“For a while I was apprehensive about getting too creative with the cocktail list,” says Wyatt Lowrey, director of the beverage program at Vessel in New Orleans’ mid-city neighborhood. As the leader of the beverage team, he and his bartenders are responsible for creating cocktails that complement the seasonally-inspired food menu. “Eventually I was like, I have to be myself and make what I like.”
The cocktail list at Vessel is a mix of classics, like the Sazerac, and a “Signature” section, comprised of original drinks that Lowrey and his team created with seasonality in mind. Drinks like “Devil’s Nightcap,” blending bourbon with walnut liqueur and bitters, invoke the dark spices and flavors that are associated with the winter season.
Bartenders, mixologists, and beverage managers are responsible for conceptualizing and creating beverage programs to pair with a food menu, and they play a pivotal role in designing part of the guest experience. But how creative can you lists get without confusing guests? Here, Lowrey shares what he’s learned so far about balancing a cocktail list with creative options and standards, plus how to gets staff and customers on board.
Get team members involved.
Lowrey may be the bar manager, but he’s not the only person who conceptualizes new drinks. One of the ways that he ensures the success of his bar program is to involve all of the team members in the planning process for seasonal menu changes.
“I assign a spirit to each person on the beverage team, and they have to create one shaken drink and one stirred drink,” Lowrey explains. The team votes on which drinks they like best and those get added to the menu. “It’s more of a democracy than just me making the decisions,” he continues. The benefits are twofold: one, it challenges the bartenders creatively, and two, it creates a connection to the drinks that end up on the menu. “They’re personally invested in the program,” he says.
Talk up flavor over ingredients.
If there are drinks that feature infusions, syrups, or ingredients that guests may not have heard of before, Lowrey recommends keeping it simple. At Vessel, he and his team make their own shrubs and infusions in addition to importing hard-to-find amaros, so describing drinks can be difficult. Clueing guests into the flavor profiles can be more helpful than describing techniques or giving them obscure facts about the ingredients.
“If someone asks what a shrub is I’ll tell them that a shrub is basically a drinkable vinegar,” Lowrey says. If they’re interested in learning more you can explain the history of a drink to give guests context and impart a little more knowledge on what they should expect, he continues.
Lowrey encourages his bartenders to experiment with different recipes and says that that’s another way to make sure that they feel involved in the program. “If someone has an idea for a cocktail, I’ll work with them and help them research it first and see what’s out there.” Looking online or referencing cocktail books acts as the starting point before Lowrey and the team member work together to figure out the best way to create the cocktail.
It may sound counterintuitive, but using classic cocktails as inspiration can lead to some creative results. “There’s about 20 classic cocktails that everything spans from, and the rest are just variants,” Lowrey says. Manipulating a classic allows you to add your own spin with different infusions or specialty spirits. “I’m a big fan of imparting flavors with syrups infused with spirits,” Lowrey says.
Go back to your brand.
Vessel is inspired by coastal regions, and it’s important to remember that when creating a beverage program, says Lowrey. Keeping the restaurant’s concept in mind is a sure way to make sure that your beverage program makes sense for what the food menu is doing.
“For us, the food menu is seasonal, so it makes sense for us to change the cocktails seasonally,” Lowrey explains. If the food menu at your restaurant changes more frequently, then it might make sense to have the beverage program change that often as well. “I think that’s what beverage directors have to do,” Lowrey says. “If you make a drink, make sure it sticks to your concept.”
Photos courtesy of Vessel.