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When Did Cocktail Menu Debuts Become News?

At some of today’s most highly regarded bars, a new menu is no longer just a list of drinks. Robert Simonson on the "event menu" phenomenon and what it says about the competitive nature of today’s bar landscape.

“One journalist has offered on three different occasions to embed himself in the process and document the entire thing,” says Scott Baird.

Baird is not a press spokesman for a political campaign. Nor is he an officer leading a military mission overseas. He is one of the owners of Trick Dog, a cocktail bar in San Francisco. And the “process” the journalist wanted to embed himself in was the creation of their new cocktail menu.

Today, at certain cocktail bars that enjoy an international reputation, a new menu is no longer just a list of drinks. It is a cultural artifact, and its arrival is treated as a potential headline.

Trick Dog’s latest menu was a particularly involved enterprise that required commissioning works from 14 local graffiti artists, who weren’t told what the murals were for (the bar feared the news might be leaked to the press). Once the works were completed, they were photographed and made into a book. Each cocktail on the menu was named after one of the artists.

The effort was worth it: The menu’s release resulted in dozens of news stories, including items in Eater, SFist, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Weekly.

“People get really crazy in terms of getting ahead of the story and trying to break the news,” says Baird.

By now, this sort of attention is old hat to Trick Dog, whose creative approach to menu development was established on its opening day in early 2013, when it presented a cocktail list in the form of a Pantone color book. Since then, its menus—nine so far, released every six months—have taken the form of a Chinese takeout menu, a zodiac chart and a pinup puppy calendar.

This approach, whether it be a menu that follows a theme or simply relies on inventive design, has become increasingly common as the cocktail landscape becomes ever more saturated. Turning your cocktail menu into an event is one way to signal the media caravan to turn around once they’ve moved onto to the next bar.

“From a press perspective, if you get sent someone’s spring menu, there’s very little you can do with that information,” said Joaquín Simó, an owner of Pouring Ribbons, a respected cocktail bar in New York’s East Village. “There’s no hook. It’s a tougher thing to cultivate interest in all these new offerings.”

Two years ago, Simó switched from seasonal menus to thematic menus, in which cocktails were invented around umbrella ideas like Route 66 and the Silk Road. Word about both those menus—which rolled out in fall 2015 and spring 2016, respectively—was spread through media events held at the bar. The results were palpable; Pouring Ribbons has seen far more press coverage for its thematic menus than it ever did for its seasonal menus.

“[Event menus] allow us to package and spin a message very easily in a way that is digestible,” says Simó.

The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, the award-winning bar in lower Manhattan, is arguably the East Coast master of this menu-as-media-event school of publicity. Their leather-bound debut menu, replete with historical texts on the history of lower Manhattan’s 19th-century gangs and drinking culture, had the heft and gravitas of a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

“That’s always been the thing about the menus—to keep the brand fresh and relevant and competitive,” explains Jack McGarry, one of the bar’s owners along with Sean Muldoon. “We believe wholeheartedly in reinvesting in the bar. We use that to keep ourselves fresh, to keep ourselves on our toes. It’s a very important process.”

It doesn’t come cheap, though. McGarry estimates that, between all the Dead Rabbit menus and the menu at their new Cuban-themed bar, Blacktail, they’re spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.”

“I’m sure our partners would like for us to not spend so much on menus,” he says, “but the way we look at it, you can have a bar that makes a 20 percent margin on $2 million a year, or you can make 15 to 16 [percent] profit margin on a bar that makes $7 or $8 million. I know which one I’d rather have.”

Similarly, Death & Co., the noted East Village cocktail bar, decided last fall to revamp their menu format for the first time in ten years. It is now a tighter, more contained version of the sprawling menus of the past, thought the packaging remains as polished as it always was. “I think the expense was worth it,” says David Kaplan, one of the owners. “The menu better reflects the care and craft behind the drinks.” (Kaplan is well-versed in the ins and outs of the event menu. Other bars in his cocktail empire, including Nitecap on the Lower East Side and The Walker Inn in Los Angeles, regularly earn attention for their graphic menus.)

Going all in on event menus can quickly turn into another job, though. At Trick Dog, new menus are initially discussed during weekly managerial meetings. As the new list starts to come into focus, however, it gets a weekly meeting of its own.

“Sometimes it feels a little insurmountable,” admits Baird. “You think, ‘Fuck, do I have to do this again?’ We definitely feel the pressure.”

Trick Dog has also found itself in creative competition with other likeminded bars, like Callooh Callay, a London cocktail joint that has put out menus with cassette-tape and sticker-book formats. Callooh, which releases a new menu every six months, and Trick Dog both offered Pantone-inspired menus during roughly the same time period in 2013. And Trick Dog once contemplated a cassette tape menu, before it learned Callooh had already pulled off that stunt. “We think of each other as brother/sister bars,” jokes Baird.

It isn’t just about the press attention, or even the friendly competition these menus have bred amongst bars like Callooh and Trick Dog, though. It’s a means of challenging traditional drink-making.

“It’s a different form of R&D,” says Simó. “Not only does the drink have to work, it has to tie into a theme. Sometimes I’m tasting on a drink and think, ‘This is very lovely,’ but then I think, ‘What does this have to do with Route 66?'”

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