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Party mix: How New Orleans bartenders are cultivating new tastes 

click to enlarge Neal Bodenheimer (center) opened the cocktail lounge Cure, which helped popularize craft cocktails at local bars and restaurants.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Neal Bodenheimer (center) opened the cocktail lounge Cure, which helped popularize craft cocktails at local bars and restaurants.

There's no cocktail menu at Milk & Honey New York — at least not one a customer can see. Instead, the speakeasy's staff will ask the patron about his or her preferences, then refer to a private master list of at least 600 drinks to pin down the right drink, head bartender Theo Lieberman says.

  The format lends itself to "bartender's choice" (or "dealer's choice"), usually meant for guests who are undecided, open to adventure or both.

  While this isn't a new concept, craft bartenders now have more opportunities to stray from a set menu. With access to boutique spirits, handmade bitters or liqueurs and greater professional knowledge, they might roll out a completely original idea on the spot.

  But do they?

  "We never send out drinks that haven't been tested," says Lieberman, who leads a panel of presenters addressing the topic of bartender's choice at 10 a.m. Friday at Hotel Monteleone as part of Tales of the Cocktail, the cocktail conference that draws bartenders, spirit industry professionals, writers, enthusiasts and liquor producers from around the globe. Menu-less bars aren't likely to become the norm, but their emergence is part of the public embrace of craft cocktails and a movement in which bartenders are creating their own mixers, drinks and variations on classics.

  "The practice goes back to the first celebrity bartenders in the 1800s and the guests who trusted them," says Jack McGarry, co-owner of Manhattan's award-winning Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog, which specializes in historic cocktails. "It allows a bartender to curate the experience you're going to have."

  The bartender's choice approach starts with a few discriminating questions: Stirred or shaken? Fruity, floral, smoky or herbal? Refreshing or rich?

  "I look for their favorite spirits and what they normally like, and we go from there," says Lieberman.

  Just as guests tend to stay close to what they know, so will bartenders. "Is it about stepping out of the box and taking a risk? Not really," says Steve Wilshire, bar manager at Bar Tonique.

  In fact, the guest's perfect drink may well be on the current menu, says Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of Cure and a partner in the Cure Collective consulting group. It might also be a classic, or a perfected drink that's since been archived. But it probably won't be something experimental.

  "We don't limit what bartenders can make, but we won't send out anything half-baked," Bodenheimer says. "The idea is to ask the right questions."

  Staff training also is key to a good bartender's choice program. At Milk & Honey New York, new employees often start out as hosts, with a solid base knowledge of about 25 drinks. In time, they build up to the full catalog of cocktails.

  "Our staffers are career bartenders, so they'll sit on the subway with flashcards and notebooks organized by spirit," Lieberman says.

  For it to work, bartenders must know the classics and popular riffs born from them (Bodenheimer refers to "mother cocktails" and their offshoots, just like chefs learn the mother sauces upon which many other sauces are based). Bartenders should know which flavors work together, and which techniques will pull out different tastes and textures.

click to enlarge Jack McGarry pours a drink at - New York City’s Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog. - PHOTO BY FILIP WOLAK
  • Photo by Filip Wolak
  • Jack McGarry pours a drink atNew York City’s Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog.

  At Dead Rabbit, bartenders connect digitally through an Evernote app, a database of cocktails that McGarry wants to increase to 3,000 entries. As soon as a drink is added, every bartender can access it, including drinks in development (currently including a chile-spiked boilermaker and a gin-absinthe gimlet variation flavored with cucumbers and kiwi; each derived from a classic).

  You won't get a fledgling drink at Dead Rabbit, where the staff experiments collectively during a monthly drink test. Only proven drinks make it to the floor. "I love creativity, but (am) not too keen to go off the wall," McGarry says. "The biggest thing in any bar is consistency. Everything has to be at that level."

  In the five years since owner Ed Diaz opened Bar Tonique (with initial help from Bodenheimer), the staff has trained increasingly on efficiency and craft, and less on speed, Wilshire says.

  This Sunday, he's launching the bar's first specialty, staff-crafted drinks list.

  So as long as guests are happy and liquor costs stay in line, Wilshire is inclined to give his bartenders creative license when it comes to bartender's choice. "I tell my staff to be adventurous, and use the entire palate of our back bar," he says. Even so, he adds, "We tend to modify a classic to fit a guest's needs."

  At each of these bars, bartender's choice is risk-free for guests, who won't be charged for a drink they send back.

  "In the end, we're not doing much that hasn't been done before," Wilshire says. "We're all standing on the shoulders of giants."

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