Behind the Bar
“Might I Suggest?” — Craft Substitutions for Mass-Produced Liquors
Most of us have been on one side of the bar or the other when someone orders a drink that is not served there. This can be awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. The bartender has a couple of options: treat that guest poorly and lose a potential cocktail drinker and patron, or engage him or her in conversation and find a suitable (and fun) replacement drink.
Kaleb Cribb, bar manager at Holeman and Finch Public House in Atlanta, clued us in on how to gently suggest other drinks to patrons, how to create flavor-matches or updated recipes in the style of a craft cocktail, and how some spirits that once had a bad rap are making a comeback. Cribb says the key is keeping things light and having a conversation. “The common denominator between drinkers is the fun they’re trying to have. If you keep it fun, then you can introduce them to something new.”
I threw out the names of a few drinks and spirits that aren't commonly seen in modern craft cocktail bars. Cribb rarely hesitated, wasn’t snobby, and instead seemed thrilled at each challenge. Here, Cribb tells us how to politely, effectively help lime-flavored beer-drinkers and Caribou Lou shot-takers expand their imbibing horizons.
Jäger is becoming acceptable within the craft community. The Jägerita, created by David Cordoba, is probably the main reason why it’s started making a comeback. But, there is an entire world of amaros that we could get into; those also make good drinks.
This is a tough one. If you ask people what they like about it, it’s usually the cinnamon, and there’s no liquor or liqueur that carries the same kind of flavor as Fireball. I’ve had a lot of success in mixing bitters, a sweeter bourbon, and Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters, which has a lot of cinnamon and clove notes.
Here, I always start a conversation. The dialogue begins with “palate,” but without saying “palate.” We talk about what flavors they’re looking for and go from there. Also, a lot of people still identify with big brands. It’s good to be able to tell guests about the vodkas you do carry that are distilled from wheat the same way Grey Goose is.
Berentzen Apple Liqueur has a natural apple flavor, it’s organic and low proof, and you can splash vodka in with it to create a quick Appletini. If a bar doesn’t have this and is strapped to make apple flavor, you might have go back to the question, “what is it you like about the drink?” Then figure out what flavor will get you there. A bartender could have a Rolodex of flavors (or, see recommendations for The Flavor Bible here) to know which bottles will give him which flavors. We have a bourbon-based drink on our menu called “After Apple Picking”— it’s apple-infused single-barrel bourbon, apple liqueur, muscavado syrup, Cynar, lemon, and nutmeg.
There’s a resurgence to reclaim drinks that have fallen out of favor like the Appletini or Amaretto Sour. Don’t be surprised to see them on a great cocktail menu. Take the Long Island Iced Tea, for example. You can make a good one by curating your liquors and using the best ingredients — fresh lemon juice, cane sugar syrup, etc. Now I’m thinking you could make an egg white drink out of it, a creamy Long Island. I might try that.
I love a good White Russian, but you have to have fresh cream. If I don’t, how do I figure that out? There is nothing quite like cream, but egg white would work. You could do vodka, coffee liqueur, egg white, something with a clove flavor — maybe Becherovka — and Tempest Fugit Crème de Cacao a la Vanille.
Without this cocktail we wouldn’t have craft cocktails like we do now. We don’t carry cranberry juice, so at Holeman and Finch we make fresh cranberry syrup: cranberries macerated with sugar and strained. Then I use the traditional recipe with vodka, syrup, lime juice and orange liqueur. The color is paler, but the drink is wonderful.
Usually when people order this they’re thinking of a frozen, blended drink and we can’t recreate that because we don’t have a blender. I’d talk to the person about the origins of the drink and offer to make a traditional daiquiri with some very red flavor, by which I mean something like crème de cassis or a raspberry liqueur. That creates the same flavors of a daiquiri and hopefully makes it sweet enough for their palate.
Then I ask, “light in flavor, or light in calories?” Sometimes I suggest Guinness. It’s lower calorie than a lot of the yellowish beer people are used to drinking. Or, offer to make a beer cocktail: pineapple juice, whiskey, and an IPA.
So, I don’t have anything bright green and watermelon-flavored. But, I know it’s sweet, so if they wanted a Midori sour I could do another sort of sour. Midori sours don’t have a lot of booze, so I would probably ask the person first if he’d ever had a whiskey sour and go the route of traditional sours. If he still wanted Midori, I’d take Corpse Reviver #2 and over-sweeten it, maybe use more Lillet, or more orange liqueur.
“Remember,” says Cribb, “the goal is not to get $12 out of their wallet for a cocktail when they wanted a $6 shot. The goal is to open their mind to something else and make it fun.”