Posted by: Matt Browner Hamlin | October 8, 2014

Pete Wells on Restaurant Cocktail Menus

Via Erik Ellestad on The Facebook, Pete Wells of the New York Times has what I think is a very smart take on my old hobby horse – the insane proliferation of original, proprietary cocktail recipes at bars and restaurants. Wells goes into some of the reasons why cocktail lists filled with originals have become ubiquitous, including the added profitability a round of cocktails brings due to pour costs and speed of consumption, compared to wine. But he hits his stride when he looks at quality and the all too frequent failure to achieve it at the thousands of restaurants turning out original cocktail lists around the country:

Do the math on this, and you quickly run into thousands of new cocktails being cranked up solely to fill these menus. What are the chances that every single one rolling off the factory line is going to deserve a place on the fireplace mantle next to the Hemingway daiquiri and the Negroni?

Pretty low, I’m afraid. This doesn’t mean that bartenders need to stop dreaming up new recipes, but it does suggest that restaurants may stop asking for so many of them. Those menus could be shorter: five good drinks are incalculably better than 15 not-good ones.

Bad bartenders, too many ingredients, a perverse desire to be original…all of these factors conspire to spread bad cocktails on bad cocktail lists.

Wells’ advice for consumers is to eschew original creations at restaurants and order a classic off-menu. This is sound advice. If a restaurant is printing a menu with a Manhattan-ish variation that uses whiskeys from Kentucky, Canada, Scotland and Japan, an artisanal vermouth from Sonoma, a rare potable bitter from the former Yugoslavia, and a drop of three different proprietary bitters, they damn well can make you an actual Manhattan. My general habit now at restaurants is to look at the cocktail list, think for about three seconds, and then decide what classic cocktail I want to drink.

The larger point is that everyone needs to stop this nonsense. There must be universal, multilateral disarmament. Restaurant bar programs (or bar bar programs for that matter) need to stop the fetishization of originality. To paraphrase Doctor Zoidberg, your original cocktails are bad and you should feel bad.

Instead, restaurants and bars should have cocktail programs built around drinks that are good. Not good in the sense of, “Oh I guess this fine and it looks expensive!” but actually worth drinking based on the evidence of decades, if not centuries, of people saying, “That’s so good, I’d pay money to drink it!”

Obviously there won’t be an instant consensus to stop putting original cocktails as the driver of menus. But my guess is that the places that say to their customers, “Here is a list of classic cocktails that we think are worth serving with our food,” they’ll find happier customers who enjoy drinking well-made cocktails and might even order another one before they switch to wine…



  1. Having worked in the restaurant industry, I know first-hand that many of these house recipes are not that great! Often an inexperienced bartender is tasked with developing the list. It gets worse when the rest of the staff, who usually don’t have proper training, have to make the same recipes. It’s certainly a nice idea, but maybe most establishments would be better off with one well-planned signature cocktail, rather than an entire menu of them!

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