split into four “lines,” each of which follows a theme.
There’s a modern cocktail line (the Metropolitan); the Brew Line for beer cocktails; the Local line (drinks made with regional products); and the Greater American Line, featuring spirits and ingredients from across the Americas.
The Brew Line in particularly speaks to warmer weather. “Beer cocktails have been on the radar for a long time, but I’ve seen relatively few bars embrace them,” Stanton says. “Since we have a well put together beer program here, I felt it was something we could do; it felt like the right time to me.”
So summery radler-style drinks provide customers with something refreshing and easy to drink on the patio. The Bohemian Blvd., for instance, adds gin, Aperol, lemon, cinnamon and Tiki bitters to a jasmine ale. “It’s a really refreshing drink, very much designed for quaffing in the summer—thirst quenching and enjoyable but complex—and perfect for our patio customers,” Stanton says.
At Blue Duck Lounge and Blue Duck Tavern at the Park Hyatt Washington in Washington, DC, the cocktail menu changes four times a year as well. As with Sable, the major changes come in the in spring and fall, with tweaks in summer and winter.
The changes reflect local drinking patterns as well as seasonality in alliance with the kitchen, says assistant manager Michael Bryan. “A lot of the ingredients we pull into the drinks come from the kitchen, and flavor profiles from what they are using. Exchange of ideas is very important for us, as is getting inspiration from kitchen.”
The DC area is well known as a big gin market in the summer, so Blue Duck’s spring menu included a set of mix-and-match Gin and Tonics. These include gins house-infused with strawberries, green almonds or cardamom and cilantro served with house-made flavored tonics, such as rhubarb and espelette, lime and pink peppercorn, or balsamic vinegar.
“In summer, DC gets steamy and gin is big here, and we’ll look at perhaps changing one of the gins, perhaps the cardamom cilantro and look for a different kind of vegetal spiciness in flavor,” Bryan says. In the fall, the mix and match offerings may move more to whiskey instead.
One of the bestsellers on the spring menu at Blue Duck has been the Palisades, made with bourbon, grapefruit and basil. The grapefruit flavors come from a simple syrup made with whole fruit rather than just juice—a technique learned from the Blue Duck’s chefs that creates more complex flavors—with the basil muddled into that drink. Other seasonal drinks include the Lady Bird (gin, rosemary, pineapple, verjus and house grenadine); and the 1872 (Bombay Sapphire gin, Lillet Rose, Averna, Carpano Antica, Campari and thyme.)
Sushi Samba’s locations in New York, London, Las Vegas, Miami Beach and London may be in the same hemisphere, but the weather is quite different. So the London-based head of spirit and cocktail development Richard Woods makes more subtle changes.
“What would typically be a summer ingredient for New York might not be for London, and so we work with the kitchen and what they are working toward and see if we can pair drinks with similar flavors,” says Woods.
Peas to Meet You
Sushi Samba’s spring menu for New York, introduced in May, included seven new cocktails that are ingredient focused rather than based on a particular style of preparation.
For example, the Snow Pea GnT, is made with snow pea- and edamame-infused gin, simple syrup and tonic. “This is about having a fresher and lighter direction to the menu, and the snow pea edamame GnT is a cracker of a drink—a lighter and fresher style of drink to emphasize the seasonal changes, not just the ingredients,” Woods says
He likes working with classics that customers can identify but throwing in changes that take the drinks in new directions, such as the Shishito Pepper Caipirinha and the Miso Mule, made with miso sugar, lime, coconut cream and ginger ale.
“Sometimes some of the best drinks in the world have just been too much of a stretch for people to get their heads around,” Woods says. “It’s better to start from the classics, and things they know.”
Peas seem to be a favorite in recent spring drinks. At Dante in New York, Naren Young offered the Spring 2016, made with Ford’s gin, manzanilla sherry, absinthe, St. Germain, lime juice, lemon thyme syrup, verjus and muddled snap peas, finished with a nasturtium leaf.
The Lighter Side
Drink program changes at Forgery and Wildhawk, both owned by Plumpjack Group, changes tend to be subtle, says Jacques Bezuidenhout (pictured atop, left), who with Ken Luciano (atop, right) directs the beverage programs. That’s largely due the San Francisco location and the Bay Area’s mercurial weather.
“It’s slightly more difficult for us on the West Coast to do a full sort of change,” Bezuidenhout explains. “Even in February this year, we were having 70-degree days and today [in late May] it’s freezing. It’s tricky to manage seasonality differently.”
Bezuidenhout aims for more stylistic changes, to the lighter side with more highballs and long drinks. At Forgery, which opened just over a year ago, about half the 15 drinks on the menu change based on the season. The Delicious Sour, made with Calvados, apricot liqueur, lemon and egg white, is a customer favorite that Bezuidenhout has to keep on the menu year round.
Part of the approach this spring was to include more low-alcohol ingredients—sherries and vermouth in particular—that add light and bright flavors. The Gran Cobbler, for one, is made with Gran Lusso vermouth, raspberries, absinthe and lime.
Wildhawk opened in April, so no serious changes are planned for the summer. But the spring menu included more clear spirits—gins, tequilas, rum and vodka in light, fresh drinks as well as lower-alcohol beverages.
Though it has a small bar with a condensed spirit selection, Bezuidenhout wanted Wildhawk to offer a great vermouth selection and a cocktail page dedicated to lighter vermouth cocktails. “We have one (Hip Hops, with Martini Ambrato vermouth, grapefruit, pineapple gum and hops) that customers love especially, because they can have two or three of them without worrying about too much alcohol,” he notes.