Sip on This: Creating a Profitable Cocktail
By McCall Mastroianni
Cocktail crafting grows more competitive with each passing happy hour. To stay afloat in the specialty drink market, restaurateurs and bar staffs are going to new lengths. Some of Georgia’s beverage buffs met with Restaurant Forum to share their secrets for modern mixology.
What’s in a Name?
Do clever titles for liquid concoctions provide the ultimate icebreaker and convince customers to try them? For Gregg Smith, sommelier and bar manager at Silk restaurant in Midtown Atlanta, each cocktail has a story to tell. Smith has been with the restaurant since its opening in 2004 and immediately gained recognition for his innovative drinks. He also has a history of stirring up iconic inspiration when naming his cocktails.
Smith’s newest cocktail heroine is Bebel, named for Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto whom he recently met when she was in town for a concert. The drink features Brazilian cachaï¿½a, fresh strawberries, Martinique sugar cane syrup, grapefruit juice and a splash of rosï¿½ to add an effervescent sparkle. It’s the perfect balance between sweet and sour and just as smooth as Gilberto’s bossa nova sounds.
Another is Alexandra Marnier-Lapostolle of Grand Marnier fame and owner of Chilean winery Casa Lapostolle. “Alexandra is an inspiration to every businessperson in the world,” says Smith. “She is a vivacious and unstoppable woman dedicated to quality control. The Madame Alexandra cocktail is an homage to her.” The ultimate liquid compliment, this cocktail combines Grey Goose Le Citron with Grand Marnier and Casa Lapostolle Sauvignon Blanc and is garnished with frozen white grapes.
The Mango Picchu, a clever take on the ancient Incan ruin located in Peru, was recently introduced by Smith. The base is made with a pureed egg mixture known as leche de monja (“nun’s milk”). Whole raw eggs are covered with lime juice and stored in the refrigerator for two weeks while the lime juice “cooks” the eggs. During this time, the shells dissolve and the eggs continue to “cook” in the mixture until turning into a translucent white liquid. This liquid is strained through a fine sieve and combined with mango puree, mango liqueur and Pisco brandy from Peru.
For Ecco, part of the Fifth Group Restaurants portfolio, drinks are typically named for ingredients or perhaps the action that may result from its consumption. A wintertime cocktail called The Caroler is a “well-endowed hot cocoa” that has been known to send guests roving the streets humming favorite holiday melodies, while the Gingerberis Maximus is a Latin take on the generous splash of piquant Modern Spirits Ginger vodka. The Port-O-Call, the only drink on the menu that utilizes wine, is a complex combination of grapefruit-honey vodka and ruby port.
Ecco’s Beverage Director Vajra Stratigos also likes to honor the greats. The restaurant’s Sir Edward Hamilton cocktail pays respect to the rum guru that introduced sugar cane juice spirits to the United States as a connoisseur’s beverage.
Putting Fresh to the Test
With a high demand for seasonal ingredients on restaurant menus, the same expectations are now common for the cocktail menus as well. According to Smith, fresh ingredients can make a very noticeable difference, even in a drink as simple as a screwdriver. “You absolutely have to use fresh lime juice in a Pisco Sour,” he says. “It makes a huge difference and so do the correct proportions.”
Ingredients can also be rooted in the restaurant’s culinary tradition, such as Silk’s featuring shiso leaves (also known as Japanese basil) instead of the traditional mint leaves in its raspberry shiso mojito.
Silk’s sake caipirinha, a drink introduced by the Brazilian American Chamber of Commerce, was a trendy drink in San Paola last summer and now Smith has made it a refreshing change of pace here in Atlanta by offering the cocktail in different fruit flavors such as kiwi, raspberry and strawberry. The bar “juices to order” and changes the flavors as different fruits come in season. Unlike traditional caipirinhas that are almost entirely alcohol, this twist uses sake instead, which results in lower alcohol content and a more refreshing edge when combined with the fresh muddled fruit.
Wowing guests is one benefit of original and fresh cocktail ingredients, but Stratigos acknowledges that it’s not feasible for a restaurant to go overboard with fussy components. “We recognize that Ecco is a high volume restaurant,” he explains. “We are trying to bridge the gab between the kitchen and the bar, so most ingredients utilize a kitchen component.”
Stir Things Up or Stick to the Classics?
Georgia restaurants are finding subtle ways to honor the old but bring in the new.
A fun twist on a French classic at Silk is La Vie en Rose (“life in pink”) ï¿½ a classic French 75 prepared with Moï¿½t et Chandon Brut Rosï¿½, Van Gogh gin, fresh raspberries, fresh lemon juice, sugar cane syrup and crushed ice.
At Ecco, Stratigos wanted to find a way to soften bourbon and make it more feminine. He accomplished this by turning the traditional Manhattan into the restaurant’s El Gravitizer by adding imported Amarena cherries to Woodford Reserve bourbon for a taste of Kentucky-meets-Italy. “The intensity of the cherries balances out the woodiness of the bourbon,” he says.
Garnishes: Glorified or Gratifying?
Sometimes a simple garnish gives way to a memorable moniker. Bonefish Grill, a seafood restaurant new to Johns Creek, created the Icicle Aphrodisiac, which features Skyy Vanilla vodka and passion fruit nectar adorned with a watermelon icicle that is created with a combination of fresh watermelon puree and a hint of Monin watermelon syrup. A cinnamon stick serves as the “handle” of the watermelon popsicle. Bonefish Grill’s beverage department and Patrick Henry Creative Promotions came together to create this chilly concoction, and it paid off. Last year, as a company, Bonefish Grill sold about 100,000 of these cocktails.
“Our guests really enjoy the interaction with the Icicle Aphrodisiac,” says David Harrell, Director of Beverage. “The color, scent, taste and chilly temperature make it appealing on many levels. The drink is truly an ‘inside-out’ cocktail. As the watermelon icicle begins to melt, it infuses the beverage with a shot of color and additional flavor,” he explains.
Frozen grapes can serve double duty as a garnish that keeps the cocktail colder for longer. This technique can be found in drinks at Silk and also in the signature martini at ONE.midtown kitchen.
Ecco tops off its Bloody Mary with French smoked sea salt on the glass rim and a skewer of pickled vegetables for a “natural graduation of the drink,” says Stratigos. The pickled vegetables include okra, red carrots, turnips and pan seared cauliflower that’s put through four different brining baths. The same theory is applied to The Gibson cocktail, which is garnished with house-pickled cipollini onions that complement the drink’s earthy truffle vodka.
“The matter of allure and intrigue comes into play when we tell our customers that we make our garnishes in the restaurant,” says Stratigos. “This is when the impression is made. We want to make sure that our beverage program as a whole is consistent every time.”
Georgia restaurateurs have found a way to make their bottom line easier to swallow by mixing things up for guests.
McCall Mastroianni works for Melissa Libby & Associates, a PR firm with several restaurants among its clients. She can be reached at (404) 816-3068.