Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

10 Next-level Beverage Ingredients Uncommon elements are modernizing the cocktail menu

Waypoint in Cambridge, Mass., floats herb oil in its Estate Grown cocktail, made with Martinique rum, pistachio falernum, hierbas and lime, adding both weight and visual interest.

The interest in cocktails and other custom-designed beverages continues unabated, motivating operators to create appealing and intriguing beverage options that keep patrons coming back for more.

Much of the inspiration for bar managers and mixologists is coming from the kitchen. Everything from unique ingredients to preparation techniques is informing the design of new, signature cocktails as well as the reinvention of classic beverages. These culinary-inspired revamps are also impacting the types of garnishes operators may consider.

All of this is significantly changing the aspect of the bar and the ingredients sourced and stored for it. In an age when operators are willing to experiment—both on the menu and at the bar—with ingredients, mash-ups, formats and preparations, it can be hard to truly pinpoint what is nontraditional and what may hearken back to previous eras and techniques long lost. Here are 10 beverage ingredients and flavors that are stirring up serious menu interest.


For the foodie, smoke in cocktails is not new, but for the vast majority of American patrons, it is something not commonly available or considered traditional. Smoke flavor in a cocktail can be achieved in a number of ways and can range from subtle flavor-adds at the bar to dramatic table-service presentations.


  • OG Plank Smoked Old Fashioned: Maker’s Mark, maple smoke, AC Bitters, caster sugar
    —American Cut, New York
  • That’ll Do: Scotch, pork, smoke and maple
    —Alden & Harlow, Cambridge, Mass.


Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so smoke as a visual cue immediately brings to mind danger, even when in a completely controlled environment. When associated with planks and food, though, it can be one of the ultimate comfort flavors. With its unexpected presence in beverages, smoke is not only visually exciting, it is perhaps one of the only flavors that combines risk with comfort.


Celery may be familiar as a garnish for a Bloody Mary, but it is far less common as a key flavor component of cocktails. Whether muddled, shrubbed, syruped or shaken, celery adds the bright freshness of cucumber with a savory note.


  • Giddy Up: Celery, gin, yellow chartreuse, ginger, lemon, tonic
    —Westlight, Brooklyn, N.Y.
  • Pickle Ricktini: Hendricks gin, Noilly Pratt, pickle juice, celery bitters
    —jm Curley, Boston


Celery has a more complex flavor than cucumber but helps to lighten and brighten a cocktail’s flavor profile without overpowering other flavors in the mix. Additionally, the savory, grassy notes of celery help to deepen a beverage beyond what’s achievable with other light and bright ingredients.

Butter, Olive Oil & Other Fats

Mixologists often wonder how to add weight to a cocktail in a new and interesting way—how to get the same substantive mouthfeel possible with culinary ingredients but often not as achievable using more traditional beverage options. Enter fats, such as butter and olive oil. Used sparingly, they deliver rounded mouthfeel and an eclectic sensibility.


  • Tijuana Tea Time: Green tea tequila, lemon, honey, Sichuan red peppercorn oil
    —Buffalo Proper, Buffalo, N.Y.
  • Savage Feast: Duck fat-washed brandy, rosemary-fig vermouth
    —Velveteen Rabbit, Las Vegas


Fats have, generally speaking, enjoyed a renaissance in American dining, thanks to new research on the benefits (in moderation) of certain fats in a diet. As a result, chefs and mixologists have been more open to adding these ingredients in ways that create unique, interesting and complex options with rich mouthfeel.

Barbecue, Buffalo & Other Sauces

Operators are always looking for ways to leverage popular ingredients and flavors beyond the most traditional applications, and the same can be said of the new use of barbecue, Buffalo, mole and other sauces that, until now, were found exclusively on the food side of the menu.


  • Oaxacan Chihuahua: Mezcal, sotol, tequila reposado, artichoke amaro, French quinquina, mole, pecan bitters
    —Curio, Columbus, Ohio
  • Red Eye: Bourbon, maple syrup, cold-brew coffee, barbecue bitters
    —Redbird, Los Angeles


The viscosity of these sauces allows mixologists to create beverages with heft but not quite the same coating mouthfeel that results from the use of fats. Additionally, these complex flavors add depth while letting an operator market popular flavors in creative, unexpected applications. In some cases, as with that of mole, these sauces can create world cuisine-inspired cocktails featuring any of the new international spirits impacting the market.


Though coffee cocktails have been around for decades, tea-influenced cocktails are far less prominent. Here, we are not talking about iced-tea-based or cocktails made to taste like iced tea, but rather the ever-expanding variety of black, green, white and herbal teas.


  • Matcha Mule: Suntory Toki Whisky, matcha, lemon, Giffard mint liqueur, ginger beer
    —Backbar, Somerville, Mass.
  • Oki Toki: Suntory Whisky Toki, jasmine tea, lemon, Grand Marnier Raspberry Peach
    —Extra Fancy, Brooklyn, N.Y.


Teas, more so than coffee, have nuanced flavors. The variety of teas offers mixologists a nearly endless array of options to create cocktails that range from light to dark, simple to complex, fruity to earthy. Various teas can also help support cocktail profiles heavily influenced by global cuisines, and may impart a more seasonal feel to others. As teas continue to grow in the industry overall, expect to see more innovation around teas going forward.

Salt & Pepper

It’s true, salt rims are not new to cocktails, particularly if the cocktail in question is the Margarita. Other salts—those used for flavoring and garnishing main menu items—are far less common, as are peppercorns (ground or otherwise), making them stand out in beverage development.


  • Silk Ropes & Satin Sheets: Karlsson’s Vodka, Oxley gin, French vermouth blend, orange bitters, smoked salt tincture, citrus peels
    —Paramour, San Antonio
  • Peter Piper: Pineapple, black pepper, pickled passionfruit, lime
    —The NoMad Bar, New York


While salt and pepper are not commonly used to adjust cocktail flavors, their use as such won’t be entirely outside the comfort zone of most patrons. Additionally, newly available salts and peppercorns, as well as new preparations used to alter the flavors of those ingredients, are expanding options for mixologists, who may now borrow unique ingredients from the main menu, making those ingredients more impactful operation-wide.


America is a cheese-loving nation, but that love and consumption is typically relegated to the food side of the menu. Taking that ever-popular ingredient and applying it to the bar menu shifts patron expectations while creating familiar-with-a-twist options.


  • Coat of Arms: Housemade vermouth, spice-infused Calvados Christian Drouin, smoked goat cheese tincture
    —Saison, San Francisco
  • Milwaukeean: Rehorst vodka, Bloody mix, horseradish, Lakefront Fixed Gear, bacon and cheese curd
    —Café Benelux, Milwaukee


Whether used as a garnish or as an ingredient, cheese in a cocktail can create a pleasurable confusion among customers. In a beverage it shifts expectations and creates sensory excitement. Blue cheese-stuffed olives likely opened up patrons to the idea of cheese in a drink, but having the cheese act as a key ingredient rather than solely as a garnish makes it far more impactful.


America is in the grips of a veg-centric movement, with operators looking at ways to create interesting items based on vegetables. Why not shift that innovation to the bar? Though vegetables have been featured in cocktails for a few years now, the efforts are becoming bolder and more pronounced.


  • Margarita-ish: Roasted poblano, blood orange, smoked paprika, mango, tequila
    —The Aviary, Chicago
  • Old Alobar: Hayman’s Old Tom gin, Nux Alpina Walnut Liqueur, lemon, egg white, beet powder
    —Evening Bar, New York


Operators are looking for any excuse to add vegetables across the menu, resulting in both improved vegetable skill sets as well as excess produce inventory. Moving those vegetables to the bar, either in their fresh or further-prepared state, ensures that additional produce won’t end up in the waste bin. New formats and flavor-forward preparations allow bartenders to create a wide range of items.

Culinary Spices

Culinary spices allow for as much innovation on the cocktail menu as on the food menu, and they offer bartenders endless options for innovation and creativity. With all of the world spice blends being introduced—including togarashi, ras el hanout, harissa and dukkah—mixologists can borrow from other cuisines to create globally inspired sips.


  • Okami: Evan Williams Bottled in Bond, St. George Spiced Pear Liqueur, Lucano Caffe Liqueur, Jamaican jerk bitters
    —The Alembic, San Francisco
  • Mezcal Negroni: Fidencio Classico, mole spices, Cynar, Cocchi Torino, Rabarbaro zucca, bitters
    —Ghost Donkey, New York


Spices—though longer-lived than produce—do have a shelf life and represent a significant area for possible lost costs due to waste. This is particularly true as operators experiment with more costly and less easily acquired spice blends from abroad. Using these spices at the bar can augment culinary experimentation and more effectively use these ingredients, while also allowing bartenders to complement world spirits that are newer to the bar.

Illicit & Unexpected

The point could be argued that even though we’ve moved well past the days of Prohibition, alcohol has maintained its slightly illicit and forbidden nature. It may be less distinct than during those few years when it was banned, but it lingers. Adding new ingredients that are or seem inedible, or that are wholly unexpected, capitalizes on that subconscious allure.


  • Whiskey & Cigarettes: Laphroaig, mezcal, benedictine, flamed grapefruit
    —Hearsay Gastro Lounge, Houston
  • Schooner or Later: Japanese whisky, lime, gunpowder tea, cane sugar, green chartreuse, sea foam
    —Columbia Room, Washington, D.C.


The foodservice industry has been experimenting with slightly illicit ingredients since the legalization of marijuana in certain states. Marijuana, tobacco, charcoal and other ingredients that carry an edgy subtext have been cropping up across the menu. It makes sense that these items would move to the bar menu where they create visual, taste and textural excitement. What’s more, that illicit feeling can carry with it a higher price point.

From the Nov/Dec 2017 issue of Flavor & the Menu magazine. Read the full issue online or check if you qualify for a free print subscription.


About The Author