Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

By Rob Corliss
November 1, 2019

Anchored in timeless classics, yet welcoming of modern interpretations, cocktails remain an exciting platform for strategic innovation. Establish a better beverage-menu culture through thoughtful care, familiar flavors, emotional attachment and crafting a sense of place, with the ultimate goal of delivering an experience that is true to your brand and has guests saying: “This one is substantially better.”

Better—one simple word is both motivational and forward-tilted. When applied to cocktails, the word “better” acts as a compass for 2020. Today’s consumers expect more from each and every aspect of their dining experiences. Tomorrow’s consumers will look for an even sharper focus. Operators need a firm understanding of how to evolve and execute a differentiated approach.

What follows is a look through a broader lens, to navigate the modern cocktail-menu landscape and keep bar programs ahead of the curve.

1 Flights of Fancy

Don’t underestimate the power of education. Guests love to educate their cocktail palates with interactive experiences. Tasting variations of a spirit or cocktail can lead them to new drink preferences and trigger a deeper connection with your operation.

The Rum Raid: Eight rum-filled elixirs from the Caribbean
Bahama Breeze, based in Orlando, Fla.
Rye Flight: Angel’s Envy Rye finished in rum barrels, Colonel E.H. Taylor Straight Rye, WhistlePig 13 Year 2nd Edition: The Boss Hog
Butcher and the Rye, Pittsburgh

Try This

  • Mule Flight: Moscow (vodka) + Mexican (tequila) + Kentucky (bourbon)
  • Margarita Flight: Classic + dragon fruit + blood orange

2 Of the Moment

The diversity of gin and rum continue to shine on center stage. Gin introductions are perpetuated by easy drinking appeal, and rum benefits from the Tiki craze, historical pedigree and appreciation for aged complexity.

Easy Street: Hendrick’s Gin, elderflower, lemon, cucumber, sugar, seltzer
Half Step, Austin, Texas
Millionaire Cocktail (No. 1): Rum, sloe gin, fresh lime, housemade grenadine, apricot liqueur
Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco

Try This

  • Frozen Negroni: Gin + vermouth + Campari + fresh orange juice + ice + orange-peel garnish
  • Hemingway Daiquiri: Rum + Aperol + maraschino liqueur + grapefruit juice + simple syrup + lime

3 Day-Drinking Sippers

Sessionable drinks have always found a niche of consumers, but that fan base is growing. Refreshing tall drinks have moved well beyond Tom Collins and into truly creative and craveable creations. These must-have offerings are a smart menu allocation.

Lychee: Ginger vodka, house lychee juice, lime
ROKC, New York
Orgeat Lemonade: Vodka, lemon, almond syrup, sparkling water, served over ice
The Interval, San Francisco

Try This

  • Summer Cooler: Citrus vodka + watermelon juice + fresh basil leaf + hydrated basil seeds
  • Tipsy Palmer: Fresh lemonade + iced black tea + cream sherry + lemon slice

4 Brunch Brilliance

Brunch personifies out-of-the-box menu offerings and beverage innovations. Brunch cocktails are a beautiful expression of this sentiment. Embrace the opportunity to push boundaries, pull in local ingredients, feature signature craftsmanship and give off a playful vibe.

Silk and Spice: Chai-infused bourbon, Malabar-spiced liqueur, cream tequila, cinnamon
Chauhan Ale & Masala House, Nashville, Tenn.
Grove 12: White port, pisco, tangerine sherbet, tonic
Flowers of Vietnam, Detroit

Try This

  • Golden Bloody: Charred yellow tomatoes + house pickle brine + vodka + hot sauce + baby squash garnish
  • Purple Rain: Prosecco + crème de cassis + pickled huckleberries + lime twist

5 Specialized D.I.Y.

Bring guests “behind the bar,” so to speak, and invite them to play an integral part in cocktail creation. This is a way for bartenders to still showcase their expertise, while guests sample new flavors via controlled specialized customization, highlighting personal exclusivity.

Build a Buck: Choose from vodka, rum, dark rum, gin, bourbon, Scotch, Cognac, pisco; then choose a garnish of lemon, lime or mint
Downtown Cocktail Room, Las Vegas
Shrouded Roulette: The customer chooses a base spirit and a secret-recipe mystery drink is served
Canon, Seattle

Try This

  • Make a Boozy Shake: Select your ice cream/sorbet + booze + mix-in + crazy topping
  • D.I.Y. Old Fashioned: Select your spirit + sweetener + bitters

6 Amped Up

Cocktails with the benefit of a little zip are ripe for growth and are sure to please consumers craving something edgier (whether from caffeine, heat or spice). Look to coffee, maté, matcha, smoke, moringa and seasonings like togarashi.

Boozy Latte: Espresso, Du Nord Cafe Frieda, Tattersall Crème de Cacao, oat milk, Baileys Almande cocoa whip, cinnamon
Fig + Farro, Minneapolis
Reality Check: Scotch, Cognac, togarashi, honey, vanilla, pineapple, coffee, lemon
The Dead Rabbit, New York

Try This

  • Night Owl Shot: Kahlúa + maté syrup + vanilla + topped with a toasted marshmallow
  • Matcha Pisco Sour: Matcha simple syrup + pisco + bitters + egg white

7 Go For Tequila or Mezcal

The significant demand for and consistent growth of both should grab your operation’s attention. Small-batch mezcal and craft tequila continue to delight consumers who are appreciative of the premium attributes, artisan qualities and flavorful stories.

El Jefe: Citrus blend, house Curaçao, agave, reposado tequila, extra añejo Cadillac float
Gracias Madre, West Hollywood, Calif.
Tamarind-Pineapple, Sotol: Mezcal Unión, Sotol Por Siempre, tamarind, caramelized pineapple, fresh lime
Bar Sótano, Chicago

Try This

  • Reposado Martini: Tequila + Cointreau + fresh lime juice + olive juice + Serrano slice
  • Buena Vida: Mezcal + pink grapefruit juice + mineral water

8 Next-Level Experiences

Consumers are placing a high value on their cocktail experiences. Redefine and translate this into affordable luxury and premiumization, which then becomes a repeatable revenue generator. Entice guests via flavor-deepening techniques and memorable experiences that raise the bar.

Ice Ball Cocktails: A frozen sphere topped with spirit. Drink it quickly or allow the ice to mellow the cocktail as it melts. Reload with an additional shot or even change it up
Swift’s Attic, Austin, Texas
Whistlechops & Applesauce: A savory Old Fashioned featuring WhistlePig Rye 10 Year, Laird’s Applejack, apple butter and pork-infused maple syrup
The Study at The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas

Try This

  • Barrel-Aged Negroni: Traditional Negroni aged for two months in bourbon/whiskey barrels
  • Shimmering Martini: Pomegranate martini + edible glitter

9 Keep It Simple

There is something to be said for a minimalist approach to cocktails as a way to provide clarity amongst the sea of cocktail menu complexity and showmanship. Demonstrate the character of the ingredients and your establishment via refined simplicity.

Rum & Coconut: Cruzan Black Strap from Saint Croix, shaken with coconut water and served inside of a young coconut
Caña Rum Bar, Los Angeles
Nilla Wafer: Hennessy, Grand Marnier, vanilla
Verandah, Cary, N.C.

Try This

  • Spiced Old Fashioned: Bourbon + spiced maple syrup + vanilla bean + bitters
  • Penicillin: Scotch + ginger + lemon + orange-blossom honey + smoked bitters

10 Plant-Forward

It seems natural that tenets of plant-based menu development would translate to cocktails as these drinks can match the values consumers hold close. As guests become more informed, cocktails need to be just as informed. Look to savory, botanical and vegetable infusions.

Wakaba: Iichiko Saiten shochu, vermouth, tomatillo, Thai basil, wasabi salt
Katana Kitten, New York
A Strange Harvest: Tequila, snap pea, carrot, vermouth, lemon, Strega, almond
Biltong Bar, Atlanta

Try This

  • Lavender Bee’s Knees: Gin + lavender-infused lemon juice + wildflower honey
  • Elote Sipper: Pepita-infused tequila + sweet corn syrup + lime juice + cilantro sprig

About The Author

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ROB CORLISS is a three-time James Beard House guest chef with more than 20 years of experience that includes running world-class hotels, launching new concepts, working in top marketing agencies and, currently, owning a consulting company, ATE (All Things Epicurean), focused on flavor, menu and restaurant innovation. Based in Nixa, Mo., he has an energizing passion for food and is dedicated to connecting people to their food, environment and wellness.