How Does a Sommelier Build a Cocktail Menu?

Fred DexheimerNew operations routinely bring in hired gun sommeliers to set up their wine programs, but recently more of the contemporary somms have branched out into the world of mixology, setting up cocktail programs and running training sessions for staff.

Fred Dexheimer, MS, has worked in many of New York City’s top restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Jean Georges and most recently as the national wine and beverage director for the BLT Restaurant Group, and now, in addition to representing various wine regions, has set up his own full-service beverage consultancy, Juiceman Consulting, taking on cocktail programs most recently at E11even in Toronto.

Mix: What does a sommelier like yourself bring to the development of a cocktail program?

Fred Dexheimer: In general I believe sommeliers can bring an extensive amount to the table from their experiences with food and wine pairings and working with chefs. From my perspective, and what I think I bring, is that I have worked with a wide array of foods and flavors. I have been exposed and worked with everything from American, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, Steakhouse, Fish, Burger Joints, Chocolate Centric and Seasonal Concepts. Having worked with all these types of foods, the products on the bars often heavily reflect the food concept. This exposure to different types of spirits and flavors from around the world can broaden one’s cocktail "tool box." I feel fortunate to have worked in these capacities and feel I can bring a bit of all of these experiences to the bar and to the table.

Mix: Given the number of bartenders who now consult on cocktail programs as you do, what sort of expectations do you face from potential clients?

Dexheimer: Most of the clients I have worked with have been restaurant clients, not bars. I think my particular niche is different given I understand the limitations of creating and implementing a cocktail/bar program in a restaurant that serves 65% food and 35% beverage. Many cocktail programs are often a bit too ambitious for the type of client I tend to work with. I tend to keep recipes, concepts and mise en place as simple as possible, so that every bartender behind the bar can strive for consistency.

Mix: Are there particular strengths you can offer beyond the obvious ones, like knowledge and application of wine sense?

Dexheimer: My strengths come from a few different areas I'd like to believe. I feel my experience as a wine and beverage director for over a dozen units, positions me with certain advantages when dealing with clients needs as far as costs, operations, R&D and communication with the kitchen and management teams. I also think execution is often overlooked. People want a great drink but often don't want to wait a long time for it. I have learned a few tricks and shortcuts over the years to essentially offer the same hand-crafted cocktails one can find at the best cocktail bars for my restaurant clients. In the future I would like to have more to do with bar design from get-go. Unfortunately, designers today are making pretty dysfunctional backbars. I think my experience developing bars for BLT Group can greatly benefit a client in terms of the scope of what we can do from the outset. I would design my equipment to operate like garde manger stations.

Mix: Do restaurants that hire you to develop these programs have different expectations than they might with a strictly bar-focused team? Dexheimer: To be honest, I don't think restaurants really think about it in this way. I think to some degree restaurants have had a knee jerk reaction to the cocktail craze and figure they need one to be legit. The bar in a restaurant is always the last part of the restaurant to be finished and last place that management puts a designated body to manage it correctly. Through my first year and half of running my own consulting business, I have learned that their expectations cannot often be met because the bar was not designed to handle a great cocktail program, and often the communication between front and back of house is not in synch. I hope that I can better develop these areas as I learn and work with more clients.

Mix: The folks behind the Sherry business in the U.S. have been particularly active getting their products into cocktails. What's your opinion of the way other wines - from sparkling to fortified and everywhere in between - are being neglected in cocktail making?

Dexheimer: The Sherry folks have done an incredible job! I tend to use wine in at least two drinks I create on a menu. I think all cocktail menus should have a sparkling wine cocktail and wines, whether dry or sweet, complement many spirits and also fresh produce very well. I think this is where sommeliers can have an edge in cocktail making, and we need to exploit this more often on menus.

Mix: What were the main challenges at your recent Toronto project, E11even?

Dexheimer: The challenges in Toronto are more from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario than anything. Many of the products (mainly liqueurs) I use here in NYC and in the States are not available there. This forced me to reach a little out of my comfort zone and use other products that were available. That said, there is a company there called Juice Concepts that delivers fresh seasonal juice to your door every morning. So what I lost with spirits limitations, I gained in fresh product.

Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?

Dexheimer: This is my favorite time of year to make drinks! I love brown spirits for fall/winter and love basically ALL bourbon and I also have a soft spot for herbal liqueurs like Benedictine, Strega and Chartreuse. The winter is when citrus is in full force and I am crazy for tangerines and mandarin oranges. I have been playing around with the recipe in various formats below.

Home at Last
2 oz. Makers Mark
1/2 oz. Strega
1/2 oz. Benedictine
2 oz. fresh tangerine juice
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
2 dashes Fee’s Peach (optional)
Build, ice, shake and strain into cocktail glass

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