Spring is finally here and the harbingers are all about. Baseball season has begun, backyard grills have been put back into use and cocktail bars are frantically scrambling to roll out their new menus.
You’ll hear a similarly frantic clattering of tins and jiggers again come July, when the summer menus are due. And then again in October. Then January. And then the cycle begins all over again. The seasonally-changing cocktail menu, an idea that arose some ten or so years ago during the creative heyday of the craft cocktail movement, is still the prevailing model. Some bars, like Trick Dog in San Francisco and Pouring Ribbons in New York, have escaped the grind of flipping their entire menu every three months by going in for the concept menu. But even those have to be turned over at least once or twice a year.
There is, however, a third, far-less-explored option: Don’t change your menu at all.
While it was once the norm, in today’s environment of hyper innovation and constant reinvention, the idea of a set drink list is downright unusual and, to a certain extent, held in disdain. The rare bars that stick to the same array of drinks risk being labeled as lazy museum pieces.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the high-profile adherents to this menu approach are in New York, a city with a reputation for honoring the cocktail classics. These include Sauvage, The Long Island Bar and Fort Defiance, all in Brooklyn, and Pegu Club, which is arguably the mothership of the stay-the-course school of cocktail menus. Several modern classics created by Pegu co-owner Audrey Saunders—including the Gin-Gin Mule, Earl Grey MarTEAni, Tantris Sidecar and Fitty-Fitty Martini—have been on offer since day one, in 2005.
For Toby Cecchini, who co-owns The Long Island Bar, as well as The Rockwell Place, a new bar also in Brooklyn, a steady menu just makes good business sense. “I have friends who kill themselves turning out these incredibly elaborate lists four times a year, when I feel like customers, who don’t drink seasonally anyway, largely wouldn’t care or perhaps even notice if you kept the same list for a year,” he says. He recalls doing a stint at Death & Co. years ago, looking at the 95-drink menu and thinking the staff was purposefully making themselves miserable. “I’ve never been convinced it’s necessarily worth the incessant striving to change for change’s sake.”
When St. John Frizell opened Fort Defiance, he planned to follow the herd and flip his menu every few weeks. “That idea lasted about three months,” he says. “I learned that consistency is, I think, the most important criteria by which diners judge restaurants, even if they don’t realize it.” As a result, familiar drinks like the Criterium (a long drink made with gin, Zucca Rabarbaro, grapefruit, lemon juice and sugar) and the bar’s famous take on the Irish Coffee greet regulars every visit.
“Simply put, Martinis and Sazeracs aren’t seasonal,” says Frizell. “And I like having simple, classic drinks like that on the menu.”
The honing of classics—both old like the Sazerac and modern like the Criterium—is one of the greatest advantages of the unchanging menu, according to advocates. And such constancy can be said to be in keeping with The Bar’s traditional standing, in the patron’s mind, as something to lean on—a bastion of familiarity and comfort.
To others, however, too much comfort is a danger. One of the regular knocks against such lists is that they breed apathy and boredom among the staff, but Frizell and Cecchini, as well as William Elliott of Sauvage, think steadfast menus actually breed as much creativity in bartenders—just of a different sort.
“Like food, the results are best after making a drink hundreds and hundreds of times,” says Elliott. At Sauvage, there are four core house cocktails that never leave the list: Riding Tigers, a sparkling cocktail made with crémant, pisco, armagnac, Pineau des Charentes; Sloe Moon’s Rose, a fruit-forward crushed ice drink with sloeberry gin, framboise, lime and bitters; Bitter Storm Over Ulm, another crushed ice drink made with Suze, lemon, Macvin du Jura wine and pear; and the Pastis Cobbler, a cobbler with a pastis base, as the name suggests. “Tiny tweaks to technique can truly bump the end result to an all-time high. Thus, bartenders make a cocktail better after six months of making them.”
Elliott added that the time bartenders might devote to learning the specs of 30 new cocktails every few months can, instead, be devoted to developing and sharpening other skills associated with bartending, such as timing, poise, wit and worldliness.
Cecchini, who is lucky to run what he calls “a kind of retirement home for super-veteran bartenders,” agrees. These barkeeps, like Phil Ward, KJ Williams, David Moo and Cecchini himself, have arguably matured in their attitude towards their craft in such a way that they find interest in any drink order put before them, even if it’s the 100th request that night for a Boulevardier, one of the bar’s mainstays. To their seasoned eyes and hands, there is more potential profit sharpening their advanced drink-building and people skills than learning a new parlor trick.
“There may be only eight or nine drinks on the cocktail list, but the arsenal of expertise embodied by our combined years behind the bar means that we can accommodate and generally improve on nearly any request,” he says.
None of the menus at these bars are immutable, however. At Pegu, one quarter of the menu changes every season, and Cecchini admits that even his customers enjoy a little novelty now and then. But they also, conversely, dislike change. More than once, he has experienced the ire of patrons when a favorite drink has been removed from the LIB menu.
“We have this group that’s been coming in for six years who call themselves The Pendennis Club, and basically only drink the iteration of the Pendennis Club Cocktail I’ve put on the list,” he says. “When I once took it off, they screamed bloody murder. I tried to placate them with the seemingly obvious point that, you know, we can still perfectly easily make that cocktail for you. But so many others continued asking for it; in the end I just caved and put it back on.”
While the benefits of a familiar list—especially at places like The Long Island Bar and Fort Defiance, which are, in essence, neighborhood bars with strong local fan bases—may be evident, they may well remain in the minority. The seasonal menu will continue, in Elliott’s fatalistic appraisal, “because it sounds good, and is an industry norm; and because most people copy things that sound good and are industry norms.”
Frizell partly blames seasonal menus on the deadline-a-minute press of the Internet age, whose thirst for new cocktail recipes is never quenched. Without new menus, there would be no more “7 New Spring Cocktails to Try Right Now” articles. And we can’t have that. Bartenders play along because new cocktails gain them momentary notoriety and increase their earning power. He longs for a day when the media praise bartenders for something other than rampant, non-stop creativity. That thing? “Knowing when to leave well enough alone,” says Frizell.