Behind the Bar

The Power of Promoting Creativity Behind the Bar

A large group of people behind a bar.
The teams at Dandelyan and White Lyan believe creativity comes through a spirit of collaboration — they work together to build and test the menu over many months of meetings. Photo Mr. Lyan LTD.

At Dandelyan in London, one of the new featured drinks is called 13th Century Boy — and its sustainable construction reflects the ethos of the name. A single lemon is used not only to lend acidity to the drink, but also provides salinity by having the rind mummified in embalming salts. That rind is then used as the side-serve vessel.

Signature drinks like these take a lot of planning and experimentation, and need a creative space to flourish above and beyond a typical classic cocktail. We asked three innovative bar managers to share their thoughts on how to foster creativity behind the bar in order to develop these specialty cocktails.

Build a story

Arranging a drink around a particular story tends to bring out a unique flavor and flair to cocktails. At White Lyan, that story starts by creating restrictions on what ingredients can and can’t be used, then finding a way around it. Robin Honhold, the operations manager, said White Lyan doesn’t use perishables — not even ice. The team has to liberally play with flavors as a result. For one drink, the Beeswax Old Fashioned, they wanted the cocktail to have a waxy note. So they coated the inside of the drink’s storage bottle completely with beeswax so the alcohol would soak in the flavor.

At Dandelyan, the staff also tells a story with the ingredients and construction of each cocktail.

“The menu [at Dandelyan] explores the human element of modern botany, and we tell a full story with the processes that go into every drink,” said Iain Griffiths, a Dandelyan bartender.

Sometimes those stories can evolve into something more, too. The team at American Bar at The Savoy in London recently brought a cocktail menu to life by turning it into a silent movie.

“A team member suggested we make a cocktail menu map,” said Declan McGurk, the bar manager at American Bar. “One thing led to another and we finally created the London Edition menu.”

The final menu highlighted each of the six boroughs surrounding The Savoy, and the resulting movie was set in old-timey London, telling the story of how the bar’s Pickering Place cocktail originated with a duel over a woman and Frank Sinatra’s drinking habits.

Put your heads together

As always, meetings, meetings, meetings. Getting everyone together in the same room on a regular basis is invaluable, and McGurk, Griffiths, and Honhold all have weekly ones — although with slightly different processes. McGurk supplements his staff brainstorming meetings with monthly meetings of bar leadership to both suggest and review new ideas. Griffiths and his team spent six months developing their latest menu, and each weekly meeting was built on off-site research into an idea for a cocktail. Those ideas were translated into specific flavors, and then a drink was developed to complement those specific flavors.

“It sounds convoluted but this way it stops anyone just jumping on the bar and throwing things in a glass,” Griffiths said. “It's a more considered approach that benefits the story, the drink, and the sustainability of the bar.”

Honhold has perhaps the loosest approach to team meetings, calling them a “break from work” and encouraging “tangential chatter” alongside a rough agenda. Together the team comes up with a broad category the drinks should fit into, and encourages a group discussion where staff can interject with insights and ideas for ingredients and techniques. Then they reverse engineer the drink to figure out the best way to make it and experimentation starts.

“Sometimes we are right and it works like a dream!” Honhold said. “Often we encounter obstacles that we didn't see, but every obstacle is taken as a learning curve. We ask each other for advice, we all taste each other’s drinks through the various phases of development and offer constructive insight at each point so that by the time we present a finished article everyone is invested in it in some way.”

And in every case, they each know that a good, creative cocktail can’t be made without team collaboration.

“You can't create as one team if there is an ‘every man for themselves’ approach,” Griffiths said.

Jennifer Billock is a writer and author focusing on culinary travel, culture and history. She is currently dreaming of an around-the-world trip with her Boston terrier.

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