The Importance of a Well-Made Menu
Two of my favorite thoughtful bartenders — Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., and Bobby Heugel of Anvil in Houston (pictured) — have recently released new menus worth examining. The Anvil menu (available for further scrutiny here) is a sort of cocktail itself, writ large: It’s balanced, attractive, potent and intriguing. There’s this one: “Spindletop - Blackstrap & Jamaican Rum, Falernum, Islay Scotch, Allspice, Angostura Bitters - Smoky, aromatic spices, molasses. Looks like oil and tastes just as bold.” And this: “Bobby H. Burns - Scotch, Punt e Mes, Benedictine - Think Manhattan but deeper. A rich, digestif personality.” And this: “Garden Variety - Coriander-Infused Tequila, Lime, Honey,Cucumber, Mustard - Vegetal, semi-sour frothiness with a kick. Matt just wouldn't leave the mustard alone.”
These are all friendly, informative and mercifully brief. It makes sense in a market like Houston, which, no offense Houstonians, hasn’t been in the vanguard of the cocktail revolution, a place where a little hand holding and drink promotion is definitely in order. In fact, lots of places could use a bit of menu massaging, so when the cocktail geeks move on to the next new thing, a new customer base can be smoothed into their slots with a helping hand.
Or there’s Jeffrey’s way, where the ingredients speak for themselves and guests are trusted to figure out what’s likely to happen once you take a sip. (View the whole thing here). Even his barrel-aged cocktails, inspired by the work of our friend Tony Conigliaro, are offered without fuss — “ Barrel-Aged Trident: Krogstad aquavit, Cynar, Lustau sherry and peach bitters aged for two months in a Tuthilltown single malt whiskey cask.” Here’s a drink for a person who knows what he or she wants, no menu romance needed. Also worth mentioning is the Portland market, which seems to expect its drinkers to keep up, not so much with cocktail marginalia but with what is expected of a sophisticated tippler.
No one talks very much about the art of menu writing for the bar, and they should, I think. While there was a time when lengthy explanations of a drink’s pedigree made sense, there’s a bit of overkill that goes on now, with a dash of smarty pants know-it-all thrown in. You mean you don’t know who created the Blood & Sand? Plebian! Really, a little history goes down very nicely when a drink is unearthed, but no one orders a Martinez a second time just because they learned it was the precursor to the Martini.