Is the modern classic cocktail under threat?

24th February, 2017 by Annie Hayes

Drinks menus inspired by fictional narratives, human emotions and ecological affairs are now replacing traditional bar lists in some of the world’s cutting edge venues, leading SB to question what the future holds for the classic cocktail concept.

Fragrances: linking memory and smell

*This feature was first published in the November 2016 edition of The Spirits Business

Conceptual menus are taking over cocktail-forward cities across the globe. The past few months have welcomed serves that are “scientifically proven” to boost the drinker’s mood, historical drinks featuring spirits spanning the past two centuries, and even artworks by Vincent van Gogh in cocktail form.

Bartenders are becoming modern-day philosophers, pushing industry boundaries and posing bold questions to society by using technology, science, history, art, gastronomy and, above all, imagination. Take London’s Duck & Waffle with its innovative Urban Foraging vs Urban Decay summer menu, which featured ingredients foraged in the capital – tree bark, wood ants, moss – and food waste such as banana skins, asparagus ends and burnt toast. Inspired by “modern city life”, the menu confronts environmental issues in a way a nagging leaflet from the local council cannot, showing that a greener lifestyle is not just sustainable, it’s palatable too.

Also set on making a statement is Ryan Chetiyawardana’s revolutionary London bar White Lyan, which launched in 2013 free from ice, fruit, brands and perishables. The bar is to “evolve” into a creative development space next year; during this transition the team will introduce five 10-week concept menus bearing 12 cocktails.

White Lyan: evolving

This experimental set-up begins with Heaps Primal Bro, exploring subconscious, primal urges and senses that have helped humans and animals alike “survive and flourish” across the ages. Take Katnip Kooler, a combination of Mr Lyan Rum, tropical orgeat, avocado oil, lettuce opium and ‘kaffeine bitters’ – guests are restricted to just one per visit because of the stimulating ingredients, each chosen for its ability to enhance motor and mental abilities as the team explores the desire for escapism.

There are challenging stories behind each drink, and while Chetiyawardana hopes the concepts inspire the industry and the public to “sit up and notice some of the ideas at their heart”, he maintains that the format is intended to be “fun and delicious, not simply academic”. “It’s about kicking off a discussion, not having all the answers – the core of what the bar’s about!” he says. “Hopefully each menu, and the concepts we explore when the bar changes, [will] all have an impact on the wider world, but in an honest way, not as a flash in the pan, or marketing fad.”

Quality focus

The idea of a menu as more than just a one-off storyline is one that Alex Harris, the co-founder of the East London local bar Behind This Wall, aligns himself with. The bar’s over-arching focus is on quality ingredients, seasonal techniques (such as pickling in winter) and a functional time-specific menu split into aperitif, highball, digestif and pousse-café. However, after using Hawaiian Poké as a launch pad, originally for bar snacks, the team decided to create “an imaginary Hawaii for each season”; placing it in a different location and using the cultural history of the area to decide which techniques would be used and what the ingredients would be. Autumn, Harris says, is based on an island off the coast of Nova Scotia with old Indian trade lines passing through – a “new England fall meets Indian summer” vibe. For winter, he is off to Finland to gleam some inspiration.

For others, however, the experience is not complete without a storyline. At the London bar series Mr Fogg’s, the entire structure is based on a narrative – a literal literary narrative – in the form of Around The World In Eighty Days by Jules Verne. Danilo Tersigni, general manager of Mr Fogg’s Residence and Tavern, says with each menu, the team “always go back to the original idea of the venue,” expanding upon both the storyline of an inventor living in Victorian England and the inspirations Verne himself gleaned when developing it.

Mr Fogg’s: narrative-led

The bar’s latest conception, Tails of the Dark Arts, allows the team to do just that. “Enchanting and secretive”, the new menu recounts Fogg’s “untold and mysterious encounters” from his adventures in cocktail format. One such drink is Mr Fogg’s Elixir of Eternal Youth; as the story goes a Yucatán Chieftain entrusted a secret chest containing a potation from the Fountain of Eternal Youth to Fogg. Imagining the flavour of such a far-fetched tale must surely require some serious creativity – but taste the concoction of Star of Bombay, Aperol, Benedictine, bergamot puree, oleo saccharum, fresh lemon juice, grapefruit juice and “drops from the Fountain of Eternal Youth” and it almost seems as though there is nothing else it should possibly be made from.

Tersigni says: “We want guests to experience something new, to be taken on an experience they haven’t had before, to learn about the narrative behind each cocktail and ultimately… have the best cocktails and service we can possibly offer.”

By contrast, top Singapore restaurant The Tippling Club, the brainchild of renowned chef Ryan Clift, encourages consumers to engage their senses rather than imaginations. Head bartender Joe Schofield conceived the Sensorium Menu, a flavour-forward cocktail programme designed to evoke deeply rooted memories by placing an emphasis on aroma. The menu is presented as a tray of blotters spritzed with the fragrance of each cocktail. One example is ‘Campfire’, a marshmallow milk, burnt syrup, ash and gin concoction reminiscent of “starry nights spent huddled around a toasty campfire”. Such a compelling menu format “inspires a positive emotional response” and “immediately breaks down the barriers of a guest and front-of-house staff,” Schofield says.

Tippling Club’s Joe Schofield

The pioneering bar Fragrances at The Ritz-Carlton, Berlin adopts a similar approach – channeling the link between memory and smell – but turning it on its head with the application of an interactive walk-through menu. The appropriately named ‘Hall of Fame’ showcases a glittering array of high-end perfumes from the likes of Giorgio Armani, Issey Miyake and Bulgari across an entire passageway flooded with mood lighting and filled with spirit bottles in glass domes and airtight containers bearing botanicals.

Individually luxurious

“If a bar lacks a concept that tells a particular story, the guests are less inclined to grow an emotional connection,” bar manager Arnd Heissen says. “These concepts do not have to be complex, but need to create the wish to join the experience. The more individual the concept, the more luxurious it becomes.”

Could this all signal the beginning of the end for the modern classic cocktail? “There’s still plenty of originality,” Chetiyawardana says, “but the simplicity of classics has largely been explored. I think people are currently focusing on the issues surrounding us – and these are transient, so the drinks will probably change, too. Until it becomes gimmicky, the opportunities are endless. As long as we develop with honesty, there’s a wealth of things to still explore.”

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