Cocktails on the Edge

In the Rocks at The Aviary in Chicago. Photograph by Barry Brecheisen.

The Craft Cocktail Movement is experiencing a change. While a handful of independent cocktail and mixology bars are still able to get away with making guests wait 10 minutes or longer for complicated cocktails, many guests have grown impatient. However, these guests still expect high quality, innovative, sophisticated – even edgy – cocktails. Many independents have struggled to turn their several-touch cocktails into 3- or 4-touch drinks.

Chain restaurants enjoy an advantage in this area of service. First, they have real buying power, meaning they can often get their hands on the unique bar tools, ingredients and glassware necessary for edgy cocktail builds. Restaurant chains are also well equipped to streamline and standardize complicated cocktail recipes, ensuring consistency and speed, two things that enhance the guest experience.

Edgy cocktails, of course, enhance the guest experience in their own right. Normally the dominion of upper echelon mixology bars, edgy cocktails are, to be fair, not expected to be found on chain restaurant menus. Providing just one or two signature edgy offerings would be seen as a departure from the usual expectations, and the ability to prepare such cocktails quickly would further enhance a customer’s visit.

But what is an “edgy” cocktail? In the 1990s, the most likely answer to that question would have been flaming shots or drinks. As more of the top bartenders in the country began learning about molecular mixology, however, the science of cocktail creation and interest in unique ingredients led to more complicated builds. Libations became, arguably, more impressive as well.

One cocktail destination known for taking cocktails to the absolute limit of what they can be is The Aviary in Chicago. Charles Joly, a proponent of simple cocktails built correctly in just a few steps, designed the program at The Aviary as the ultimate expression of cocktail progression. Tobacco foam, a cocktail served in a plastic bag, one that changes color and flavor profile with each pour from its specially designed vessel… All of those and more can be found on The Aviary menu. Joly left The Aviary in 2014 to pursue different opportunities. One of those is Crafthouse Cocktails, a company dedicated to producing high quality bottled classic cocktails with the finest ingredients. But before, during and after Joly was at The Aviary, limits were and are still being pushed.

One edgy cocktail that shoves the boundaries is called In the Rocks, and it’s a perfect example of a creation that can be adapted for chain restaurants. Before Joly put his stamp on the program, In the Rocks was an Old Fashioned inside of a shell made of ice. When Joly got to it, it became a Vieux Carré – a classic New Orleans cocktail – inside of a shell made of water and bitters. Some may view the cocktail as a novelty; after all, the name makes it clear that the cocktail is a play on a drink served on the rocks. However, the addition of bitters to the water that creates the ice and the fact that guests have to smash the sphere open with a sling elevate the cocktail to an interactive experience. In the Rocks takes a classic, familiar cocktail to the edgy in terms of technique and customer participation. One of the reasons it has remained on The Aviary’s menu since 2011 is that it isn’t so edgy that it’s alien to guests.

Customers can make a Vieux Carré at home. What they may be less inclined to do is take the time to create the bitters-infused ice sphere. Chain restaurants can easily adapt the interactive portion of the drink by incorporating something as simple as a bar spoon for guests to crack open the cocktail. There are other edgy cocktails on The Aviary’s menu, obviously. But In the Rocks is the simplest for chain restaurants to adapt. Even better, chains could conceivably use Crafthouse Cocktails for variations on In the Rocks, changing the bitters to work with each riff. Operators can also, of course, prebatch signature or classic cocktails to work with In the Rocks-type edgy cocktails. Either technique will result in quickly built, consistent-quality extreme-style cocktails that wow guests.

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