Decoding the modern cocktail menu
It's OK to ask bartender for cocktail guidance
Cocktail menus aren't what they used to be: branded ingredient lists with suffixes like "tini" and "rita" to give you a sense of how a drink might be presented, not how it would taste.
Don't be afraid though, it is an absolutely great time to be alive if you love good drinks.
The cocktail menu can still be your guide; even if you don't understand 50 percent of what the heck is printed on it, you can gain a pretty good sense of what a cocktail is going to be like with the other 50 percent.
Here are a few tips from Jackson Cannon, owner of The Hawthorne and bar director of Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar, to help you along the way.
Be brave, and remember after you've done a bit of reading and deciphering, it is always OK to ask for some guidance.
Five Tips on Reading a Craft Cocktail Menu: Jackson Cannon
1. Navigating Menu Sections
"Listing cocktails by base spirit has become passé, and most serious cocktail menu authors will instead use other elements to categorize drinks, eschewing vodka, gin, rum, or tequila as categories. Be fearless. A section labeled 'sensational citrus' or 'farm fresh delights' are even more instructive than one based on spirit.
Decide what to drink based on your mood. Celebrating? Go to the Champagne cocktails probably marked 'sparklers,' 'bubbles' or 'celebrations.' Feeling adventurous? Pick something from the section titled 'advanced' or find a section like the one we put on the menu at Eastern Standard simply as 'OEUF' (French for egg) where we collected our flips and fizzes with whole egg or just the whites added."
2. On the house
"'House made' on a menu usually means that the establishment is pretty serious about drink making and are dedicated to working with high quality and/or unusual ingredients. While grenadine is pretty simple (pomegranate juice and sugar mostly), making your own bitters and vermouth is not.
If you see a house drink called something like, 'Woodsman's Old Fashioned -- barrel aged genever with house made maple bitters,' be advised, your drink might take a few minutes but it should be packed with flavor and love."
3. The bitter truth
"Let's define that word bitters, because they are sooooooo hot right now! Bitters are alcoholic beverages flavored with herbal essences that have a bitter or bittersweet flavor. Many were formerly marketed as medicines, but are now commonly used as flavoring in cocktails and taken as digestives.
The major brands of Angostura, Peychaud's and Regan's are commonplace and it is not unusual for a cocktail bar to have more than two dozen commercial and house made flavorings of this type.
Grapefruit, rhubarb, chocolate mole, cranberry, celery, etc. - DON'T THINK THAT BECAUSE AN INGREDIENT IS A BITTER THAT YOUR DRINK WILL BE BITTER TOO! In fact aromatic bitters often tame and meld other flavors and are used in the vast majority of crafted cocktails."
4. Ask for help
"If the menu is written with little or no ingredients given, don't hesitate to ask questions, that's why they wrote it that way. Take a minute to read it to prepare. If the subtext on a cocktail reads, 'when juniper collides with Mahr's' the author is having it both ways. To the very beverage savvy they are saying 'we are putting gin in fine German beer.' To everyone else they are saying, 'we like rock operas how about you?' If you get into the spirit your server will decode it for you."
5. Cocktail terms and truisms to keep in mind
-- Sours aren't sour, they are sweet & sour.
-- Juniper = Gin
-- Egg whites have no flavor, only texture; and they're safer in alcoholic beverages than they are in scrambled eggs
-- Flip = Whole Egg; Fizz = Egg White
-- If you love tequila, it's high time to try artisan Mezcal from Oaxaca.
-- St. Germain is an elderflower liqueur. Elderflower = pear, honey, lemon balm -- this stuff is like magic dust, that's why it's on every menu!
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