Poached Speaks with Industry Expert Trefor Davies About The Fundamentals of Creating or Revamping a Cocktail Menu.
If you’re taking a crack at creating your first cocktail menu or just looking to breathe new life into an existing menu, but need help figuring out where to begin, we hear you.
The world of beverages is just as wide and deep as the world of food, and figuring out where to start can have you spinning in place.
To set a course, you’ll need to understand that creating a cocktail menu is so much more than flavor combinations and trying to make riffs on old classics. A cocktail menu is an extension of the restaurant or bar’s personality; the drinks must reflect this.
We sat down with Trefor Davies—a seasoned bartender, consultant, and craft cocktail creator, to tell us the best way to develop a cocktail menu.
Before You Start, Take a 1,000 Ft View of Your Bar
It was 2007 when Trefor cut his teeth bartending at a cocktail lounge in London, England called JuJu—roughly around the beginning of the craft cocktail movement.
Since then, he has run bar programs in Portland, Oregon, and Los Angeles, where he’s worked everything from beverage director of a massive members-only club in Hollywood with five separate bars to consulting and working the well at a mezcal bar in Venice Beach.
To kick things off, we wanted to know what people should consider before even picking up a jigger.
Trefor says to step back and look at the menu from a wide-angle lens—“What are we going to need to execute for this space? What does this neighborhood or clientele look for when they come to a bar or restaurant with this theme? What do we think is going to sell a lot?”
The answers to these questions will give you a starting point for what kinds of drinks you’ll want on your menu, how much they should cost, and how they’ll be served.
The next step of the process is to think about who will be making your drinks.
“You need to understand the experience of your bar staff, and how much training it will take to get them ready to execute your cocktails,” Trefor shared. “ Too many places try to execute overly complex cocktails with bartenders with insufficient speed and quality level. You end up waiting far too long for a cocktail.”
Trefor encourages you to understand how many drinks you can produce based on the size of the bar’s footprint.
“You need to realize the limitations within the physical space of the bar—most bars don’t have enough wells or bartenders working relative to how long it takes to make each drink.”
If your bar space is relatively small compared to the number of guests you can fit, you’ll need to design cocktails that can be made quickly with a limited number of
movements to execute each drink.
Research and Develop Your Cocktail Menu
Now that you’ve nailed down your clientele, limitations, and cost strategy, let’s dive into how Trefor approaches creating the cocktail list.
“We know the customer, so I need to think about what I want to cover from a flavor standpoint. I love collaborating with the chefs to use and play off the ingredients they plan on using in the food menu so you can create drinks that pair well with the menu items,” Trefor explained. “Then, once you have the bare bones of the menu, that’s where the budgetary restraints can come into effect. You’ll then have to do a lot of trial and error.”
Trefor suggests testing out a variety of cocktails to cover your customer preferences—one that’s more spirit-forward, another highlighting an apertivo, another that’s gin-based, etc.
For bars that don’t have a ton of money for R&D, Trefor offers this advice, “Not every business has a ton of money to pour into pouring a bunch of booze down the drain or into my liver to perfectly develop each cocktail. That’s where hiring someone with experience helps because they can create a menu from scratch without having to R&D it extensively and, from there, tweak recipes as you get closer to launching the menu.”
Diversify Your Cocktail Menu
The Sober Curious Movement has more people than ever imbibing N/A drinks. We were curious what Trefor would say when asked if bars should carry spirit-free cocktails and how they should navigate putting them on the menu.
“I think now, in the current climate, they probably have to. The tricky thing with all of these alcohol-free spirits coming onto the market is they’re all so expensive. In many cases, it’s more expensive than the booze in your well.”
Historically, N/A drinks cost less than alcohol because they comprise of juices, vinegars, and syrups. But new brands like Seedlip, Kin, Wilderton, and Ritual have created non-alcoholic spirits to meet the market demand for more N/A drinks.
These bottles come with a heavy price tag, though.
Trefor has a solution that can apply to N/A drinks and traditional cocktails.
“Ask yourself, what drinks do we think are going to sell a lot—we want those cocktails to be really cost-effective because they will be making the lion’s share of the revenue, and those drinks are the vehicle that allows you to have more indulgent drinks that cost more.”
Create a Solid Foundation For Your Cocktail Menu
Finally, we asked Trefor what staples every bar should have.
“I’m a real stickler for fresh citrus juice. I don’t think it’s a backbreaker from a cost of labor standpoint, and I think the difference it makes in the cocktails is so much fresher tasting.”
If you’re on the fence about fresh juice, test-taste it yourself, and you’ll see what he’s talking about. Your efforts will pay off in flavor and reputation.
“And then all the obvious ones, angostura bitters, gin, rum, vodka, tequila, whiskey—a decent vermouth and Sherry,” Trefor said. “You’ll want a lager, IPA, white, red, and rose wine. Decent ice is a prerequisite. I don’t think your ice should be chewable. Around a dice size or full cube would be a pretty good all-around type of ice.”
Creating a cohesive and diverse cocktail menu doesn’t have to be overly expensive or overwhelming. As Trefor advised, so long as you’re considering your clientele, the size of your bar, and the skillset of your bar team, you’ll be able to develop a cocktail menu that properly supports the restaurant’s theme and style while keeping everyone coming back for more.
If you’re trying to build an experienced bar team, use Poached to find qualified candidates that can work temporarily, part-time, or join the team permanently.