Specialization can work wonders when developing a bar menu. To that end, there are three ways to set yourself and your menu apart: Go long on a spirit, reinvent an abandoned drinking style or simply stick to the seasons.
Focus on a Spirit
Most places will always carry the basics, but if you want to make a mark, focusing your selections on the explosion of new products is a very smart way to establish your enterprise. Take the cocktail menu at Acadia in Portland, Ore., a "New Orleans bistro" that's about as far from both the current home (Louisiana) and the original home (Maine and Canada) of Cajuns as the continent allows. Mixologist Robert Shepherd's cocktail menu has some required drinks (Sazerac, Julep), some surprises (Hurricane, anyone?) and some evolutions (Old Fashioned made with peach bourbon as well as the Fig Manhattan). The latest twist is to establish an absinthe menu, featuring a handmade absinthe fountain and 12 different brands, including Swiss Absinthe Supérieure and Kübler, France’s Pernod, Jade “Nouvelle-Orléans” and Vieux Pontarlier, as well as a handful of American offerings, including Oregon’s Trillium. All receive charming tasting notes (Trillium is said to be a "very light color, slight anise component, light louche, bitter finish," while St. George from California is a “dark green color. Very thick, dark louche. Big herbal notes and big rich finish! Lemon balm, basil, tarragon, nettles,” and Delaware Phoenix “Walton Waters” from New York State is noted as a “serpentine olive color. Honey and tobacco aromas. Thick, opalescent louche. Good wormwood, huge flavor. Earthy, citris, seawater. Again, amazing.")
Reinvent a Style
If spirit focusing isn’t right for you, why not reinvent something? That’s what’s happening at Philly’s The Boilermaker, where they are putting their booze where their name is. That’s correct, bar features a full menu of beer and shot pairings named for different states: the Florida is a glass of St. Somewhere Saison Athene with a glass of Aviation gin (which, hailing as it does from Oregon, confuses me, but never mind). The New York pairs Ommegana Witte with a chilled Dolin Dry Vermouth, while the Virginia matches Cabinet Artisinal No Love Lost with Ragged Mt. Rum. And yes, there is a more traditional offering, called the Citywide — Pabst Blue Ribbon and Heaven Hill whiskey. There was a time that the classic Boilermaker in Pittsburgh, at the other end of the state, was simply ordered as “Imp ‘n Arn,” meaning a shot of Imperial Blended American Whiskey and a glass of Iron City Beer. Don't see much of either anymore.
The seasonal menu has become an almost essential part of the bar in a short period of time, so much so that even hotel bars, not traditionally seen as cutting-edge, now join in. The Park Hyatt Washington in Washington, D.C., has just unveiled a collection of seasonal spring cocktails, each made with a different variety of fresh fruit juice. Seven seasonal cocktails and seven classic cocktails include the Pisco Thyme (housemade thyme-infused pisco, lemon juice, raw sugar and lavender foam); Kentuckian Rooibos (Maker’s Mark, housemade rooibos-infused dry vermouth, ginger beer and lime juice); and the Spring Lady (Plymouth gin, peach puree, lime juice and chocolate bitters).
The Spring Lady at The Park Hyatt Washington.
More traditionally, they’ve menued the Last Word, the Margarita, Pimm’s Cup, the French 75 and a Classic Sazerac, among others, but with recipes more attuned to contemporary drinking (by which I mean using so-called boutique spirits, house infusions and bitters. Change is good, and as these three menus show, the bar is rising with the changes.