A Little Respect

Passion Fruit TeaJust a few short weeks ago, I was waving goodbye to the New Jersey coastline, lounging poolside in the sun aboard the Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas. As if on cue, a smiling server appeared with a tray of fresh Piña Coladas and a bottle of dark rum in hand. No need to twist my arm. With a flourish, he topped the creamy concoction with the rum and handed me a luscious libation that proved to be the first of many that week.

In fact, it was one of 6,800 blended drinks imbibed by passengers during the nine-day cruise, produced by 28 blenders that seemed to be going 24/7. In all, nearly 7 million blended drinks were enjoyed on Royal Caribbean ships in 2010, according to Director of Fleet Beverage Operations Bob Midyette, with the Piña Colada consistently among the top sellers.

Traditionally a must-have on some drink menus, such as Royal Caribbean’s, and a seasonal requirement on others, blended drinks typically are absent from the drink lists of serious cocktail bars. However, the shift to high-quality ingredients, equipment and techniques that has characterized the recent cocktail craze now is taking hold in the blended-drink segment, and the results are delicious, not to mention profitable.

“I used to hate blenders, mainly because they slowed me down,” explains Jeremy Strawn, partner and bartender at Mulberry Project, a speakeasy-style restaurant-lounge in lower Manhattan. Strawn is a recent convert to blender use. “Now, it’s about giving the customer a really good, interesting product, so I’ve embraced the blender with open arms for our outdoor patio and garden [which opened in May].”

For the lounge’s spring/summer drink offering, Strawn employs a powerful 3-horsepower, multi-head Hamilton Beach Tempest to churn out his signature Champagne Piña Colada: white spiced-flavored rum, vanilla coconut milk, pineapple and Champagne grapes, topped with Champagne.

“I think blenders got a bad rap over the years because you saw beach bars and other bars pouring bum juice into the blender, turning it on and serving it to people. A blended cocktail can be both great-tasting and interesting as long as you are using quality products,” he says.

The Mulberry Project

The Mulberry Project in Manhattan readies its blender for summer fun on the patio.

Chicago-based Bar Chef Adam Seger agrees. “As [food critic] John Mariani once told me, there are no bad dishes, just bad cooks,” he says. Using quality ingredients in a quality blender, he notes, is the difference between a ho-hum frozen concoction and a memorable one that drives patron satisfaction and profits.

A blender provided Seger’s early inspiration for creating specialty beverages; his aunt taught him to make banana smoothies as a child.

“Blenders are about fun and texture, and frozen drinks are about escapism, something customers in this day and age can really appreciate,” says Seger, who is cocktail ambassador for Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises in Chicago and founder of hum Spirits LLC.

Seger recently installed blenders at the eight Salt Lounge locations situated in iPic and Gold Class Theaters, where he serves as consulting mixologist. He is gearing up to add frozen concoctions to the lounges’ craft-cocktail lineup.

Revolution Ice Shaker

Using quality ingredients in a quality blender is the key to making a memorable frozen drink.

The trick to stand-out blended drinks, he says, is “lots of intensely flavored, fresh ingredients and a touch more sweetness. The frozen texture increases your perception of acid and decreases your perception of sweetness.” For his frozen hum Margarita, he increases the agave nectar by 25% from the traditional recipe. His other piece of advice: “Hire bartenders who like to cook and who see blenders as the bar power tool.”

As with any cocktail creation, blended-drink development requires a systematic approach to ensure flavors are balanced and that the drink can be replicated with speed and consistency. While craft cocktailians often will opt for fresh ingredients, high-quality purées and mixes now are readily available. Seger is a fan of Perfect Purée, while Midyette is a loyalist to the Island Oasis system, which came on board Royal Caribbean vessels in 2003.

“It allowed us to deploy an all-natural product with state-of-the-art equipment and, most importantly, execute it with precision,” Midyette explains. “It also saved us money, because we found that bar staff had been adding cans of sweetened coconut concentrate to the previous Adam SegerPiña Colada mix to make it taste better.”

A workhorse blender unit is a must-have, and today’s equipment is designed with myriad features, such as pre-programmed settings, powerful motors, large capacity containers, easily cleaned elements and finishes and low noise levels. Leading vendors include Hamilton Beach, Waring and Vitamix. Noise reduction, power and consistency are the top demands of blender-loving bar chefs, and innovators are responding. The high-powered Vitamix Quiet One operates at a noise level four times below that of typical units. Hamilton Beach’s new Revolution Ice Shaver Blender features an ice portioning system that dispenses the exact amount of shaved ice required for the drink recipe. Island Oasis provides turnkey systems including mixes, recipes, Shaver Blender units with one-touch operation and marketing support for blended-beverage menus.

Advances in blender technology now make top-of-the-line units coveted items among bartenders. In fact, I once overheard a tender sighing that he had “blender envy” over Seger’s prized Vitamix machine.

Beyond the blender, think seriously about setting up for success. Midyette of Royal Caribbean can’t say enough about the importance of glassware for blended drinks.

“It’s critical, and ours is custom,” he says. “We use a plastic pilsner with metallic ink that makes the design pop even with a frozen drink in the glass. We were persistent [with vendors] to get what we wanted. That’s how important we felt the glass and design would be to our merchandising efforts.”

On the operational front, “keep refrigeration close to a dedicated blender station, and get a cover for your blender to minimize noise. And keep the area organized,” Seger advises.

“Ice! Make sure you have plenty of ice,” Strawn quips.

Seger adds, “If you have proper mise en place and a quality blender, these are fast and profitable drinks.” NCB

Blended Drinks Dos & Don’ts

Don’t leave your patrons — and your registers — less than satisfied:

Ditch the cheap stuff. Just because they’re going in a blender doesn’t mean the ingredients should not be quality. From fresh produce to a packaged purée or mix, go for the good stuff. Don’t skimp on the spirit quality, either. The proof and the profits are in the end product. Guests will taste the difference and be willing to ante up for another if the drink delivers.

Respect the ice. Blenders that pre-shave ice avoid the lumps that result from not blending enough as well as the loose drink consistency that results from blending too much; reduced noise also is a plus. If adding ice to the blender, do so at the last possible moment — after the other ingredients — to achieve just the right water content in the final product.

Pay attention to glassware and garnish. Patrons drink with their eyes, and the bright colors and rich textures make blended drinks particularly appealing, but only when presented properly in appropriate glassware and with interesting garnishes.

Merchandise via the menu and point of sale. Use photos and enticing descriptions. Blended drinks are a bit of an indulgence, so patrons need a well-designed visual nudge.

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