If you thought tasting menus belonged exclusively to fancy restaurants, you haven’t been hitting America’s bars lately. A growing number of them are giving their cocktail lists the course-by-course treatment, matching drinks with food from the kitchen or vice-versa or allowing the cocktails to star on their own. The idea can seem daunting for a bartender or beverage director, but with a little bit of direction, you too can make a properly executed cocktail tasting menu happen at your bar. These four tips can get you on your way.
1. Take It One Step at a Time
One of the keys to mastering a cocktail tasting menu is to be progressive, aligning your drinks sequentially and advancing from one stage to the next. “As diners, we have been trained to eat certain dishes in a particular order, such as starting with raw and light dishes, moving gradually toward more rich and decadent dishes at the end of the meal,” says Julia Momose, a partner and the creative director of Chicago’s Kumiko and its Kikkō concept, a seven-course food and beverage omakase experience.
The same holds true with what you’re drinking. “When it comes to beverage progressions, whether as pairings or strictly drink-focused, it’s important to ease the drinker through the range of flavors so that they may enjoy each drink to its greatest potential,” says Momose. Beyond strictly considering the ingredients of a drink, Momose suggests also staying attuned to the texture and temperature of each beverage and even the type of glassware in which it’s served.
Paul Taylor, a partner and the head of bar concepts for Washington, D.C.’s Drink Company, which includes Columbia Room, views a cocktail tasting menu as a multi-act story. “They’re composed of a beginning, middle and end, each with a purpose in the context of the menu,” he says. “The first cocktail should welcome the guest and invite them in, typically a little lighter or bittersweet in nature. The middle will contain something that interests and perhaps even challenges the guest. The end anchors the experience, signals the conclusion and leaves a lasting memory.”
Following the arcs of what we’re accustomed to while dining, as well as that of a cohesive story, will ensure a progressive script that reads appropriately. “A cocktail tasting menu, very similar to a food tasting menu, has to have some style of progression, from aperitivo all the way to digestivo,” says Chris Lee, the head bartender of San Diego’s Realm of the 52 Remedies. “In our program ‘The Supreme Elixir,’ we work closely with our guests to curate a cocktail tasting menu that’s unique every time. This experience helps guests immerse themselves into the Realm of 52 Remedies, with cocktails and narrative painting the full picture together.”
That’s not to say that it’s absolutely mandatory that cocktail tasting menus be fully progressive in nature. However, if you move away from that, you still need a thoughtful approach to ensure you don’t veer too far from what reliably works.
“I believe in intent,” says Momose. For instance, your intention might be to showcase a series of Highballs or Old Fashioneds, with comparison rather than progression as the core concept. When pairing with food, progression must also align with the food’s own pacing and path. “It would be a great challenge to have a successful pairing menu without a form of progression,” says Momose. “But it would depend greatly on the style of progression or lack of progression the food takes.”
2. Be Ready to Customize
Being able to customize on the go is an essential component of tasting menus. “Since the goal of The Bamboo Room is to offer guests a curated experience, there isn’t a standard breakdown for the cocktail tasting menu,” says Kevin Beary, the beverage director of the 22-seat bar-within-a-bar inside Three Dots and a Dash.
“We start by asking guests a series of questions such as, ‘Do you often drink Tiki drinks, and ‘Are you a fan of rum?’ as well as finding out whether they opt for stronger or more tropical drinks or if they prefer bitter or sweet and so forth,” says Beary. “We use those responses to customize three to four courses of cocktails depending on how adventurous each guest is feeling.”
This type of personalization is an exercise that could produce infinite different outcomes and potential challenges. Staying flexible with your approach and being attentive to the preferences of your guests are crucial, as drinks are rarely one-size-fits-all in terms of a given person’s enjoyment of them.
“One of the greatest challenges in developing a cocktail tasting menu is the personal aspect of cocktails,” says Momose. “I feel that there needs to be some conversation and some room for alterations and adaptations based on the palate, and reasonable requests of guests, to create a truly successful cocktail tasting menu.”
3. Find a Thread
At Realm of the 52 Remedies, Lee may serve a countless array of drinks but offers one take on a four-cocktail approach. Begin with a light cocktail that’s “celebratory and can help you ease into the evening,” he says. A shaken cocktail highlighting a seasonal flavor may come next, followed by a bold stirred drink that acts as a digestivo. As a finale, he may send a guest off with another light drink that’s both a palate cleanser and your cue to continue on with your evening.
Columbia Room’s latest four-course tasting menu was titled “So Bad It’s Good,” “taking cocktails that are generally perceived as bad or dated, such as the Appletini or Long Island Iced Tea, and transforming them into something delicious and refined,” says Taylor. The series moved from the Zima, with Siembra Valles tequila, riesling, angelica and lemon lime soda, along with vanilla and salt, to the Appletini, with apples coming in the form of calvados and clarified apple, alongside Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac, aromatized sherry and an “atomic fireball cherry.”
Next guests got “LIT” with Taylor’s take on a Long Island Iced Tea, using St. George Terroir gin, Absolut Elyx vodka, green pepper rum, vermouth, amaro, a freshly made house sour mix and cola. Last but not least, a Midori Sour consisting of High West Silver Western Oat whiskey, sake, honeydew, oats, shio koji and aquafaba closes the show.
At Columbia Room, a small plate from the kitchen is paired with each cocktail course, and for this menu, a similar approach of elevating old-school or basic foods was taken, such as the chicken nugget served with the Long Island Iced Tea—actually a dill-pickle-brined croqueta served with burnt miso honey mustard.
For Mimose, it’s all about finding common threads to connect everything. A dish of Spanish mackerel with kombu sabayon was paired with two cocktails each featuring Drapò bianco vermouth. A plate of A5 Miyazaki wagyu served with compressed plums was matched with two drinks using umeshu. “The shared ingredient of ume found in the dish and every pairing option,” she says. “Hints of acidity in both the stirred and shaken cocktails are used to balance the richness of the dish.”
4. Tell a Story
Bartenders serving tasting menus often encounter familiar issues, including customers who aren’t sure of what to expect from the experience, as well as customers who really aren’t sure of what they enjoy in a drink or how to ask for it. “I think most often they just don’t know what to expect,” says Beary. “Our goal is to serve you four cocktails you absolutely love. That being said, the challenge is to figure out what an absolute stranger would consider a cocktail they like.”
For Taylor, delivering that cohesive plot for a full lineup of drinks is where the biggest challenge resides. “Connecting each cocktail to the theme in a way that’s coherent for the guest usually proves the most challenging,” he says. “The menu should tell a story, and a good story is challenging to write. This is overcome by developing language for the bartenders to explain what the cocktail is, why the cocktail is on the menu, and the story of that cocktail.”
Creating the proper rapport between guests and bartenders helps you deliver a positive, memorable experience. “We want them to be open to trying new things but reassured that they will be presented in cocktails they will enjoy,” says Beary. “We also establish right at the beginning that it’s OK to tell us you don’t like something. All of this lets us build trust with the guest.”