Bartender’s Choice: “Fruity, But Not Too Sweet”

In "Bartender's Choice," we challenge some of our favorite bartenders with a drink order, and see what they come up with. This round: Erick Castro, Julian Cox and Dave Fernie and Mary Bartlett take on something "fruity, but not too sweet."

Fruity Not Too Sweet

Not unlike the call for “something spicy, with tequila,” the request for a fruity drink—specifically one that’s not too sweet—is so common that it can verge on cliché. When done right, it yields a balanced drink that’s easy one to throw back, whether it’s fresh and bright, studded with berries or citrus, or creamy and tropical with a tiki bent. But as something of an entry-level call—often issued by drinkers still developing a vocabulary to match their palate—it can pose a unique challenge to bartenders. The vagueness of “fruity, but not too sweet,” often requires either making something with widespread appeal or digging deeper into the request. 

“When someone asks for something fruity, I first ask what kind of fruit they’re looking for,” says Erick Castro of San Diego’s Polite Provisions, who often questions novice drinkers about their favorite candies to get a better sense of the flavors they’d like to see in their glass. “If someone says, ‘Sour Patch Kids,’” he explains, “then they want something tart but still fruity, so you could make them a Bramble.” His favorite drink for the call, however, relies on almost no fresh fruit at all; instead, the Bunny Lebowski conjures up those flavors with fruit-forward raspberry brandy alongside pisco and Aperol, all shaken with lemon and served on the rocks.

Other bartenders look to a genre that’s all about the fruit. At Chicago’s tiki lounge, Three Dots and a Dash, beverage director Julian Cox often turns to the classic blend of sweet liqueur and fresh juice—in this case, créme de pêche and pineapple juice—alongside nitro-muddled mint for a modern take on a tiki classic, the Missionary’s Downfall. “I love the combination of bone-dry rum and sweeter flavors like peach and honey,” he says of the combination, which is garnished, fittingly, with a pineapple wedge.

Dave Fernie and Mary Bartlett, the duo behind LA’s disco-inspired Honeycut, also riff on the tiki template: their Sidereal builds on a base of strawberry and coconut cream, topped with sweetened oloroso sherry and three types of rum.

As for the call, they explain that creating a drink that’s both balanced and fruity is a lot like writing a good pop song: “Bear in mind that 99 percent of the people consuming it just want to be like, ‘Tight! That went down easy,’” explain Fernie and Bartlett, “but you also have to build in those talking points for…cocktail lovers so they feel like the boundaries are being pushed.”