I’m Mattias Hägglund, bartender at Heritage in the Fan district of Richmond, Virginia, and the folks at Belle Isle Craft Spirits have asked me to take over their blog for the day to talk about how I design a cocktail list. When I’m putting together a drink list there’s always a few things I consider:
What is the venue, the concept, who is the typical guest?
What about the price point that people are expecting to pay? How crazy busy is the staff? What are the capabilities of the staff? There are so many things to think about that it can get a little overwhelming, so for the sake of brevity we’ll assume I’m working on drinks for my restaurant - Heritage.
Heritage is a place that we want to be neighborhood friendly in both price and appearance, with a talented and fun crew turning out high-level food and drinks in a comfortable, enjoyable atmosphere. To me that means price points that can’t be excessive, but are high enough to accommodate quality ingredients. I think this puts us in a pretty sweet spot where most of the good folks who come out do so because they’re interested in good food, drinks and service, so it gives us room to play with our drink list and make it fun.
Our cocktail list isn’t so large that it takes an hour to read, but I hope that it has a little something for everyone. I try for a pretty broad range of flavors— tart, bitter, herbaceous, dry, fruity, etc. If the drink has a sweetness present there’s going to be a flavor to balance it. If the drink is spicy, we try to have enough heat to deliver the flavor but not so much that it overpowers the drink. I also try to have a fun mix of spirits and liqueurs worked into many of the recipes so that we have safe options for those who want the comfort of something familiar while at the same time, featuring ingredients that may be new people, in case they’re feeling adventurous. I organize my list so that the most refreshing and crowd pleasing are at the top, and then as you work your way down they progressively get more spirit forward (read: boozy).
Here are a few drinks that are currently on our list, and a bit of the thought process behind them:
- 2 oz Belle Isle Honey Habanero Premium Moonshine
- 1 oz fresh grapefruit juice
- ½ oz fresh lime juice
Build in your shaker, add ice and shake. Strain well into a chilled coupe glass. No garnish.
It seems appropriate to start with a recipe I flat out stole from Brian Marks of Belle Isle Craft Spirits. I sat in on a meeting with them earlier in the year, and to start things off he served me one of these bad boys. It’s so easy to drink and refreshing that I told him right away I was going to rip off the recipe for my menu. At the time I was ready to make a change in the crowd-pleasing part of my drink list, and this sure does deliver. Also in these days of 5 or more ingredient drinks, it’s nice to have a 3 ingredient drink that you can crank out when it gets busy or when you’re pleasing a crowd.
Cool Hand Cuke
- 1 ¾ oz sage-infused vodka
- 2 oz house-made cucumber liqueur (don’t worry, it’s pretty low proof. We’re not trying to kill people)
- ¾ oz fresh squeezed lime
- 5 drops of Bittermen’s Orchard Street Celery Shrub
- 1 ½ oz soda water
- 1 slice cucumber, for garnish
Build all in shaker except for soda water.
This is the first drink on our cocktail list at the moment, and it’s the work of my bartender/badass, Tim Quinn. I like keeping the first drink on the list as a vodka drink- it puts people at ease if they are new to the cocktail scene. It’s a business after all, and putting your guests at ease is important. This one is summer in the glass, and I love how the Celery Shrub rounds out the flavors with just a hint of herbaceous spice.
- 2 oz Elijah Craig 12 year bourbon
- 1 oz fresh grapefruit
- ½ oz honey syrup
- 1 small dash Angostura bitters
Add all ingredients to shaker, then add ice and shake well. Strain well into chilled coupe, no garnish.
This is one of the classic cocktails on our menu. Traditionally the recipe doesn’t call for the bitters, but I think in this one they add just the right amount of depth. When using honey in cocktails, the ingredients won’t mix well unless the honey is cut with water; otherwise it will congeal on you in the shaker as soon as you add ice. I prefer a 2:1 honey to water ratio.
With this drink, we’re working just a little more down the menu. It’s still pretty easy drinking, but being over half bourbon (pre-shake and dilution, of course) the spirit is certainly present on the palate. Again— not a ton of ingredients in this one. Fast, simple and delicious; and I just found out that this drink has made Heritage the top selling Elijah Craig account in Virginia.
- 2 oz Belle Isle Premium Moonshine
- ½ oz Bonal Gentiane Quina
- ¼ oz Blis bourbon-barrel aged maple syrup
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 8 drops cinnamon tincture
- Orange twist for garnish
Add all ingredients into chilled mixing glass, then add ice and stir well. Strain into chilled coupe and garnish with your orange twist.
Hey look at that -another Belle Isle drink! Turns out this stuff is really easy to work with. This recipe drinks like a cross between an old fashioned and a Manhattan, which people like hearing referenced since they know what to expect and that puts them at ease, making the drink easy to sell.
Bonal is an aromatized, fortified wine kind of like a sweet vermouth or an amaro, with one of the
primary flavors being quinine. Blis maple syrup is made in Michigan by a chef named Steve Stallard. He also makes vinegars, cures fish roes, and more; and his maple syrups are one of my favorite indulgences. Finally, the cinnamon tincture used here is simply a healthy dose of cinnamon steeped in a little Belle Isle Premium Moonshine. Pour it into a mason jar, add the cinnamon and set it aside for a few weeks; though be sure to give it a quick shake every once in a while to keep the flavors mixing. Tinctures like this are really easy to make and a great way to add a little burst of flavor people may not expect.
- 1 ½ oz Lairds 7 ½ year Old Apple Brandy
- ¾ oz Green Chartreuse
- ¾ oz Amaro Montenegro
- 1 dash Bitter Truth Old Time Aromatic Bitters
- 1 lemon twist, for garnish.
Add all ingredients to chilled mixing glass, add ice and stir well. Strain into chilled glass and garnish with lemon twist.
I started working on the Canebreak by playing around with variations on a classic cocktail called a Diamondback, originally from the Diamondback Lounge in Maryland. Lairds has two distilleries, one outside Charlottesville and one in Scobeyville, NJ. The Charlottesville distillery is one of my favorite places I’ve been to, all old oiled wood, apples everywhere and two fat and happy distillery dogs wandering the ground eating apples all day.
So here we are towards the bottom end of the drink list. This one uses something bitter, something herbal, a little sweetness, and a base spirit that is delicious and often new to folks. It’s a conversation starter, and approachable enough that people will come back and order it again. It also shares names with the Virginia rattlesnake, which seemed appropriate, given the original inspiration.
I hope this has been an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the how and why of our bar program. A lot of work goes into it, but in the end I have a lot of fun with it. There are worse things to do for a living. But before you go off mixing these up like a professional, let me give you a few notes on technique.
- Stirring vs. Shaking. Drinks like the Tredegar and Canebreak are pretty much all alcohol. There’s very little sweetener, no fruit juice or cream or egg, so these are drinks meant for stirring instead of shaking. By doing that, you preserve a really velvety mouthfeel, and you can also have more control over the amount of dilution you’re adding and the amount that you chill the drink. The ice adds water to a cocktail as you stir or shake, which is necessary for some drinks. But spirit-driven drinks don’t need quite as much water or to be quite as cold as a drink with juices, cream or egg.
- Keep it cold. Mixing glasses and the serving glassware should be kept cold. You don’t want to go through all this hard work of getting your cocktail down to a nice cold temperature only to throw it in a warm glass. The glass would be cooled down quickly by the cocktail— conversely it would then be quickly warmed up by the glass. The same goes for your mixing glass- if you build your ingredients in a room temperature glass then add ice and stir, the cooling power of the ice is going to go just as much into the mixing glass as it is into the drink, but all of the water from the ice melting will go into your drink. Bad times.
- Garnishes. When garnishing with a citrus twist I use a Y-shaped vegetable peeler instead of one of those flimsy channel knives. It gets a nice, fat piece of peel and is relatively easy to control so you don’t get much of the bitter pith (that white stuff under the surface). Once peeled you can simply squeeze the peel face-down over the drink so that the oils shoot out over the surface of the drink. Then give the sides of the rim a quick rub with the peel and drop it into the drink. This way each time your guest takes a sip they get a nice, bright citrusy smell that can add a lot to your cocktail.