Can a Menu Map the Experience of a Cocktail?

A handful of bars are turning the concept of the written menu on its head, relying instead on illustrations to narrative prose to explain the experience of a cocktail. Tyler Wetherall on the new wave of alternative menus.

In designing his bar’s latest cocktail menu, Remy Savage, of Paris’s Little Red Door, set out to explore a relatively simple question: If two people can experience the same flavor journey in a cocktail, how do you transmit that experience from one person to another?

Feeling that the conventional written lists often seemed either inadequate or pedantic, listing dozens of ingredients as if a cocktail can be described as the sum of its parts, Savage sought an alternative.

“Words are all that’s ever been used to translate a flavor journey,” says Savage. “By using words you’re going to use the rational, intelligent part of you, but we wanted to speak to the very raw, sensual part.”

What the team came up with was what they call the Evocative Menu—an 11-page list with an illustration per page, each by a different artist, and no words.

During the development process, each artist was invited by Little Red Door to sample one of the 11 drinks, intentionally composed of suggestive flavors, with the brief to capture any feelings, emotions or images that are evoked by the drink. It was an unintentional consequence that the image also worked as a visual prompt—or what Savage describes as an “intellectual garnish,” stimulating the “imagination journey” you go on while drinking. 

One of the illustrations, for example, is a landscape in aquamarine tones, a surreal Japanese Zen garden with figures reclining in the treetops. “I felt like resting in a mysterious and tranquil place with no one else around,” says the Hong Kong-based artist Emily Chau. “In that moment, I was filled with many small thoughts, which is why you can find several of me in the image itself.”

The drink Chau responded to is a boundary-pushing combination of green flint and mertensia maritima (oysterleaf) cooked up sous vide with a neutral spirit and a touch of sugar, then stirred with Star of Bombay gin. The result is a softer, more botanical take on a dry Martini, with a hint of the sea.

Ultimately, Savage’s Evocative Menu offers a radical solution to a common problem faced by all bartenders: How do you translate the aesthetic, sensory experience of drinking a cocktail into a series of words that is meaningful to the average drinker?

“You’re trying to convey a really subjective feeling to another human being,” says London bartender Ryan Chetiyawardana. “Over my life I have done thousands of tastings, so I have been able to start, through exposure, to identify and communicate what I am tasting and experiencing. If you’re not part of that world, how can you do that?” 

The English language has a surprisingly limited number of words that primarily describe taste, leaving us to use metaphor and simile or to borrow words—like “grassy” or “robust”—from elsewhere. What’s more, most people learn the cocktail vernacular in a haphazard way, through articles, menus and discussing drinks among friends, where we don’t necessarily develop our ability to assess and describe flavor. Our values, our memories, our cultural background all come in to play when reading through a menu, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

“Probably the most important question I ask [a guest], which speaks to the language gap, is if there are any flavors or ingredients I cannot under any circumstances put in their drink,” says Joaquín Simó, partner and bartender at New York’s Pouring Ribbons. “People don’t have the vocabulary to talk about what they like, but everyone knows what they hate.”

Simó bridges this communication barrier at Pouring Ribbons by using simple flavor maps. On the latest Silk Road menu, the 24 available cocktails are displayed on two axes: “adventurous” versus “comforting” and “spirituous” versus “refreshing,” words that most people are comfortable using within their everyday vocabulary.

The first drink on the list, The Painted Veil, consists of “Scottish Toffee Pu-Ehr Tea-Infused Beefeater Gin, Lustau Don Nuno Oloroso Sherry, Brovo Simó/Wallace Amaro and Hong Kong Baiju.” Even the most seasoned drinkers might find it hard to pin down the flavor profile of the drink. But on the flavor map The Painted Veil sits deep in the “spirituous” and “adventurous” corner, which, other characteristics aside, helps to orient the drinker’s expectations.

“This is a visual representation of the conversation any bartender worth their salt would have with their guest,” says Simó. “It’s going to be weird and boozy, and unless you want to go by our definition of weird and boozy, you better steer clear.”

The menus at Pouring Ribbons have developed from originally being seasonal to now being conceptual (the previous iteration was themed on Route 66). The more abstract the concept becomes, the more some form of guide or map is needed.

Many of the deviations from conventional cocktail lists that we’re seeing today exist for the same reason. Now that cocktails are pulling from an ever larger array of spirits, infusions and fresh ingredients—many of them unfamiliar—it’s necessary to find new ways to communicate what these drinks are actually going to taste like. Or, at the very least, prime the drinker for something outside of their comfort zone.

Take the botanical menu at Chetiyawardana’s London bar Dandelyan. On the back page, it provides a “comparative guide” placing the cocktails across a horizontal timeline from “morning” to “night” and on a vertical axis of “light” to “rich,” which communicates the fundamentals of the drinks. But in the main body of the menu, the description takes a more narrative approach. The 13th Century Boy, for example, is classified as a late morning “pick-me-up,” but under its listed ingredients the text reads: “The mummification rituals of the 18th dynasty of ancient Egypt (C13th BC – them some old mummies) provided some of the best-preserved examples of their kings and queens. Many of these techniques are still applicable, and preserve food like they did bodies.”

This blurb, besides being an interesting talking point, explains the name and inspiration behind the cocktail. It conjures the mysticism and magic of ancient Egypt, which might appeal more to the customer than the listed ingredients: “Martin Miller’s Gin, palm & pine embalming cordial, mummified citrus.” But more than that, it is clearly signaling that this cocktail isn’t your run-of-the-mill Martini.

Taking a similar narrative approach, the lofty menu at London’s Oriole feels like an Enlightenment travelogue, spanning the “Old World,” “New World” and “The Orient,” complete with zoological drawings and a glossary of rare terms. The text beneath the Karachi Sour, for one, reads: “There are whole countries not so populous as this city, not so bustling and clamorous, not so lit with life. For this is the infinite city, a swirling nexus of millions and their dreams. Their voices surge and swell like the tides that made Karachi; that will keep making it.”

The menu’s function is no longer solely to translate the taste of each cocktail. Much like the illustrations in Little Red Door’s Evocative Menu, the text and imagery become part of our drinking experience, which begins from the moment we sit down and flick through the menu’s pages until we’ve finished our last sip—the words playing a much bigger part than simply describing our drink.