Spring Cocktail Forecast

Jeffery Lindenmuth / February 2007

Following the lead of their trailblazing independent alter egos, restaurant groups and hotel chains are catering to cocktail aficionados far and wide.

The popularity of signature cocktails has raised bartenders to celebrity status and at the same time spawned the bibulous equivalent of autograph collectors, as enthusiastic patrons seek to sample the hottest creations, writ with originality, flair, and flourish. The bartender's return to stardom has been led largely by nimble owner-operated and boutique restaurants. But now with customer appreciation and expectation relentlessly on the rise, hotels, chain restaurants, and ship lines are determined to deliver the same superior quality and creativity on a significantly broader scale.

Their challenge, of course, is to raise the minimum level at every property without restricting creativity; this means permitting individual bartenders to shine by contributing their own drinks of distinction. While some large hotels like Ritz-Carlton prefer to leave the cocktails in the capable hands at each property, other safer-playing chains have taken steps to systemize their cocktails to ensure that this spring their menus will bloom uniformly with inspired drinks.

Three and a half years ago, Eben Klemm was recruited from the small Manhattan restaurant Pico to bring his brand of mixology to Stephen Hanson's B.R. Guest Restaurants as director of cocktail development. As his job migrated from strictly cocktail creation, he adopted the title "senior manager, wine and spirits" for the 16 restaurants. "I still create drinks, but now I want to instruct the bartenders to think as I do. For 2007, I'm not as much inventing new drinks as inventing great bartenders. I found dictating the drinks was counterintuitive to where I came from, which was ‘I am going to sell you a drink and also explain why,'" says Klemm, who oversees restaurants in New York City, Chicago, and Las Vegas.

According to Klemm, the public now demands seasonal rotations on cocktail lists as adamantly as they do for food menus, keeping him on constant patrol for inspiration. Klemm teaches his bartenders to first consider the cuisine of the restaurant, then the neighborhood, when conceiving new drinks. Hanson's famous big box spaces, particularly two Ruby Foos and three locations of the Mexican-themed Dos Caminos, are the most cocktail-centric, while the seafood locations and neighborhood restaurants sell relatively few, according to Klemm.

"For spring and summer I remain excited about herbs that are not named mint," deadpans Mojito-weary Klemm. "And at Dos Caminos, I'm focusing on salts with cocktail and spirits flights. I'm experimenting with alternative salts like smoked sea salt and effervescent salt, to rim glasses and even add to drinks." In a family of very different restaurants, Klemm aims for each concept to maintain about 50 percent original drinks, with the rest shared among the properties. "There are only so many fall cocktails I can come up with each year," he says.

Jonathan Pogash, director of cocktail development for Hospitality Holdings, operators of four bars and lounges spanning Midtown Manhattan, including The World Bar in The Trump World Towers and The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal, says that he is deeply intent on maintaining the distinctive personality of each property. The intimacy of this group also allows him to remain hands-on, working a weekly shift at each bar and dedicating his remaining hours to flavor hunting and cocktail creation. "My job is very different from a beverage director. I don't have office power. I have creative power," says Pogash. "What I love is that I can still get some hours behind the bar. I think that's much harder for a beverage director."

For Pogash, spring is the harbinger of fresh fruit and herbs, as he begins foraging for basil and tarragon, fruits and berries. "I think the new ‘it' fruits will be valued as antioxidants," he says. "For instance, I see blueberries coming back. And something I'll be emphasizing is creating healthier cocktails that will actually improve health, drinks that are low in sugar and artificial flavors." Currently in the plan are a yet-to-be-named blueberry, raspberry, and Champagne cocktail, a fresh ginger Margarita sweetened with agave nectar, and a gin-based drink with muddled strawberries, ginger, and agave nectar. Such entries, Pogash explains, are essential to creating a seasonal aura because The Campbell Apartment doesn't offer food and The World Bar only offers small plates. "We only do cocktails, so our flavor changes and observation of the season revolve around the cocktails we create."

Marriott International declares their dedication to keeping up with cocktails by dubbing 2007 Year of the Beverage, including the launch of a program titled Bar Arts: Liquids, Classic to Cool. Central to the program is the embracing of fresh juice and the creation of undeviatingly proportioned, classic cocktails. Marriott once again consulted with mixologist Dale DeGroff, who pioneered a similar program at the Marriott Marquis property in Manhattan.

Matthew Von Ertfelda, vice president of restaurants and bars for Marriott, observes, "Bartenders have been unregulated. They've been gunslingers operating in their own world, so for a lot of hotel companies it's been difficult to wrap our hands around that piece of service." The Bar Arts program, therefore, includes the standardization of recipes, glassware, and garnishes for 100 classic cocktails, all formulated using fresh juice. Another 150 "optional recipes" provide each property with ample opportunity to customize their list to their audience and season. Marriott bartenders can forget thumbing through Mr. Boston. These drink recipes are being made available in a format suitable for the iPod, for easy reference by the bartenders and by the public to download. The massive undertaking, which includes promotional signage touting the fresh juice drinks, begins at 300 domestic Marriott locations later this month.

"One of our many roles is to look at what's happening around us," Von Ertfelda explains. "There's such an appetite because of what's happened in the market over the last several years. It's something that we have been observing in independents--the elevation of mixology with fresh juice and premium spirits. And we want to enhance our ability to help guests trade up." As the majority of consumers are ordering classic cocktails, according to Marriott, the top priority this year, across their bars and properties, is to improve upon the consistency of their formulation.

In April, Cunard Line brings a similar laser sharp focus to the cocktail programs on their two megaships, Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2, with the launch of Cunard Classics, a program dedicated to the correct re-creation of classic cocktails of years gone by. "The cocktail resurgence of the past few years has created consumer interest in both the history and the personalities behind the classic drinks, as well as discovering the way they were meant to be created, presented, and consumed," says Barry J. White, director, beverage operations.

White says that superpremium spirits and fresh fruit flavors, such as those captured in lychee, raspberry, mango, passion fruit, and kiwi purees will also be booked for first-class passage this spring. And Cunard's seafaring bartenders are encouraged to capitalize on geographical good fortune.

"We will highlight cocktails when we sail in the waters where they were created," says White, "the Singapore Sling in Asia, Bellinis made with fresh white peach puree in Italy, and Caipirinhas, including fresh fruit variations, when sailing in South America," says White.

Tim Wilson, director of beverage for the 10 restaurants of the Wolfgang Puck Group, says it's increasingly difficult to make a splash in drink-centric markets like Las Vegas and New York City: "I think it's gotten really competitive and really hard to differentiate. A lot of people are using the same sorts of flavors, especially all those exotic fruits. There are very few that have not been fully exploited."

Wilson prefers regional strategies, taking advantage of fresh guava in Hawaii, for example, or playing with Asian ingredients and flavored foams for sophisticated markets like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. Asked about this spring, he pulls out his visionary periscope: "I see drinks going more floral and more Asian, with tea as an ingredient. There will be more jasmine, lavender, and one of my favorite flavors, elderflower, especially in Margaritas. I also like passion fruit and tamarind, which are on the rise with Mexican and Middle-Eastern cooking."