Techniques

How to Create Halloween Cocktails That Aren't Gross

Halloween cocktails
Hoxton Square's "Stranger Things"-themed cocktail list includes a rum punch and a maple whiskey sour garnished with a tiny waffle. Photo courtesy of Hoxton Square.

Forget the slasher movies and haunted houses: Nothing is scarier than Halloween cocktails. Every October, candy corn martinis and glow-in-the-dark slime shooters roam the streets looking for their next victim. But a bar menu filled with bad puns and even worse drinks isn't the way to show guests a good time. Bartenders can serve up Halloween fun without red dye, plastic spiders or marshmallow eyeball garnishes.

"You want your cocktails to have an element of whimsy, but they shouldn’t need a lengthy explanation." says Meghan Konecny, a bartender at Chicago's Sportsman's Club. "And no one wants a lemon drop martini with a Lemon Head rim."

Many popular Halloween drink tricks and novelty garnishes that are fine for a house party won't work in a bar. Inedible garnishes like plastic witch hands or fangs can actually make a drink taste bad. Dry ice creates a fog effect — but it also creates extra work, requiring special handling and guest supervision to ensure safety.

"Remember it's our job to sell drinks, not just make drinks," says Derrick Bass of Vagrant Bartenders, a cocktail consulting company near Los Angeles.

Whether creating one special drink or an entire holiday menu, the first step is to know your clientele and the kind of experience you want to provide. Does your bar attract people in jeans and T-shirts hoping for a quiet place to hang out or a wild costumed bunch expecting an elaborate party? Are you one stop on a pub crawl or do people stay all night?

"Just like there’s a bar for every type of desired experience on a regular day, holiday celebrations should be varied as well," Konecny says.

Cocktails such as the Corpse Reviver or Blood and Sand that are already suited to Halloween are an easy way to show your playful side. Campari is a classic ingredient that adds some red while still honoring a menu that sticks to the classics.

It's possible to make a drink look spooky while sticking with quality ingredients and practical, scalable methods. Bass's black punch, for example, steers away from artificial colors by using a house-infused black currant vodka with a bit of squid ink added to intensify the color and his own black tea and lime syrup, all of which can be made in advance and stored.

Any size bar can hold a theme night, even if it's as simple as rum punch and a few pirate decorations. But large events require more planning and marketing. Usually one or two special drinks are enough, however people will expect them to hew more closely to the theme and they will require more effort to develop and execute.

Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen in London is hosting an elaborate Halloween party with a "Stranger Things" theme, in honor of the hit Netflix show. The bar will offer two special drinks: a rum punch called Stranger Tings, and Stranger Sours, a maple whiskey sour with a splash of red wine and a tiny waffle as a garnish. While a small bar looking to cut costs might skip the waffle, it's the kind of detail guests will expect from a larger venue with a DJ and advance tickets.

"When styling drinks around a specific event you have to remember the majority of customers are visiting for that event," says Chris McGovern, head bartender at Hoxton Square. "And all the little touches will go a long way. Also, when you’re developing a menu, making mistakes is just as important as making progress, you learn which flavors complement each and when you have matched the balance you’re onto a winner."

A good idea can turn out to be a bad drink if the staff can't deliver quality — whether for lack of training, poor planning on management's part or frustration.

"I have seen some bartenders get a bit of tunnel vision when they think they have a good idea and try to force it .... Bars must realize it is probably going to be a busy night and some of the best ideas can have poor execution," says Konecny. "This could be an opportunity to have people in your bar that may not normally be, so you want to be on point just like any other service."

Try the inky Black Cauldron Punch recipe from Vagrant Bartenders here.

Marcia Simmons is a freelance writer and the author of "DIY Cocktails." She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and would really like a Pimm's Cup right about now.

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