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How to Read a Cocktail Menu Like a Bartender

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How complicated could a cocktail menu be? It’s just a list of drinks the bartender is willing to make—right? Well, yes and no. Behind any good cocktail list is a great deal of thought and strategy, and nothing is accidental; the designer is deliberate about how many drinks he or she lists, how they’re laid out on the menu, even how they’re ordered from top to bottom.

As a bartender and consulting mixologist (John) and spirits writer (Carey), we spend an awful lot of time designing and decoding cocktail menus, respectively. Here’s a look at the kind of thinking that bartenders put into a well-crafted cocktail list in order to entice drinkers like you.

The Menu Starts with a Best Seller (Usually Made with Vodka)

You want the first drink on a cocktail list to be a crowd-friendly best-seller. That means choosing something bright and appealing, interesting but not too challenging—the kind of drink anyone will try once, and some people will try three times in one night.

If you’re smart, this best-seller will be the least expensive drink for the bar to make. More obscure, cocktail-geek-y ingredients can often drive up the cost of a drink, so let your best-seller be your heavy lifter, revenue-wise. Not only is it good for the bar’s bottom line, it also allows you to keep the entire menu in a similar price range (whether that means $10-12, or $16-18, depending on your market). If your most obscure drink costs six bucks more than your cheapest, it’s even less likely to be ordered. And it’s simply lower-stress for a customer to order drinks based on what they’re in the mood for rather than price.

What makes for a crowd-friendly cocktail? Often, that means vodka. Even in our current cocktail renaissance, many drinkers opt for their tried-and-true spirit; just like beet salads and burgers will always sell on a bistro menu, a sizable percentage of bar-goers will opt for a good vodka cocktail.

Some bartenders dismiss vodka as uninteresting, characterless, flavorless. But flip that around: There’s nothing to dislike. Vodka is a chameleon, unthreatening, able to play well with any ingredient; there’s a reason it’s so popular. Unless your bar is a no-holds-barred, cutting-edge cocktail den, or a bar with a strong, singular drinks focus, odds are, there will be a vodka drink, and it’s going to sell.

That said, that best-seller shouldn’t be a throwaway; it shouldn’t appeal to the lowest common denominator. It should be as well thought-out as any other drink on the list, if not more so. And keep speed in mind, too. The faster you can get a crowd-pleaser in a drinker’s hand, the better the odds they’ll order a second.

The List Is Typically Organized Lightest to Heaviest

Glance at a restaurant wine list, and you’ll often find that it’s structured in this way: from the lightest Pinot Grigio to the oakiest Chardonnay; from a bright Gamay to a weighty Cabernet Sauvignon. Think of a cocktail list in the same way: Lighter drinks (generally aperitif-style drinks, and/or those with clear spirits) up top; stiffer, often brown spirit-based cocktails toward the bottom.

There are few reasons for this: Since customers are accustomed to reading wine lists this way, it intuitively makes sense. It also mirrors the way most drinkers progress through an evening. If you order two drinks at a cocktail bar, odds are you’ll start with the lighter, and move to the stiffer. Every cocktail-lover is different, of course, but as a general rule, we start with spritzes and close with Manhattans.

A Good List Has Something for Everyone

Some bars have a clear focus; it might be gin, or agave spirits, or tiki. But a more general cocktail bar should have something for everyone. If someone’s go-to drink is a Margarita, is there a drink on the list they’ll gravitate to? What about the Manhattan-drinker? The Negroni devotee?   
 
That’s not to say there needs to be a Negroni or Manhattan variant, as such, on the menu. But it’s a useful way to think about balancing your menu between vodka and gin, tequila and whiskey; between sweet and bitter; between bright, citrusy drinks and stiff, stirred ones.  

The Geeky Drinks Might Not Sell, But They’re There for a Reason

Most cocktail bartenders love to geek out. And that means that some of their more…interesting creations can often be on the outer boundaries of what the average drinker appreciates. A Scandinavian-inspired beet juice cocktail with the caraway liqueur Kümmel and a pickled herring garnish? A Negroni made with the little-known agave spirit raicilla? These will never be best-sellers, no matter how delicious they are.

But that’s no reason to strike them from the menu. First of all, cocktail geeks, naturally, tend to like cocktail bars, and just as mixologists should be able to serve the less adventurous drinker, they should have something for the more adventurous drinker, too. More cutting-edge cocktails tend to earn the respect of other bartenders; they signal to drinkers that you’re willing to take risks; they might get press attention.

And, as should go without saying, mixologists are creative people; it’s exciting to develop a new, completely out-of-the-box cocktail and share it with the world. Even if you’ll never sell 50 of them in an evening.

Bartenders Know the Trends, and They Know How to Include Them

Five years ago, spicy cocktails were a rarity. But in 2017, plenty of bar-goers order a spicy Margarita, even if there’s not one on the menu. Five years ago, the Aperol Spritz was hardly well-known; today, they rival Mimosas for brunchtime popularity. While “serious bartenders” wouldn’t serve you a frozen cocktail in the not-too-distant past, it’s widely accepted today that slushy drinks have their place in the mixology world. And while some mixologists might have considered the phrase “non-alcoholic cocktail” oxymoronic, more and more are realizing that there’s a place in the cocktail world for delicious, balanced, booze-free drinks.

A good cocktail list won’t read like a list of every current cocktail trend, lest it seem derivative or simply unfocused. But, of course, it never hurts to consider what the customer wants, which, at the moment, is a little muddled jalapeño in their Margarita.

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