I have never put together the menu for an actual commercial bar, but I do enjoy hosting cocktail parties, and I spend a fair amount of time seeking out new and interesting bars.
Cocktail menus should be small, to give the guests room to explore. When I first started hosting cocktail parties, I did not know very many drinks, and I made menus with ten or twelve drinks on them. In a real bar, ten is an appropriate number, but in a home party, that number is cumbersome.
Even in a real bar, I often see menus that are too big. Some bars, like Bourbon and Branch, bring a gigantic book to your table, impossibly full of recipes. I personally prefer a minimalist approach; I think the goal should be to lead the guest to a new and engaging experience, by a path of comfortable steps.
It’s a little bit disappointing when every drink on the menu is something I have had many times before. There is a lot to be said for executing classic drinks perfectly, but a balanced menu also contains something adventurous.
The drinks you serve should be orthogonal to each other. If everything on your menu is a sour, your guests will fatigue of sours. Similarly if everything is brown, bitter, and stirred. Be aware of the categories of your different drinks, and of the flavor profiles that you are providing. They should be substantially different.
A thoughtful drink will slightly defy the expectations of the person who orders it. The other day I had a drink with prosecco, campari, cynar, and lime. You can imagine what that probably tastes like, but the proportions or the presentation could surprise you. Between viscous liqueurs, drying bubbles, and stinging citrus, there is a lot of room for variation in texture.
Last month, I held a birthday party, and I designed a menu based around some of my favorite Measure and Stir creations from 2012. I broke one of my own rules, though; I had two drinks based around ginger. They were very different drinks, but even so, there was too much overlap.
Barrel-Aged Monogram: Oaked Campari+Maraschino, Orange Juice, and Bourbon with orange-infused scotch foam and spray of bitters. This drink was bitter, oaky, and tasted of orange.
Stepchild: Ginger wine, fernet, pineapple, mint garnish. This drink was minty, and tasted of dry, spicy pineapple. Ginger wine as the base made it lighter in alcohol.
Can’t Catch Me:
This drink was dark, viscous from molasses, and heavily spiced. In retrospect, I should not have had a drink with ginger wine and a drink with gingerbread infusion, but I thought the flavor profiles were different enough. None of the drinks on the menu had a light spirit, such as gin or cachaça, and I think that was an omission.
I Should Buy A Boat: Grapefruit, rum, champagne, and cinnamon syrup. This was the unexpected favorite at the party. I think the champagne was what drew people in.
I also had mulled apple cider (not pictured), which definitely did not contain ginger, and was intended for those practicing temperance. As a final note, always take care of the designated drivers, pregnant women, or anyone else who chooses to abstain. Making a good mocktail is even harder than making a good cocktail, and a worthy art all on its own.
May all of your parties be successful.