Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Proof Positive

Fruity, herbal notes highlight a low-proof aperitif of vodka and apple/thyme-infused water in mixologist Kathy Casey’s H2O cocktail. A sprig of thyme and green-apple accents emphasize the fresh flavors. Photo courtesy of purity vodka. Develop a list of no- and low-alcohol libations to ensure a drink menu that serves every guest

By Robin Schempp

About one-third of potential restaurant guests are non-drinkers, and many more are light or “flexitarian” imbibers. Both groups, however, want to enjoy the conviviality and inclusiveness of an adult beverage. They’re looking for a sophisticated drink that doesn’t label them a “party pooper” (club soda with lime), relegate them to a kiddy cocktail (overly sweet riffs on the Shirley Temple) or stick them with the lowest common denominator (wine spritzer or iced tea).

Here are some strategies for building a list of zero- to positive-proof signatures that do not discriminate against those non-drinkers or light drinkers in the party.

Zero-Proof Know-How
While there are two schools of thought on developing spirit-free drinks — substitution versus design building — some general principles apply. Dry and savory notes and layered flavors and textures are critical, and effervescence always helps. Regardless of the style of mocktail you are creating, it is OK to charge for your effort, but remember to serve the drink in elegant and appropriate glassware, garnish it and give it a name worthy of a more spirited option.

Adapting a popular or traditional base cocktail so it works without the flavor-carrying spirits takes some trial and error but is an excellent drink-development exercise. Using an alcohol-free version of a base liquor or wine is the simplest approach, but remember that the replacements carry less zip and often more sugar and may need to be offset with additional bitter, savory, sour, spice or salt. A non-alcoholic cocktail was created for this year’s Tales of The Cocktail event in New Orleans as an alternative for teetotalers or over-imbibed participants. The Fre Thyme, developed by Natalie Bovis of The Liquid Muse, is a lovely Mimosa-inspired cocktail that uses Fre Sparkling Brut, an alcohol-removed wine, as its main component and tops it off with blood-orange juice and fresh thyme syrup.

For the highest-quality cocktail (worthy of cocktail prices), simply omitting the main alcoholic ingredient is insufficient. Sweet ingredients must never replace the spirit. When in doubt, go dry, tangy, bitter or sour. In Boston, Eastern Standard’s acclaimed Stormy Monday does just that by combining fresh lime juice, spicy ginger beer and herbal toning bitters for an invigorating rather than insipid spirit-free option.

>  When swapping out the alcohol, choose ingredients with the similar bracing, hot, bitter, zippy, menthol (or other complex element) of the original spirit. Spicy ginger may add the heat of rye, smoky Lapsang Souchong tea infusion imparts the peat of Scotch, apple-cider gastrique can lend the knottiness of applejack, while a fresh verjus contributes the green, herbaceousness of gin.

Lacking a full liquor license, Northern Spy created the Spy Cup, a fortified-wine cocktail made with Dubonnet, ginger wine and vermouth. Photo courtesy of northern spy food co. BRING ON THE BALANCE
Designing a new liquor-free libation from a blank glass can be more challenging. As with any modern cocktail development, it’s a matter of balance and refinement. Knowing that the volume of soda or juice is likely to be in higher ratio signals the need for an equalizing note of contrast. Sour from citrus is the most readily available and reliable choice, and it works unless it is the sole counterbalance or your cocktail already has a lot of fruit flavor.

Bitter, astringent and tangy ingredients also work; a current favorite is a good-quality vinegar. In forms borrowed from the back of the house, such as agrodolce, gastrique or syrupy reduction or simply straight up in varieties ranging from heirloom cider, aged sherry, white raspberry, Banyuls and of course, balsamic vinegar, the right quantity in the right cocktail perfectly harmonizes.  Brooklyn’s top cocktail destination, the Clover Club, offers a Strawberry Blonde of muddled strawberries, freshly ground black pepper, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, grenadine and a surprising but delicate touch of white balsamic vinegar.  The drink, a play on the actual Clover Club cocktail, has perfect equilibrium, with or without the optional rum.

> Astringent herbs, whether from fresh muddling, prepared tinctures, bitters or even dry sodas (such as Fentimans Dandelion & Burdock soda) also bring brilliant balance to a spirit-free concoction. Remember that bitters often can be alcohol-based, and though they are used in small quantities, it is best to know what you have before you offer a strict non-drinker a cocktail containing them.

For the guest looking to lower the octane and enjoy a less-spirited drink or perhaps a longer drinking session, the development job is a little easier. Alcohol in any amount captures and conveys flavors, so even those made with smaller amounts of lower-proof fermented or distilled bases can still be heavy on sophisticated flavor and comparatively light in alcohol content.

There is no denying the proliferation of the appetite-enhancing before-dinner cocktail, a custom in southern Europe.  Light and slightly bitter Italian and French aperitifs, such as Bonal Gentiane, Gran Classico or an array of amaro — most of which come in at 20 percent or lower alcohol by volume — have become more available in America only recently, perhaps following the rebranding success of Campari and its newer Aperol. Italian-style aperitivos almost always include sparkling water, so even a 16 percent pour becomes 8 percent with dilution, promoting longer hours of indulgence. In the Mediterranean, this either stimulates more eating, more drinking, or both — a trick of the trade to extending dayparts and check averages.

Italian multi-unit Fig & Olive has taken the aperitivo custom to heart by offering an entire menu of cocktails that are served with small-bite cicchetti, as traditionally done in Italy. Its delightful Pampelmino, consisting of Aperol, Cocchi Americano, fresh lemon juice and grapefruit foam, prepares the appetite for the accompanying treats as well as any additional drinks to follow.

> A slew of old-style aperitifs continues to enter the market. Some may have been sitting on the back bar for years but are just now coming into style again. Look for quinine- or cinchona-based Gentiane Quina or Cocchi Americano; the astringently fruity Rabarbaro Zucca, used like Campari; sour cherry Maurin Quina; savory, cardoon-enhanced Cardamaro and artichoke-infused Cynar; and herbals such as Italian Fernet, Czech Becherovka or French Bonal.  One approach for deciding how to blend them is just to taste each with a few splashes of soda, which, once garnished, is a perfectly acceptable and simple way to offer aperitifs.

Many of our earliest mixed drinks were made with robustly flavored fortified wines. The earliest was probably intensely intricate sherries, which form the base for a diversity of drinks ranging from a swash-buckling grog to an elegantly refined sipper. At Nopa, a culinary-bar destination in San Francisco, Amontillado sherry serves as a flavorful foundation for a simple yet intriguing Expat, starting like a champagne cocktail with an Angostura bitters-soaked raw sugar cube and finished with good sparkling Cava.

Other aromatized wines, such as vermouth, Port, Lillet, Dubonnet, and my favorite, Pineau des Charentes, make bountiful blenders. Though they share grapes as their foundation, these bases are as unique and different from each other as Mexican mezcal is from American rye, adding dense multifaceted flavor to the finished product. In Portland, Ore., the signature list at the revered Teardrop Cocktail Lounge includes a Diplomat 7 (with credit given to Harry Craddock, Savoy Cocktail Book, 1933), a blend of Dolin dry vermouth, Punt e Mes, Luxardo maraschino and bitters. The beauty of these complex but low-proof mixers is that they can be layered without creating a booze bomb. New York’s farm-to-table-oriented Northern Spy, lacking a full liquor license, gets creative with fortified-wine cocktails. Its namesake Spy Cup blends Dubonnet with ginger wine and two varieties of vermouth.

> For those unaccustomed to blending with fortified or aromatized wines, the best strategy is to start with a few classic cocktails. A Port Tonic, which is just as it sounds, is a simple jumping-off point; try it with ruby, tawny and/or white port. Depending on the season, use the highest-quality or house-made tonic and garnish with a variety of citrus.

Shorter pours are one way to lower a cocktail’s alcohol content. On its “low-alcohol options” menu, The Cactus Club offers half shots in drinks like the Cohiba, featuring blackberries, spearmint and lemon muddled with vodka and soda. Photo courtesy of the cactus club. VINO VARIATIONS
Not all grape-based cocktails rely on fortified wines, nor are they all sangrias or spritzers, both of which are a natural fit on appropriate drink menus. Bars without a full liquor license or those with extensive wine-by-the-glass offerings find cocktails made with still and sparkling wines a natural extension.

Wine may be just the right vehicle to lend a cocktail the needed complexity. Some bar chefs make syrups from their wines, while others find  the right blending techniques and accompaniments for a cocktail-standard beverage. Sommelier/mixologist Todd Thrasher of PX in Alexandria, Va., includes several wine-based cocktails in his repertoire; in addition to his house champagne cocktail, he offers A Pleasantly Bitter Beginning, comprising Sauvignon Blanc with grapefruit, citrus vinegar, Ketel One and grapefruit bitters.

Featuring wine cocktails provides a more natural crossover opportunity for customers who don’t often opt for mixed drinks.  Charleston, S.C., culinary destination Husk knows that sparkling wine carries a wide range of flavors and aromas, especially when blended with seasonal ingredients. A recent example is its Champagne Cocktail, with the enticing addition of Domaine de Canton ginger-soaked strawberries, lemon grass and lavender simple syrup with black pepper.

> By making your mix at least 60 percent wine, you can afford small additions of flavorful, even spirited ingredients needed to make the final result more exciting and complex than a glass of wine. Red wine is a rich and multifaceted blending base.

The trend of beer-based cocktails has been relatively slow to catch on but is now making its mark. It may take a bit of experimentation, but beer can be a beautiful base from which to build a low-spirited elixir. The fizz, weight and some alcohol help transmit flavors in a lighter cocktail that still has some gravitas.

With its cultural and historical roots, the Michelada — a sort of spicy Mexican shandy — and the shandy itself are simple starting points. The small Mexican chain Rosa Mexicana offers a list of Michelada-inspired blends. The deliciously creative El Betabel combines lager and fresh-squeezed beet and lime juices with several dashes of Mexican hot sauce, served over ice with salt.

And lest you think that beer cocktails are reserved only for casual ethnic restaurants, Manhattan’s venerable culinary mecca wd-50’s most popular cocktail is beer-based. The PH starts with sweet-tart raspberry lambic and includes raspberry puree, a little vodka, lychee syrup, lemon juice and rose water. And in Austin, Texas, Haddingtons Tavern’s Flippin’ Wisenheimer starts with wheat beer and finishes with an intriguing mix of Old Tom, orange cordial, allspice, acid phosphate and a foamy farm egg.

> Play with styles and weights of beers and ales to reach both the right consistency and flavor.  Often a beer that may have too much flavor to drink on its own makes a delightful blending medium.  Try sour ales, fruity brews and Saisons in your concoction. And don’t neglect non-beer brews; hard cider and mead also add a captivating element to a finished cocktail.

This category of lower-buzz cocktails could include shorter pours, taller, thinner glasses, better and better-for-you mixers and ingredients in smaller quantities. Using typically stocked bar spirits makes the job simpler but can be a slippery slope when it comes to perceived value versus cost. However, casual-dining chain Bonefish Grill determined its core guests would pay for the privilege of being offered a bonafide guilt-free cocktail. Starting with off-the-shelf tequila for its Skinny Rita Tini, Bonefish Grill finishes it simply but stylishly with just-squeezed lime juice and naturally sweet agave nectar.

Perhaps just reducing the size of the glass and slightly adjusting the price might also do the trick. In British Columbia, the culinary-minded Cactus Club chain goes a step further with a “Low Alcohol Options” menu, which offers half-sized drinks and half shots along with low-proof beers and virgin cocktails.

Another approach is to use low- or reduced-alcohol spirits, such as Soju (Shochu), sake or creamy Makgeolli (drunken rice), or the lower-alcohol fermented versions of classically distilled spirits like vodkas or tequilas (these are actually wines made from the same base ingredients, such as agave or potato).  At Komi in Washington, D.C., bartenders combine intense sparkling sake with a deep port for their Formosa. The sake adds a subtly sophisticated sweetness and lightly fermented adult flavor in a less spirituous, more food-friendly format.

> Combat low perceived value of lower-quantity or lesser-proof base ingredients by either making it up in the rest of the glass with unique, house-made or artisan ingredients or marketing the finished cocktail’s enhanced properties, such as lower calories or better-for-you positioning.


About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.