The Craft Cocktail Menu Gets Conceptual

Rather than simply changing with the seasons, some notable cocktail bars are adopting menus that adhere to a (often intangible) theme, like Route 66 or Civil War treason, where the drinks are part of the narrative. Robert Simonson on the rise of the "concept menu" and what's inspiring it.

What does Route 66 taste like? What combination of spirits and modifiers best evokes Delaware? How best to toast Civil War treason?

These are some of the questions America’s cutting-edge bartenders have been wrestling with recently as the cocktail renaissance enters the concept-menu era.

Over the past decade, it’s been an article of faith in craft cocktail circles that a bar’s menu must turn over a few times a year. A regularly rotating selection of new cocktails indicates to the customer that a bar is brimming with ideas and imagination and has not become stagnant. Typically, these menu flips are dictated by a change in the weather. The first frost calls for warming whiskey drinks and hearty recipes that ask for fortifying milk and eggs. With spring, the farmer’s market, bursting with new produce, inspires a fresh crop of cocktails. And so forth.

Recently, however, a smattering of cocktail bars across the country have thrown the calendar out the window, in favor of something more cerebral and intangible. After three years of season-driven lists, New York’s Pouring Ribbons this fall unveiled a menu inspired by Route 66, the fabled road that led Depression-era Okies to green pastures in California. In November, Houston’s Julep launched a menu titled “Trading With the Enemy,” in which every drink tells a story of illicit trade between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, while fellow Houston bar Spare Key, which opened in March, currently boasts a cocktail to represent every state in the U.S.

Other bars have it engrained in their DNA: LA’s The Walker Inn, which flung wide its hidden door in May, has been dedicated to the concept menu approach from the outset. Its first list was devoted to the points of interest along the Pacific Coast Highway, with cocktails inspired by everything from Sonoma County (which drink has, as its base, a chardonnay from the Russian River Valley) to the fast food chain In-N-Out Burger (a shake-like drink with potato sticks on the side).

The current concept, “Christmas Scoundrels,” draws from sketchy yuletide figures like Dean Martin (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” etc.). “We loved the idea of imagining what these bad guys would drink when they’re home by themselves,” explained Devon Tarby, a partner at The Walker Inn.

Tarby and her partners in Proprietors LLC always intended for Walker—which is located inside The Normandie Club, another, more laid-back bar that the group owns—to be a hyper-focused, immersive cocktail experience. But they weren’t initially sure how to achieve that result.

“The preliminary discussions that led to the current menu format were more akin to the idea of an ‘installation’,” explained Tarby. “We tried to avoid the words ‘theme’ or ‘concept’ for fear of being overly kitschy.”

(A sort of sub-set to this trend are cocktail menus with high production values, like those at Trick Dog in San Francisco and Dead Rabbit in New York, where the conceptual vision is focused primarily on the physical menu and not its manifestation in the drinks.)

So, why so many cocktail minds thinking alike at the same time? Alba Huerta, proprietor of Julep, believes that a desire for a creative shift is behind the new breed of menu. “After making so many seasonally driven menus, we wanted to add an extra element,” she said, “and make it a more fun and challenging process as we created it.”

Certainly, creative restlessness was behind the new approach at Pouring Ribbons. “I couldn’t bear the thought of doing another seasonal menu,” said Joaquín Simó, an owner. “I wanted to start thinking of a different point of inspiration.”

After a dinner at Next, Simó thought he spied a way out of the seasonal trap. The food and entire concept of chef Grant Achatz’s Chicago restaurant changes every few months (menus have included “Paris: 1906,” “Childhood,” and “Vegan”). “I thought about what themes would work for Pouring Ribbons,” says Simó.

After some brainstorming sessions, he and his staff came up with the Route 66 idea (a couple employees had undertaken the historic drive). Between the Chicago Fizz and the L.A.-born Moscow Mule, there are new drinks like the A Night at the Wigwam, a pisco drink inspired by The Wigwam Motels, a motel chain in the U.S. built during the 1930s and ‘40s, and The Jack Rabbit Special, named after the Jack Rabbit Trading Post in Joseph City, Arizona, which once sold a “World Famous Cherry Cider.”

Spare Key’s state-by-state cocktail list happened incrementally, while proprietor and head bartender Chris Frankel was searching for the right space for his bar.

“I couldn’t find a location,” says Frankel. “It took four years. One thing I did while I was looking is a lot of traveling.” In time, he visited all 50 states. After crossing each border, he would try to find each state’s best cocktail bars. The Spare Key list is a combination of classic regional drinks (Texas: Margarita), modern classics (Washington: the Trident, a contemporary invention of The Evergreen State cocktail expert Robert Hess) and spiritual matches (New Jersey: Jack Rose, owing to the cocktail’s use of “Jersey Lightning,” aka applejack, a spirit long associated with the state).

Inspiration is relatively easy where concept menus are concerned. Execution, however, is hard. How do you fashion a refreshment that travels from tongue to brain to call forth a certain idea or location? For each bar and bartender, the process is different.

The Walker Inn’s summer concept menu was called “Wet Hot American Summer.” To achieve that idea in liquid form, Tarby and her colleagues drew on certain flavors that are associated with summer. “Watermelon combines with the flavors of rosé to evoke the feeling of drinking wine in your backyard during a BBQ,” explains Tarby. “Fresh strawberry combines with earthy mezcal and floral-fruity cognac to evoke the idea of picking and eating strawberries in a berry patch with dirt on your hands.” (The latter drink is served with a fresh strawberry in a bed of hazelnut and chocolate cookie “dirt.”)

When, last summer, Huerta of Julep was putting together her “Saltwater South” concept menu—which was meant to spin a drinkable narrative about the history of the Gulf Coast—she leaned on spirits that had the sea as part of their terroir, such as the Scotches of Islay. Meanwhile, a brandy cocktail from the current “Trading With the Enemy” menu, called Borrowed Time, tries to tell the story of a cotton-for-medicine exchange between the South and North by adding medicinal flavors like smoked juniper and pine needles to the mix.

One would think such a deep-dish approach to cocktail creation might be off-putting to patrons. No one, it would seem, wants a history lesson or geography quiz when they’re ordering their first of the evening. But the bars using these menu methods tell of an opposite reaction.

“It creates rhetoric in the bar,” says Huerta. “Our customers come in and ask about the Morning Call. They get to hear the story of this drink, why it’s called the Morning Call, and they fall in love with it.”

Spare Key’s 50-states menu has been particularly successful as a kind of glue between strangers at the bar. “Houston is very much a transplant city,” says Frankel. “You have a lot of people who live here and aren’t originally from here. Customers ask each other, ‘What’s your state?’ It’s a good way to get to know each other and start conversations. You have to pick your head up and talk to people and these drinks do that.”

For the bartender, meanwhile, the concept approach has one clear advantage.

“You can do whatever the hell you want, stylistically,” says Tarby, “as long as it supports the narrative.”