After the annual bacchanal in New Orleans, bartenders return home with a flood of ideas, most of them at the elevated realm of craft cocktails – ideas about bitters, shrubs, tinctures, smoke, hand carved ice, fresh ingredients, obscure spirits and liqueurs – lots of things. But not every venue can, nor should, adapt all the lessons learned. It’s no longer easy to stand out as a cocktail bar – as one young bartender recently told me, “Customers these days can get a good Manhattan just about everywhere” – and so adapting to your customers’ needs is what matters.
Inspiration can come from many sources, however, and taking ideas from anywhere, rather than limiting your beverage program to the influences approved by the usual suspects, is what keeps creativity churning.
What, for instance, about ice cream? Most bartenders hate the idea of incorporating ice cream or ice or sherbet or gelato into drinks, but customers have proven over and over again that they eat it up. And if you want a historical connection, there are plenty of punch recipes that call for cooling with sherbet.
Summer drinks fit especially well with an ice cream zip, and what would work better than a frozen concoction already bearing drink-ready flavors, as made at places like What’s the Scoop in Portland, OR. On their menu is a list of boozy, brand-named flavors - Tennessee Honey, incorporating Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey with house-made honeycomb candy, for one; Spiced Chocolate Tequila, made with chocolate, cardamom, cinnamon, star anise and Sauza Tequila, for another.
There’s also a Kahlua Espresso, Bourbon Toffee (Maker’s Mark Bourbon with toffee), a Margarita-ish Tequila Mockingbird (Sauza Tequila ice cream, triple sec and lime), and for those of you not yet ready to retreat from meaty drinks, Maple Jack Bacon Brittle (maple ice cream flavored with Jack Daniel’s and laced with Bacon Brittle).
But what to do with ice cream? Holsteins Shakes and Buns at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas built their menu on brews and ice cream drinks. Their summer menu introduces new cocktails – notably, the Almond Joy Bamboozled Shake made with Malibu Rum, chocolate syrup, toasted coconut and candied almonds – to a lengthy list that answers the question, “What can a bartender do with marshmellow vodka?”
At Holsteins, it’s the main ingredient in Campfire Smores. Frozen Grasshoppers and a Brown Cow Float made with Smirnoff Whipped Cream Vodka, root beer, vanilla ice cream and Pop Rocks – these are not drinks most bartenders brag about, but dessert cocktails are completely legit, more so than those that hide behind an alcohol potency that’s supposed to forgive the overwhelming sweetness of some of the most popular contemporary craft ingredients.
Each year at “Tales,” a cocktail from the bad old days is buried, alive but barely kicking. The Long Island Iced Tea, Sex on the Beach, the Appletini, all have been deep-sixed. How about instead reinventing drinks no longer au courant? At Drink Well in Austin, Texas, they’ve taken a craft spirit approach to another frequently disrespected by modern barfolk, The Cosmopolitan; Drink Well’s version merges Hangar One Mandarin Blossom Vodka, Leopold Brothers Cranberry Liqueur, Paula’s Texas Orange and fresh lime juice.
Something else worth mentioning at Drink Well, among their many interesting sounding offerings – the Pearl Snap Shandy, made with Austin Beer Works Pearl Snap Pilsner, Gran Classico, grapefruit, grapefruit bitters and bitter lemon soda. Whenever beertails get the proper care, I’m there.
Beertails also got some love at “Tales,” from Adam Seger, Doug Frost and Francesco Lafranconi, with their seminar that included a “Rheinheitsgebeer,” new rules to support beertails based on the ancient German brewing laws. Among their suggestions: Seger says when designing a beertail program for a bar, focus on designing them based on the drafts. It allows you to retaste drafts in a new way and to add as little or as much beer without waste. Frost reminds that using even a lager in place of club soda adds some sweetness, weight and texture. And Lafranconi points out that rice-based beer works like a dry carbonated mixer for highball drinks.
From their seminar, one worth trying:
Rub & Rye
1.5 oz Bulleit Rye
.75 oz lemon juice
.75 oz maple syrup
1 oz egg white
5 oz Brasserie Dubaisson Peche Mel
Rim a pint or double Old-Fashioned glass with mesquite, then salt (May also use your favorite dry rub). Vigorously shake the rye, lemon, maple and egg white and strain into the rimmed glass one-half filled with ice. Top with 5 oz Brasserie Dubaisson Peche. Finish with 5 drops BBQ Bitters.