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The Creative Spirit


At places like Cook Hall in Dallas, customers can get a whole hands-on cocktail kit delivered to their table. Photo courtesy of Cook Hall. The emphasis on do-it-yourself and pick-your-own turns cocktails into custom creations

By Jack Robertiello

In today’s cocktail-crazed beverage world, offering customers the chance to participate in drink making has generally been limited to nightclub bottle service and the do-it-yourself smörgåsbord of Bloody Mary bars, a weekend brunch phenomenon where the selection of ingredients ranges from simple to stupendous.

Yet as the skills of contemporary bartenders have risen dramatically, the same impulse has spurred interest among consumers in the craft and process of drink making. Cocktail parties, or at least parties with cocktails, have returned as a home-entertaining trend. With a growing respect for the classics and the ingredients needed to make them, average American restaurant guests often consider themselves experts in the field.

Operators have responded, offering to involve their guests in customizing or creating drinks with varying degrees of participation. From simply providing customers a chance to select a spirit and other ingredients that a bartender will whip into a drink, to delivering to tables a pre-made set of ingredients designed to let amateur mixologists have at it on their own, DIY is becoming an intriguing way for restaurants and bars to craft a drink niche.

ALL IN A DIY’s WORK
Examples abound: At the Nomad Hotel in New York City, a high-end tableside version of bottle service allows guests to make their own selections of spirits and mixers from a cart. At New York City’s Sotto 13, brunch guests can order a customizable Prosecco kit, allowing them to craft their own versions of Aperol Spritzes or Bellini-style eye openers. At Cook Hall at the W Hotel Dallas, customers can order a cocktail kit complete with spirit, syrup, bitters, ice and mixing glasses, and have it delivered to the table in baskets.

Not all DIY trends are as physically interactive. Manhattan’s Ward III helped pioneer the bespoke cocktail trend, in which guests and bartenders consult over flavor and spirit preferences before the bartender mixes the drink. Guests scan a list of components grouped under drink attributes (see sidebar, above), and get naming rights for the final results, with the recipe jotted down on a bar coaster and filed behind the bar in a sewing machine drawer.

“Bespoke cocktails are very personal, both for the people making them and the people drinking them,” says owner Michael Neff. “Each bartender has his own way of making cocktails, and that has had a big influence on the execution of the bespoke menu.”

And of course, the granddaddy of contemporary DIY drink making, the Bloody Mary bar, still thrives. At Tomfooleries in Kansas City, Mo., the weekend Bloody Mary bar stocks 50-plus items along with 30 or so vodkas. At Paramour in Wayne, Pa., the Bloody Mary bar starts with vodkas, housemade purée of heirloom tomatoes, 20 hot sauces, olives, fresh horseradish and house-pickled beets, onions, asparagus and okra — as well as skewered shrimp and beef jerky. At the Kachina Southwest Grill near Denver, add-ons include pickled cactus and jicama, chorizo-stuffed olives, chicharrónes, jerky, shrimp escabeche, prosciutto and Manchego skewers, and ancho-bacon stir sticks.

Portland Penny Diner evokes the traditional,
do-it-yourself custom by letting guests stir up their own “spoon drinks.” Photo courtesy of John Valls.

POSITIVE SIDE EFFECTS
After having designed do-it-yourself bars at events and some applications for foreign nightclubs, Kathy Casey, of Kathy Casey Liquid Kitchen, thinks DIY programs offer an advantage to any operator bold enough to take the correct steps to design the program to suit their concept and atmosphere.

Casey set up just such a DIY bar at last year’s Flavor Experience conference in Newport Beach, Calif., so visitors could select from an array of fruits, herbs and flavors, guided by recipes she designed that allowed for tweaks and twists. Starting from a base of either Honey Lemon Collins or Agave Lime Margarita, attendees chose add-ins from a menu that included roasted peaches, mangoes, berries, sweet peppers and complementary syrups, purées and fresh herbs, all of which were muddled and mixed in for a customized cocktail.

“This kind of program, where customers pick their own fruit mixtures or herbs, is a great attraction and, depending on the direction you take, easy to prepare for service,” she says. “The concept especially appeals to Millennials, who like to create their own things.”

For Sotto 13’s Prosecco service, co-owner Brad Nagy says it was important to mirror the restaurant’s congenial philosophy.

“Sotto 13 is all about ‘Social Italian,’ and what better way to be social than making cocktails at your table with friends? The DIY Prosecco bar was a perfect fit for our concept,” says Nagy. Results so far are good: Prosecco sales are up, but, more importantly, brunch sales are as well. “Reinforcing our ‘Social Italian’ concept and giving people a more experiential environment to enjoy with their friends and family was the key to success for us. It also gave us something to talk about to customers and media, which was very beneficial.”

The idea behind interactivity really isn’t new. Bartender Brandon Wise created the Spoon Drinks program at the Portland Penny Diner in Portland, Ore., after finding that, in the early days of the cocktail, a bartender might place before the customer a bottle of whisky, bitters and sugar needed to create an Old Fashioned, along with a spoon so they could stir their own — hence, spoon drinks.

“We wanted to give folks a myriad of flavor options, so they pick the spirit and can choose from a bunch of tinctures, bitters, sugars and syrups, and they can create their own Old Fashioneds,” he says. Servers are prepared to give a little guidance, given the bar’s 50 or so bitters and tinctures, and they explain the best way to combine ingredients. Wise likes the opportunity for great service. “That’s one of the things that’s actually a blessing — it allows us to interact with guests a little more, and what could have been a pitfall has turned into an amazing service point for us.”

Beyond the opportunity to participate in making the drink, customers seem to enjoy the group dynamic brought on by the kits, which resemble relish trays. “The whole table is engaged in the experience,” Wise says.

Launched at the Portland Penny Diner, a casual restaurant with a soda-fountain feel, the program is undergoing refinements and streamlining to fit the 120-plus seat Imperial, a sister restaurant in chef-owner Vitaly Paley’s family of Portland concepts.

As Wise points out, providing guidance is important. At San Francisco’s Elixir, where the Sunday Bloody Mary bar is a well-established destination, owner H. Joseph Ehrmann is about to launch his latest DIY “Every Monday,” a program in which guests learn how to make cocktails. Customers will browse a menu of drinks and receive a full set up to make the drink — placemat, bar tools, ingredients, and a take-home flyer that describes the history of the cocktail and how to prepare it for parties.

At Cook Hall in Dallas, the cocktail kit (a mesh basket) is presented tableside with spirit, fresh citrus, housemade fruit extracts and fresh herbs. A book of recipes is provided for inspiration, but guests are encouraged to come up with their own creations. Not on the menu, it’s a feature the servers present to each guest. (A kit suitable for two to four is $15; a set for five or more starts at $30, plus the cost of each customer’s spirit.)

“The tableside beverage program and cocktail kit works to encourage folks to socialize in a very comfortable environment,” says Darryl Jett, general manager. Some kits are themed — Bloody Brunch, Boozy and Stirred, etc. — and come complete with jiggers, ice and mixing glasses. “They create their own drinks and mix at their own pace, using their own ideas and taste as they go along.” Guests can enter their concoctions in the recipe books or share tips. Some customers return to try different ingredients each time.

Bespoke cocktails at Ward III in Manhattan allow the guest total control over ingredient selection—including naming rights. Photo courtesy of Paul Wagtouicz
PROCEED WITH CARE
Do-it-yourself programs take care and concern to function correctly. Noted bartender and author of Vodka Distilled: The Modern Mixologist on Vodka and Vodka Cocktails (Agate Surrey, 2013), Tony Abou-Ganim often hosts a DIY Mojito bar at events, and while he loves the interactivity of such programs, he has concerns of customers being given too much leeway. “I used to think that the Bloody Mary bar was a good idea, but I’ve come to believe that most people, when left to their own devices, can really screw up a drink quickly — in the case of Bloody Marys, just by not knowing how much hot sauce is too much.”

At his DIY bars, he’s found that consumers often have a heavy hand with simple syrup, for instance — hard to correct for, and a habit that can put an operator in a bad position. Let the customer try again and ratchet up the pour cost, or refuse and alienate the exact guest who’s the target for such a program. Abou-Ganim says when given a quick tutorial in ingredients, balance and techniques like muddling and shaking, the interactive quality of the event is enhanced, which is why he thinks they work best for special events, private parties and hosted affairs.

Other operational issues are crucial: Jett points out that ingredients must be at the peak of freshness and kits need to be compact enough for efficient storage and service. Neff says cost control is always a concern, as is relying on the experience of the bar staff to know how to prepare and price the cocktails. “It takes a very seasoned staff to be able to make individualized cocktails in a high-volume setting, especially when we’re trying to deliver a product that stands up to the best cocktails in the city,” he says.

Nagy says controlling prep work at the back of the house is vital, as is altering the program with seasonality and trends. And, always the culinarian, Casey (who is developing an off-the-shelf DIY program for higher volume operators) says in addition to well-written recipes, all ingredients need to be checked daily, rotated and monitored for shelf life.

Or you can go the route taken by SLS Hotel South Beach in Miami, where in-room iPads feature an app called “Shake a Drink” that allows guests to make creative cocktails from their mini bar options or bring the recipe to the hotel’s mixologist for custom creations.

No matter the scale, tapping into DIY options reveals the buzz-generating and business-building potential of a just-for-me cocktail component.

About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.