'Tis the Season...

How do you make a drink menu stand out today?

You can try to touch all of the bases, the way the newly opened Prizefighter did in Emeryville, Calif. Broken into various sections, the menu Prizefighterhighlights drinks by groups: for two, cocktails (Bee’s Knees, the Scotch, maple syrup and bitters Nuevo Viejo, and the Jack Rose, among others) and punches, credited to Dave Wondrich (the Prizefighter, made with rums, lemon, port and porter) and Jackie Patterson (Celebration, made with blood orange liqueur, sparkling wine, ginger beer and chai), among others. The menu also includes short sections for beers, wines and sangrias, as well as long drinks from their soda fountain (highball variations, mostly) and pitcher patio drinks. The separations sometimes may seem arbitrary, but giving customers a way to scan without stress is a smart selling point, as long as the drinks are good.

Until recently, long drinks found little favor in the era of the classic cocktail renaissance, but slowly, slightly complicated but ultimately satisfying modern twists made their way onto summer menus. Now, even in winter, they’re getting their due. On the winter menu at Louis 649 in New York City, bubble–enhanced drinks include the classic French 75, and new offerings, such as the Pink Pussycat (crème Yvette, St-Germain, grapefruit juice and Prosecco) and Duggan McDonnell’s Vertigo (Averna, lemon juice and Fever Tree ginger beer). And at the newly opened Highball Lounge in Chicago, the 1950s and 1960s cocktail era is in vogue, so it’s not surprising to find less chic but as-authentic-as-a-Sazerac highballs, such as Moscow Mules and Monkey Glands, and contemporary creations, such as the Sophia & Marcello (Hum liqueur and Campari with ginger beer).

The Prizefighter also takes part in the mescal explosion, offering 16 bottles with special emphasis on different varieties — dobadaan, tobaziche, madrecuiche, etc. — in three portion sizes, as well as the Oaxacan Standoof, made with mescal, sangrita and beer. The current king of the mescal emergence, however, seems to be the Steve Olson-led Viktor & Spoils in New York, which boasts nearly 40 mezcals and more mescal-sped cocktails in its opening portfolio.

That focus on one particular category has worked wonders for other bars, and it’s good to see the rustic tequila cousin increasingly getting its own. Many of the bars that opened with bourbon and other whiskies at the heart of their beverage programs have continued to mature after the first flush of stocking the shelves with rare bottlings. The two Bourbons in Washington, D.C., have evolved by making sure seasonal menus not only change but include something other than whiskies, although half of the current menus feature rye, bourbon or Scotch.

Another current twist emerging also is on hand at Bourbon: build-your-own cocktails, in this case, Manhattans or Sazeracs. Customers can select their own favorite from among the many ryes and bourbons (for an up charge) and then pick a vermouth (Dolin Rouge, Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, Dubonnet or Vya) or absinthe (Kubler, Vieux Carre, St.George) to modify.

Bespoke cocktails have been gaining traction all over: Manhattan's newly opened Vinatta Project — with the bar overseen by the guys from Little Italy’s Mulberry Project — blackboards daily produce for customers to select as their drink ingredients. Chicago's Highball Lounge also takes part in the trend of customer-created (or at least influenced) cocktails. Like the Vinatta, customers pick from a list of fresh juices, unusual sodas, a variety of bitters and other enhancements, and bartenders await the selection before whipping a drink out of the assembled mess.

But as the winter menus and holiday parties approach, it’s time to pay attention to warm and seasonal beverages as well. Bookmarks in NYC is promoting its Maple Cream Coffee, Hot Buttered Rum, Spiced Hot Chocolate and Orange Spice Tea, while Madison & Vine is getting the word out about Almond Tea Toddy, Hot Chocolate, Pumpkin Spice Latte and Hot Apple Pie cocktails.

Back at Louis 649, the winter menu features eggy and hot drinks — Absinthe Nog, Baltimore Egg Nog (rum, Armagnac, Sherry) and a Scotch Hot Toddy. But it’s not Christmas in New York until Aquavit starts serving their glögg, the hot, spiced, slightly boozy mulled wine, which originated in the cold Nordic wintertime. Spiked with cardamom, cloves, dried fruit, orange peel and vodka, it’s a signature here, and they’re sharing the recipe:

Aquavit’s Glögg
Serves 8-10

2 bottles dry red wine
1/2 bottle of Port wine
1 cup vodka
1/2 lb dried figs, sliced
1/2 lb raisins
2 oranges, peeled into ribbons and juiced
8 ounces light brown sugar
2 star anise
4 long peppers
5 cloves
7 cardamom pods
3 cinnamon sticks

Place all ingredients in a large pot and bring mixture to a simmer, stirring from time to time. Remove from heat and allow glögg to macerate for 2 hours. Strain when ready to use, reheat and serve with blanched almonds, raisins and pepparkakor (ginger snaps) on the side.

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