How to Build a New Drink Menu

Mae Governale, Oak + Char

Mae Governale was given the task of creating the cocktail program at Chicago’s new Oak + Char, and among other influences, she chose to develop the menu as an homage to friends. In our brief interview, we ask her what it takes to launch a new cocktail menu today, and how she managed it, including creating a vegan frozen drink.

You've launched Oak + Char with a menu of drinks named after actual people - did they serve as specific inspiration for each drink?

Every cocktail on our list was named after someone that inspired and supported us during its development. After finding ourselves agonizing over clever phrases and getting seduced by terrible puns, we decided to shift the focus off of ourselves and to where it belongs in a bar - on the patron. Hopefully, with this format we can show our gratitude and allow the cocktail compositions to better speak for themselves.

The Margot is not only frozen but vegan - is there much call for vegan cocktails?

Most cocktails are gluten-free, so it goes without saying that most are also vegan. The Margot specifically, a chocolate-creamy drink, isn't one someone would assume is dairy-free. When I saw the distinction had made its way on to the menu, I left it as an invitation in the hopes it might make someone feel more welcome in an environment where they might not be used to being.

The name "Oak + Char" suggests whiskey, but only a couple or so of the opening menu cocktails include any - why is that?

Char and especially oak play significant roles in defining the characteristics of many different spirits, including some of my favorite gins and rums. I hope that our team and both of the menus can introduce people to unexpected applications of our namesake.

Was there much conversation with the culinary side about what would fit best with the food menu, or were you able to wing it as you saw best?

Growing up in a bakery and having close family and friends in the back of the house, I can't value the insight of the kitchen enough. From brief conversations with Mark Avila (our sous) to reading Dana Cree's amazing blog, the kitchen stood as a source of inspiration as well as education to bring ideas to fruition.

Chicago's cocktail scene is on fire - what are the hottest trends there as you see it?

The only trends that are relevant to me are ones that lead back to human interaction. The Chicago bartenders I feel most inspired by (Meg Silvas, Paul McGee, JJ Wright) all serve amazing drinks but understand them as another tool for hospitality. The end goal is not the crafted cocktail, but the way you made the person drinking it feel, the experience you gave them. Chicago is great at cutting through bullshit and knowing what really works and I think that's evident in what's happening in the bar community right now.

Finally, is there something specific beyond fashioning great drinks that contributed to your launching menu? Any highlights you're particularly proud of?

The thing I'm most proud of in my bar is the amazing team of bartenders I'm working with. They're talented, inspiring, dedicated, and they know plenty of jokes.