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Narrative menus: ‘Creating cocktails is an art form’

Bartenders are increasingly looking to the art world to inspire their cocktail menus. SB discovers the serves that take their lead from great artists and cutting-edge technology.

Augmented reality at City Social

*This article was originally published in the June 2017 edition of The Spirits Business

From architecture to design, fashion to music, the creative industries have become intertwined in a way never seen before, and this has had an unprecedented impact on the design and execution of bar concepts and cocktail programmes. In the past couple of years progressive bars the world over have turned away from conventional menus to explore off­-the-­wall concepts such as story-­telling, sensory drinks and historical cocktails. Among these, an increasing number of menus aspire to be a piece of art – while others aim to reflect works of art. It was only available for a short time, but one of the most talked-­about art­-inspired menus of late has been the Elements of Art menu at the Hong Kong edition of Artesian at The Langham.

Taking inspiration from three of the world’s most renowned artworks – Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, and Piet Mondrian’s Tableau I – former bar manager Rajendra Limbu created three bespoke cocktails using egg white as a canvas. Each cocktail took around 15 minutes to craft using a toothpick and food dye to draw each artwork. “We wanted to convey that art takes many shapes and forms, even drinkable art,” says the bar’s current manager, Joe Chan. “Creating cocktails is certainly an art form where we have to think about the taste as well as the presentation to inspire people to want more.” Hong Kong has become the world’s newest art capital, he adds. “The city is filled with talented people and we wanted to share our artistic capabilities as well.”

Gerald Scarfe at Scarfes Bar

Elsewhere, art-­inspired drinks are part of many a bar’s narrative. At Scarfes Bar in London’s Rosewood hotel, the walls are adorned with the work of cartoonist, illustrator and designer Gerald Scarfe – reflected in the menu in liquid form. The concept is inspired by Rosewood’s New York iteration, the Carlyle Hotel, which houses Bemelmans Bar, named in honour of Ludwig Bemelman, an illustrator of children’s books. “He literally sold his art to the bar,” Rosewood London’s bar manager Martin Siska tells me. “He was drawing on the walls for half of the rent in the hotel, where he was staying with his family. We wanted to implement that same idea.”

But how do you go about channeling something so visual as an art piece into a representative flavour? “There is a lot of connection between what Gerald does and what we do,” says Siska. “Bartending is a type of art. He is using colours to paint his caricatures and his imagination – the same things we are using to create the cocktail, except with ingredients.” He points to Harry Potter­-inspired creation Polyjuice Potion, served in a glass bottle, containing Ron Zacapa 23, black cardamom maple syrup, lemon juice, IPA, and ‘salamander blood’ – or, truthfully, pomegranate juice – topped with a wooden straw to represent a wand. Designing a cocktail using this approach can help educate consumers. “Sometimes nobody has heard of the ingredients,” Siska explains. “They say, ‘what is a porcini? What is galangal? What is a reduction? What is salamander blood? The bartender or person on the floor can explain what it is and why it’s used. If the menu just says ‘strawberry gin and tonic’, nobody is going to ask you what it is.”

Piet Mondrian at Artesian HK

Bringing the art concept to the digital age is Jason Atherton’s Michelin-­starred restaurant and bar City Social, which in April unveiled the world’s first augmented reality (AR) drinks menu. The menu “brings cocktails to life” through the theme of ‘art through the ages’; a different artist or era, from Art Nouveau to Banksy, influences each serve. Take Dogstone Brew, a clarified milk punch containing Hendrick’s gin, Port, bergamot, black tea, split milk and orchid root – when viewed with the Mirage app, the drink is accompanied by floating Victoriana balloons and the sort of images that Terry Gilliam designed for Monty Python.

The concept came about “long before the Pokemon Go phenomenon”, says City Social’s bar manager Tim Laferla, who created the menu with Jamie Jones, group bar executive of The Social Company. “Jamie was having dinner with a friend one night… who happened to work in the Hollywood special effects industry on big-name films such as Star Wars. This spawned a conversation about how to use the latest technology in an interactive and immersive way, given Jamie’s passion for cocktails.”

Doesn’t it just mean that people have their heads stuck into their phones more than ever – a common gripe among bartenders? Laferla says that Mirage actually “provides a talking point beyond just the drinks”, opening up conversation on art, technology, time periods and locations. “It encourages people to share an experience and use their devices in a social way,” he explains. “We’re embracing technology and adapting its use to actually be more social.”

While mastering a “world’s first” is a coveted accolade, for the City Social team, the desire to sling delicious cocktails will always come first. “It’s a drinks menu, after all,” says Laferla. “When you strip everything away, we wanted to have a great, well­-balanced flavour combination that was accessible to consumers. We didn’t want to build a menu of intimidating drinks that the industry would love but consumers would be sceptical of.” The interaction is optional, Jones stresses. “If you don’t want to ‘play’ with your drink, you don’t have to, they stand up by themselves with or without the app.”

The Plein Air cocktail at Epicurean

While referencing widely known artists might guarantee social media points, not all bars have taken the same route. Take Epicurean in Edinburgh’s G&V Royal Mile Hotel, which has a strong emphasis on supporting the local scene – to the extent that artists and designers from the city create the hotel’s suites and staff uniforms.

The cocktail menu is inspired by The Scottish Colourists, who went to Europe and Northern Africa and introduced their experiences into their work. “We wanted to create a similar cocktail menu, where we took our favourite ingredients and flavours from those areas and mixed it with our own local produce,” says bar manager Matthew Wakeford, who adds that art will always play a significant role in Epicurean’s drinks.

As such, designing the menu called for a radical approach. In the same way that artists might approach a blank canvas, the team “began by ordering a lot of ingredients and laying them in a colour spectrum, and seeing which similarly­-coloured ingredients complemented each other,” he explains. Next came ingredients sourcing. Big on sustainability, Epicurean is the first bar in Scotland to grow herbs using an Evogro hydroponic, and harvests its honey from one of three beehives on the roof – home to 180,000 honey bees.

The final stage, says Wakeford, was complementing the flavours of the drink with a corresponding spirit – “probably fairly unusual for a cocktail menu”. It was Pablo Picasso who spoke of learning the rules of art before systematically breaking them, and much the same can be said for the bartending industry. Indeed, the relationship between bartender and artist extends beyond their similar creative processes.

Bartending tends to be, in Wakeford’s words, “a very nomadic career” – and both industries are boundlessly innovative. For City Social’s Laferla, the future of the cocktail industry lies in outside influences. “The further we look into modern drinks, the more people will continue to draw from their experience of travel, art, places, technology and other industries, rather than just looking inward to what everyone else is doing,” he says. “There won’t be any true innovation unless we continue to look for outside inspiration.”

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