"I Don't Recognize Those Ingredients - I'll Have a Vodka Soda."

I spend a lot of time looking over drink menus, and sampling from them, and it’s astonishing to see how much ambition and care goes into so many contemporary drink lists. It’s true that some ingredients are suddenly everywhere – as I mention in this week’s menu post, mezcal is getting lots of play this summer, but also things like Cocchi Americano, Lilet Rosé and other aperitifs, as well as cucumbers and more exotic citrus are now in favor. The resulting drinks aren’t necessarily similar, though the taste profiles of spirits like mezal are hard to keep moderated.

But it’s difficult to tell, often, from the list of ingredients at least, what a drink will ultimately taste like, and more importantly, how it will match a customer’s expectations. I’ve ordered drinks that turned out to be exactly what I didn’t want, either from a lack of clarity in the menu description or a balance among ingredients that wasn’t to my taste. Here’s an example: while I applaud the growing attention to quality ice, I don’t like it when my upper lip begins to go numb as I try to sip around a massive iceberg-like chunk that separates me and my drink. Bigger cubes good, super cubes bad, for me at least, and I like to be warned.

Here’s another instance of too little information; it’s common now for drinks to be gathered on large menus under rubrics like “Strong and Stirred,” or “Aperitifs.” That’s good, but those descriptions don’t tell me about the relative sweetness or bitterness of the concoction. It doesn’t make sense for a bar or restaurant to list proportions in a beverage as well as the ingredients. I’m not seeking that, but I do think that the average customer – i.e., the one who doesn’t keep Carpano Antico in his refrigerator at home, or doesn’t know much about locally made spirits – could use a little extra guidance when perusing these intriguing menus.

Wine sellers in retail and even in many fine dining restaurants have for years employed a version of the progressive wine list, in which body, intensity of flavor, sweetness and other qualities are considered and wines are gathered into sections with titles like “Light and Refreshing” or “Powerful and Intense.” Slightly sweet whites and effervescent wines might be the starting point, with the list moving to off-dry floral and delicate wines, more intense and drier whites as the groupings gradually increase in intensity and body through lighter reds to substantial Cabs and Syrahs or big blends. Sellers group the wines so that a customer knows what to eliminate or where to concentrate, making the sale more focused. (“Nope, don’t want anything with bubbles,” “Oh, I’ve been wanting to try this fruity red from Italy,” etc.).

There are other ways to manage this; an international group of Riesling producers are starting to use a simple chart on their bottles declaring relative sweetness – from dry and off-dry to sweet in five categories.

It’s a classic back of the house – front of the house problem; are the ways the drinks are assembled or their relative history or their main ingredient as important to the customer as those things are to the bartender? Sometimes, perhaps, but I bet most customers require more guidance and less decision-making.

So here’s a proposal: start grouping your drinks by a combination of characteristics: potency, of course, but also body, bitterness/sweetness and serving style, instead of by spirit base or historical accuracy. Shrubs, for instance, are really popular among certain bartenders and the cocktail cognoscenti these days, but I think they’d be an easier drink to introduce to novices if they were under a menu grouping called “Tart, Sweet and Fruity.”

What’s that? Too uncool an approach? Maybe, but people keep ordering vodka sodas because they don’t know what else they will like, and many contemporary menus, as well thought out and researched and representative of the modern drinking renaissance as they are, don’t do the job they are meant to: interest, intrigue and speed the order.

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