Behind the Bar
Choose-Your-Own-Spirit Cocktails Put Guests in Control
You’re not sure what you want to drink tonight, but as you sidle up to the bar and peruse the cocktail list, something catches your eye. Dealer’s Choice. Bar Choice. The Breezy. Called different names depending on the bar — and the concept — these DIY-ish, ‘choose your own adventure’-type cocktails put guests in control of their own drinking fates, so to speak. These unconventional cocktails range in interactivity from just a few general ideas to help a bartender along to choosing the specific components that will make up the finished cocktail (often from a list of pre-determined and carefully vetted options).
At four-month-old Estereo, in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, the “keep it breezy” mantra extends to the Latin American corner bar’s signature cocktail, aptly named the Breezy. The “choose your own adventure”-style cocktail allows the guest to choose a spirit (typically mezcal, pisco, cachaça, agricole or white rum, though regulars have their own favorites) to go along with its yerba mate, house-made falernum, mint and lime base.
“‘Yerba mate? What is yerba mate?’ I’ll get ‘yerba mate’ and then you answer that and then they’re like, ‘okay, falernum?’ You’re like, ‘Oh, God, we’re geniuses. Let’s make all the ingredients impossible,’” says Michael Rubel, Estereo’s general manager. “Lime and mint are good. But, we’re introducing a lot of people to yerba mate and falernum is probably the thing I’ve explained the most since we’ve opened.”
At Simbal, in Los Angeles, general manager and beverage director Ron Carey also has to do some off-the-cuff educating and explaining when it comes to his spiked shrubs. The questions are often regarding shrubs themselves.
“[I]t’s actually kind of amazing to me because historically shrubs, they’ve literally almost been around since the beginning of time, you know, and they were really popular, like, in the Colonial time period,” says Carey. "But as far as shrubs themselves, once we go through that history and talk to people, they get really excited about it and kind of let their guard or their suspicions down, I find.”
Carey makes all of the shrubs in-house using fresh, seasonal fruit. Similarly, Estereo’s menu is heavily focused on fresh, seasonal ingredients.
“[W]e buy so much from the farms, even going into the winter months we stocked up," says Ben Fasman, Estereo’s bar manager. "So we would have stuff and can keep changing stuff out. So we have every drink on this menu, save one, has changed at least once or twice since we’ve opened, you know, so in that way it’s really nice for people to come in and have their standby.”
Standbys are something that often aren’t really all that feasible with this kind of concept, but one that’s also possible at Gracias Madre in West Hollywood. Beverage director Jason Eisner created a build-your-own Old Fashioned concept that’s no longer officially on the menu, but has quite the local following.
“I just thought it was kind of like a fun way to interact with people, have people interacting with the menu, and that to me, like, the interplay between the program and the guest is one of the most special aspects of working in this business,” says Eisner.
For the build-your-own Old Fashioneds, Eisner and his team decided on three base spirits and created three sweet modifiers and three bitter ones. The guest chooses one item from each category and then the bartender makes the drink.
“[W]hat that does for the guest is, it puts them in the driver’s seat, but we as culinary professionals know that all of the possible outcomes are well-balanced and taste good. So it’s sort of like a win-win. It seems dangerous, like, it seems kind of like casting your fate to the wind if you’re the person paying for it, right? But it’s really kind of secretly well-thought out,” Eisner says.
Eisner took the build-your-own Old Fashioneds off of the menu to make room for other projects, but he’s played around with other ideas for a build-your-own concept, and they’ve kept the modifiers and base spirits on-hand for off-menu orders.
The Berkshire Room, located in Chicago’s ACME Hotel, also asks guests to make three choices. Its Dealer’s Choice cocktail, designed by Fifty/50 Restaurant Group partner and beverage director Benjamin Schiller, allows guests to choose a spirit, flavor profile (sweet and sour, fruity, herbaceous, strong and stirred, smoky or spicy) and glassware. The bartender then whips up a concoction based on those three preferences.
With more choice can sometimes come more challenges, however.
“[I]f they order ‘strong and stirred’ and they want it in a Mint Julep cup over crushed ice, that’s probably not gonna work, so you kinda have to ease them out of it,” says Schiller. “The other [challenge is], just when you get tickets that seem that they’re almost trying to stump you. It’s good to revisit and say, ‘alright, what can I do here for you, because this isn’t making a whole lot of sense.’”
At taste. in St. Louis, this kind of choose-your-own-adventure cocktail takes the form of a simple bartender’s choice. David Greteman, bar manager at taste., likes the conversation this kind of menu item invites — as well as the creativity and freedom it allows for on the part of the bar staff.
“Because of the bar choice, it allows not only the formation of independent flavor profiles that each person excels at, but it also allows for that plug-and-play,” says Greteman. He encourages the bartenders he trains to swipe out spirits and other components in taste.’s commonly used builds to see what happens when they experiment.
He knows that sometimes experiments aren’t successful, but that’s okay, it’s all about learning and trying something new. And, really, isn’t that what this whole concept is about? Successful experiments result in new cocktails for future menus or repeat orders. Often, the DIY-ish cocktails concept results in new adventures for all involved — both the bartender and the guest.