Are concept cocktail menus overused?
Simply serving good quality drinks in bars does not cut it any more. Increasingly, menus are curated around eye-catching concepts. But has the story run its course? James Lawrence investigates.
*This feature was first published in the May 2018 issue of The Spirits Business
The revolution that has swept through the bartending world over the past 15 years is nothing short of remarkable. Once regarded as a largely conservative sphere, today’s emphasis on storytelling, sensory drinks and historical cocktails would certainly surprise any time-travelling mixologist from the 1960s. So too would the sophisticated execution and design of modern cocktail concepts, the trailblazing creativity among bartenders, the number of menus that aspire to be a work of art – all of which have exploded onto the global scene.
“For so long, there was a movement from the industry to try and showcase well-made classics to their guests after the hangover of lurid drinks of the 1980s and ’90s, based on heavily processed, poor quality ingredients,” argues Ryan Chetiyawardana, founder of Cub.
“This worked eventually, but was catapulted by the growing food scene as well as TV shows such as Mad Men. This meant most folk were familiar with classical drinks and flavours, and sought something different for stimulation when they were out.”
Like all creative arts, these concepts have shifted with fashion, but at the heart of contemporary menus is the emphasis on attention-grabbing stories. The best of these concepts are worthwhile. As Chetiyawardana says, they “allow a balance towards something to intrigue guests, with none of the heavy-handedness of an overblown theme or concept”.
However, while innovation is to be applauded, as concept cocktails become more prominent on menus, could some industry members be approaching sensory overkill? Just as craft spirits criticise their corporate peers for hijacking and diluting the provenance concept, so too are leading bartenders concerned that the proliferation of outlandish concepts may result in a consumer backlash.
“I love the idea of concept cocktail menus, but only when they are pulled off well, which isn’t often,” says Daniel Beedle, group wine and beverage director for Indian Accent Restaurants. “The real question is where the cocktail scene is going. Most of it has been done before and is eye candy that gives people the idea of being fancy. A lot of the drinks aren’t that good and it is putting pressure on bartenders who focus more on flavour to ‘jazz up’ their drinks to get attention. Flavour doesn’t translate into pictures, so people will create concepts to bring attention to their programme.”
But concept cocktail menus look here to stay – art-inspired lists in particular are becoming all the rage in London. But do bartenders always feel they are worth the time and effort that goes into curating them, or is there a danger that vital messages about the quality of the base ingredients will get lost in design-heavy marketing?
Chetiyawardana reasons: “If a concept menu is done with authenticity and passion, then a concept should never overshadow the stories of flavour and quality. But a backlash will come when it’s misdirected or contrived. And that happens on both sides – those who are creating by following a fad, and those who are rebelling against it and fetishising the norm, who are simply creating a homogeneity of blandness by rejecting the need to change with the times.”
Beedle adds: “The issue lies with whether the bar spent more time developing the aesthetics than the actual flavour of the drink, which, unfortunately, is increasingly the case these days. Garnishes cost money, which could have been spent on better ingredients.”
Yet Walter Pintus, bar manager at Waeska Bar at London’s Mandrake Hotel, argues that concept menus will be the salvation of ingredient-focused mixology. “The rise of concept menus doesn’t necessarily harm the importance of base ingredients,” he says. “On the contrary, over the past few years we’ve witnessed an increased focus on the quality and provenance of ingredients, which has also gone hand in hand with the rise of craft, use of seasonal and local produce, and a major concern for sustainability.”
Nevertheless, as bars the world over continue to reject conventional menus for concept-led marketing, legitimate questions must be raised about their intrinsic value to consumers. Are such concepts vanity projects, or do consumers enjoy and, indeed, benefit from them?
Adrian Orr, bar manager at Gold On 27, Burj Al Arab Jumeirah, Dubai, says: “Our clientele includes in-house guests, tourists and local residents. All come to try the progressive cocktails, which are the main event at the bar. We use innovative technology and creativity with ingredients that are ahead of the times to ensure memorable experiences, meaning guests leave wanting to return to try something new.”
Jérôme Allaguillemette, bar manager at Sexy Fish in London’s Mayfair, agrees. “We have found that consumers enjoy the creative, fun and curious elements of our menus,” he says. “Our cocktail menu is rigorously tested on our staff and any areas of overkill are eradicated. We pride ourselves on making enjoyable cocktails with the added sensory attraction. We train our bar team to the nth degree, in order for the consumer to feel completely at ease at all times.”
Offering a more cautious approach is Bobby Hiddleston, joint owner of Swift. “Consumers will always enjoy finding something new, but the quality of the drink will be the governing factor in whether they will return,” he says.
“At Swift we don’t have a ‘concept’ menu, simply a list of drinks that we are incredibly proud of, and we find that guests will be more relaxed when they don’t feel they have to order something specific just because it is there, which a heavilydriven menu can do.”
A venue’s success in creating new trends means some will follow in their footsteps for the wrong reasons. This has the potential of moving away from boundary pushing and more towards back-patting in niche circles.
But what is undeniable is leading bars across the world now sparkle with renewed creativity, expertly balancing innovative concepts with a firm emphasis on the quality of base ingredients. This ethos draws attention to the passion and care that bartenders put into their creations, which is no bad thing. Moreover, reports of the demise of traditional menus have been grossly exaggerated – classics are timeless and, as such, will never go out of fashion.
The Connaught is a case in point. Its menu manages to grab the same attention of a ‘concept’ menu – but its concept is stripped-back elegance. Counterbalance this against a glut of new openings and trailblazing concept menus, and it becomes blindingly obvious that there is room for both the traditional and innovative in any city.
Or, as Chetiyawardana puts it: “A menu has to inspire your team and your guests. And it also has to resonate with both. If it does not, then it is just a bad menu – concept menu or not. There are as many terrible classic menus out there as there are concepts; it is not the menu that is bad, nor the bar, it is the lack of passion, honesty and care. But if it is authentic and honest, then consumers absolutely enjoy it – we are creatures who need stimuli.”