The New Chocolate Culture

“The cliché that everyone loves chocolate is true,” says Max Brenner. “Chocolate is for all ages.”

At the eponymous chocolate shop and restaurant concept, patrons of all ages indeed enjoy chocolate, although some must proffer a valid form of ID to do so.

Founder and owner Brenner has devoted his life to chocolate offerings; Max Brenner locations are focused on the decadent indulgence. From his pastries to dipping sauces to truffle-laced espresso shots, Brenner is a man known for chocolate. He now operates 24 locations that span the globe from Israel, where Brenner began his rich love affair with the sweet-tooth staple — and where his staff makes the chocolate according to Brenner’s recipe for all locations— to Australia. But it’s in the Big Apple where he experiments in blending his chocolate creations with adult beverages. The cocktail component began in July 2006 when Brenner first opened shop stateside.

“Like every aspect of the Max Brenner chocolate experience, I come up with a clear vision,” says Brenner, who is something of a Willie Wonka for the grown-up set. “So for me, that means taking a step back, and looking at the city and the people there. There is no alcohol menu in the Israel and Australia locations. For America, it was a must.”

But creating his cocktail menu — which features 20 to 25 drinks and accounts for approximately 7 percent of sales in the two Manhattan units serving cocktails — was not about highlighting the nuances of digestifs or bringing out the subtleties of a nice port. It was imperative to Brenner that the chocolate be the main accent point in every cocktail on the list and that every wine available complement and bring out a particular flavor in his various chocolates, as well. For Brenner, who designs the cocktail menus for his stores, the chocolate experience could never be overshadowed by the adult beverage experience.

The menu in the East Village location includes some chocolate-based cocktails with familiar partner ingredients such as Irish cream, peppermint schnapps and Frangelico. But other spirits may surprise customers. Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur, for example, illuminates the best selling Max’s Lover Martini, alongside Smirnoff Vodka and white chocolate truffle.

Unique twists underscore the concept’s upscale European sense of style. If you order a hot chocolate cocktail, it comes with a shot of your choice of Kahlua or brandy in an antiquated, miniature pharmacy bottle.

Of course, incorporating chocolate into drinks requires special know-how.

“The only challenge is that chocolate is made of fat, and cocktails are like water, and fat and water don’t mix well,” Brenner says. “We had to create a special emulsifying process that creates chocolate ganache. We mix the alcohol with the ganache.” Ganache refers to a variety of icings and fillings for pastries and glazes. Candy-makers often use a chocolate ganache to fill the center of pastries.

Cocktails are comparably with specialty drinks offered at upscale restaurants and bars — that is to say, the drinks are not cheap. For instance, the Sergeant Peppermint Chocolate Martini is $11. But the price point still plays well in the current economic climate, Brenner says; it’s a classic case of an affordable indulgence. After all, what’s more decadent than chocolate or more relatively affordable than a great cocktail? Even for those seeking an affordable indulgence, value has a certain appeal. The bar menu at both New York City locations has a two-for-one Happy Hour special every weekday from 4 to 8 p.m., and Brenner is toying with developing cocktail-centered holiday promotions this year.

Expansion of the chocolate-inspired cocktail menu is in the works, as is opening more stores in the United States, each with its own cocktail bar.

“This country is so big, and there is still a lot of room for us to grow here,” Brenner posits. “As far as I know for the chocolate market in the world, there is nothing like [this concept]. No one is doing something on the scale of what we do here with the festive atmosphere, over-the-top design, the chocolate displays, unique utensils, our cocktails and our (on-premise) shops. It is an overwhelming experience.” NCB

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