Brunch is the place to be on the weekends for consumers in many cities. “It’s the thing,” says Daniel Miller, general manager of Ella Elli in Chicago. “Everyone wants to know where you’re brunching. People have a favorite spot, and they want to tell everyone where they go.”
And cocktails are a big part of brunch, as “it’s when people have a long, slow dining experience,” says Mat Snapp, beverage director of Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts.
“Daytime” drinks such as Bloody Marys and Mimosas still reign, but restaurants are coming up with inventive brunch drinks. These are often lighter in alcohol and lighter bodied—and often with a little something thrown in to quell roiling stomachs and aching heads.
“Brunch is a great time to sell cocktails, but it’s not a great time to sell dozens to each individual,” Snapp says. “People are either trying to remedy what they’ve done to themselves the night before, or they’re just trying to take the edge off their weekend. So lighter-style cocktails that go well with a meal is a nice way to do it.”
Fresh and Fun
The top-selling brunch beverage at Ella Elli is its Rosé Sangria. Priced at $10, the sangria is made with seasonal fruit, rosé, Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur and house-made lime cordial.
Miller looks for wine of decent quality, but more important, he says, is finding the rosé with the correct flavor profile. The sangria, popular year round with both men and women, “looks super elegant on the rocks,” Miller notes.
Cannon Green in Charleston, SC, sells more Bloody Marys on weekend days than any other drink. But the three-year-old restaurant has found that it needs to offer a few more options than the Bloody and Mimosas for brunch.
“People are wanting to explore,” says manager/beverage director Hilary Curry. Cannon Green sells about 50 each of its Tuscan Smash and Sunday Struggle cocktails per weekend.
The Tuscan Smash, a lighter version of the Bloody Mary made with gin, cherry tomatoes, basil syrup and Jack Rudy tonic, is “sweet and savory at the same time,” Curry says. “It’s served shaken and ‘dirty,’ with all the ingredients dumped into a glass.”
The Sunday Struggle cocktail’s ingredients change seasonally, but always includes aquavit. The spring iteration incorporated blackberries, sage and lemon, along with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur. The winter version replaced the blackberries with tangerine and sage; before that, it included a house-made ginger syrup.
“I like the idea of always having aquavit in it, but we get a lot of questions about it,” says Curry. “People often don’t know what [aquavit.] is, but it’s well liked by people who are hungover.”
Fox Restaurant Concepts’ North Italia concept, which has 13 locations and counting, offers a Ginger Vanilla Greyhound. It’s made with ginger-infused Smirnoff vodka, vanilla and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.
“People talk to me about this cocktail almost more than any other,” says Snapp says of the Ginger Vanilla Greyhound.
He attributes its popularity to the complexity of flavors. “The ginger makes it a bit spicy, and the vanilla makes it smooth and sultry, and it goes well with the brightness of grapefruit juice, which is typically a morning drink.”
Bayou Bakery in Arlington, VA, features the NOLA Swinger batched brunch cocktail. It’s made with fresh grapefruit juice, honey, jalapeño and rosemary, with bourbon added to the mix à la minute. The cocktail is served in mason jars and priced at $9.
Mimosas in Mind
Fox’s Culinary Dropout, which has six locations in three states—Arizona, Nevada and Texas—offers six brunch specialty cocktails. The Lipstick and Earrings is a version of a Mimosa, made with sloe gin (which tints it pink), fresh lemon juice, sparkling wine and orange juice.
The Capital Green incorporates sparkling wine, blanco tequila, pineapple, jalapenos and cilantro. “So it’s vegetal and bright and refreshing but also spicy,” Snapp says.
Snapp is looking to offer a passion fruit Mimosa using Passoã, a passion fruit liqueur that he says just started being distributed domestically.
Ella Elli offers a Mimosa bottle service, featuring a bottle of prosecco with a trio of fresh, seasonal juices. “We wanted a more elevated brunch,” says Miller. “Everyone does Mimosas, so we did a play on a bottle service at a club.”
The Mimosa offer is for a group, and is served on a silver platter with three juice carafes and a marble chiller for the prosecco. “You have to be committed to this; the people ordering it are those for whom brunch is the activity of the day,” Miller says.
One of the juices is always orange juice, while the others rotate with the seasons. The restaurant buys the juices in the off-season, but squeezes its own during the warmer weather.
In addition to the classic recipe, Datz in Tampa, FL, offers a Prickly Pear Mimosa ($10) made with sparkling wine, mandarin-tangerine puree, prickly pear and prickly pear candy. The restaurant has also added the Hyppo Pop Mimosa featuring local Hyppo popsicles dunked into a brandy snifter of sparkling wine. Beverage director Morgan Zuch says Datz will features two seasonal popsicle flavors at a time.
Bellinis are also popluar with brunch guests. Park on Fremont in downtown Las Vegas offered a specialty Bellini cocktail trio for Mother’s Day brunch. Priced at $20, the Bellinis came in peach, strawberry and passion fruit flavors,
Bloody Good Cocktails
Culinary Dropout’s best-selling brunch cocktail is the Bacon Bloody Mary. Bartenders infuse the vodka with bacon via fat washing: They add a cup of warm bacon drippings to a liter of vodka and freeze it. The fat freezes at the top and clarifies it when you skim it off the next day, “and the vodka comes out with a smoky, porky edge to it,” says Snapp.
The drink also contains Worcestershire sauce, lime and a spiced tomato blend, and has a slice of freshly cooked bacon as a stirrer. “The key is to get fresh bacon every 10 or 15 minutes so you get nice warm bacon in your cold drink,” Snapp explains. It’s served in a Hurricane glass, which is “perfect to let the bacon breathe.”
North Italia’s The Red Rooster is a variation on a classic Bloody Mary, “but we add an Italian digestif,” Snapp says. The digestif, Amaro Averna, contains turmeric, ginger and mint, which can help settle the imbiber’s stomach, he notes. “So by adding that, you’ve got a big, bold herbal flavor that helps you get your stomach and body in mind.”
The addition of a scoop of Parmesan cheese to the drink adds salt and fat. The restaurants garnish this drink with a small caprese salad (mozzarella, tomato, basil) on a skewer across the glass rim.
Lil’B in Washington, D.C., serves a Lil’ Bloody B, which is “a meal in itself,” says owner David Guas, who also owns Bayou Bakery. The cocktail, priced at $10, is garnished with a skewer of celery, cherry tomatoes, poached shrimp, pickled okra, lime and olives, plus a rasher of bacon that sits on the glass rim.
“Customers love it,” Guas says. “There might only be one bite out of the celery, but everything else from this garnish is gone when the glasses come back.” What’s more, the drink sells itself, generating me-too orders as it travels through the restaurant to customers.
Bayou Bakery serves a Brandy Milk Punch ($7) that’s made with half and half, vanilla-bean simple syrup and E&J brandy. The ingredients are shaken together until they froth, then are garnished with a grating of nutmeg.
This is a New Orleans classic, Guas says. “It’s important to offer both classics people recognize and feel comfortable ordering, along with new, modern drinks,” he adds.
Indeed, SoBou in New Orleans offers a burlesque brunch every Sunday, and bartender Laura Bellucci was determined to feature a milk punch. After hearing about someone infusing genever with white bread, she did a series of experiments, mixing different spirits with different cereals. The winning combination was Honey Nut Cheerios soaked in rum. Bellucci now uses that to create her signature Honey Buzz Milk Punch.
She soaks the Cheerios in rum for three to five days, then strains it and adds honey syrup, El Guapo’s holiday pie bitters and whole milk. The drink is then strained into a coup glass and garnished with cereal and ground cinnamon.
“It’s playful and silly and tastes like fancy, doctored-up cereal milk,” Bellucci says. “I thought it would be a one-hit wonder, but everyone loves it; it’s a staple.”
Priced at $8, the Honey Buzz Milk Punch is “like a drunken breakfast cocktail,” Bellucci notes. “My passion is integrating elements of food into cocktails and having an element of the unfamiliar.”
Juiced Up Java Drinks
Customers tend to look for three things at brunch: food, coffee and alcohol. Some restaurants are combining the latter two.
Guas’ two DC-area restaurants serve spiked coffees. For the Cajun Latte, heavy syrup is cooked down with cinnamon and cayenne until it’s viscous, then mixed with coffee, steamed milk and bourbon. And the Captain Chai combines Captain Morgan spiced rum with chai tea. These drinks are priced at $7 to $9.
Ella Elli’s two cold-brew cocktails are popular brunch beverages, though they are fairly strong, says Miller. The Cold Buzz ($12) features Old Forester bourbon, amaro, cold brew and demerara syrup.
“It’s an Old Fashioned meets cold brew and is a little rough around the edges,” Miller says. “The cold brew gives you the energy and the bourbon gives you the kick start.” This drink is served up in an etched Martini glass to show off its dark body and frothy head.
The Cordially Caffeinated ($11) is a sweeter coffee drink with less of a kick, containing Luxardo Amaretto and Maraschino, Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur, crème de cacao and cold brew.
Datz in Tampa, FL, offers an over-the-top cocktail called Dunk This Donut ($10) featuring local cold brew, Wild Turkey rye whiskey, black walnut bitters and Grind espresso liqueur. The ingredients are stirred together, then topped with a mini powdered donut that’s made in-house.
“We probably sell 50 to 60 of these every weekend,” says Zuch. “When somebody sees it, it catches on and people order more.”
Amanda Baltazar is a freelance writer based in the Pacific Northwest who frequently writes about food and beverages.