Insider's View: Anatomy of a Cocktail List

creating cocktails
creating cocktails

All photos by Manny Gonzales. 

Ah, Spring is in the air and love is in bloom. It is time to dust the shelves, air out stuffy winterized rooms... and think cocktails! Although the ingredients that make us think spring are not at their fullest it is a time to gear our collective palates for the better days to come.

Every restaurant has a different approach to creating a cocktail list at Foundry on Elm, we add a little challenge for the bar staff. Often times a Bar Manager will spearhead the list with a couple of individual bartenders adding a drink or two for good measure. But everyone has their own style. Sometimes a new product is set on the back bar, and every bartender wants to tinker with it. In the end there are five or six variations of the same cocktail. There's also a bartender of the more "classic" sense - the one who listens to your problems and gives sage advice, all while polishing the same glass for the duration of the conversation. The old school bartender might typically be lost in a craft cocktail bar but in the the end, the witty banter and quick pour of a beer may be what the good doctor ordered. There's the bartender who can make a mean Manhattan but has never been asked to create his own cocktail. We do a lot of promotion from within, so a newbie bartender who started as a food runner four years ago and became a server two years ago now stands behind a forty foot marble topped bar. This is a chance for him to try out his creativity not based on knowledge and instinct but on pure excitement. The problem here is that there may be a lack of focus. So about two years ago I came up with an idea and it goes like this:

Every bartender has their name entered into a tin, and fourteen key ingredients are added into another tin. It is usually a spirit but sometimes we'll throw in a curve ball like smoked lager or wine like Picpoul de Pinet. Then in a third tin we'll will add in styles of cocktails like "sparkling," "aromatics" and "sours." Once we draw the bartender's name, we draw the base alcohol, and lastly the style, so in theory one may have to make a beer cocktail in the style of a Manhattan.  There are a couple of ground rules as well: The first is that the base alcohol must be greater or equal parts to any other ingredient. Secondly you can not "double dip" mixers so if my Mezcal sour has Green Chartreuse then no other sour can have Green Chartreuse, however a cocktail in another style may have Green Chartreuse if the bartender wishes.

Then comes the amount of drinks. Because we have seven bartenders we have fourteen cocktails so everyone gets two cocktails each. It is all about the balance. A sparkling is a must and from here we divide somewhat evenly with aromatic spirit based drinks and sours. Typically sours are the most pleasing to the general public and of course the easiest to drink, but our neighborhood of Davis Square in Somerville was voted one of the hippest Neighborhoods in America (trust me, I am not hip). Here brown is king and the Sazerac the drink of choice, so aromatics have a solid representation on the list. It is spring however, so we tip the scale to one extra drinkable sour

Today we are going to follow three bartenders; Cat (the Bar Manager), Julian (the newbie) and myself through the three styles that are given. That actually brings us to an important point - How are drinks, formats, spirits etc. considered?

One thing as a beverage director you want to ensure is a well balanced list. You want to make sure anyone can walk in and find something to connect with but at the same time, the integrity of the bartender must be recognized. I often say that our job is not to give people what they want, and not to give them what we want,  but to offer them a connection that can be recognized in a voice of our own. This is not pretense but understanding that when you have the luxury of tasting unique, off the beaten path spirits like Mezcal or Mahia on a daily basis, you develop a taste for them.

Cocktail 1: Dizzy Dame

Cat drew a vodka sparkling cocktail, which seems easy enough. There is a catch however - citrus may not be used. I wanted her to create a sparkling cocktail in the more classic sense rather than a sour with bubbles which can be too much like soda. It needs to be an opening act, so to speak, an aperitif, which is to me the point of a sparkling cocktail. She is using DSP 162 vodka from Germain-Robin, one of America's first craft spirits made in northern California. DSP has a base of pot stilled wheat with a good proportion of distiiled Riesling and Viognier as well. The grapes gives the vodka a richer viscosity and a slightly sweeter, floral nose which we play off of with some orange blossom water.

  • 1 oz/30 ml of DSP 162 Vodka
  • .75 oz/22 ml of Grand Ten Distilling Angelica liqueur
  • .25 oz/7 ml of Lillet Rouge
  • bar spoon of Honey Syrup
  • 2 dashes Orange Bitters
  • topped with chilled Cava.
  • Garnish: Orange peel scented with orange blossom water

Add all ingredients to a Champagne flute and top with ice cold Cava. Garnish.

Cocktail 2: Summer in Algiers

Julian drew an aromatic Cognac cocktail. We are usingCamus VSOP for this drink. At first he was nervous about drawing Cognac, but as I told him this was the base for the original Sazerac, he started to contrive flavors. He wanted to take a lighter approach as we are headed to that time of year. Some of the upfront flavors of Combier lend itself to a side car but adding Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth gives the drink a lighter, rounder mouth feel. The name Summer in Algiers references Albert Camus' short essay of the same name (one of Julian's favorite writers but no relation to the Cognac).

  • 1.5 oz/44 ml of Camus VSOP Cognac
  • .5 oz /15 ml of Combier Orange Liqueur
  • .5 oz/5 ml of  Bittermens Citron Sauvage
  • .25 oz/7 ml of Imbue Bittersweet Vermouth
  • 2 dashes Lemon bitters
  • Garnish: Lemon twist

Stir all ingredients with ice until well chilled. Strain into a brandy snifter. Garnish.

Cocktail 3: The Neck

I drew Downeast Cider, which is a local cider made down the road from us in Charlestown. I wanted to create a soda-like drink. Knowing that cider can have a tart sweetness, I wanted to add a rounder note, so I added Catoctin Creek Round Stone Ryewhiskey, bronze medal winner in the 2014 NY International Spirits Competition. This added an almost baked bread aroma to the drink. From here, Tempus Fugit Gran ClassicoBitter was added to cut the sweeter cider notes with its unmistakable rosemary stalk bitterness. BroVo Amaro #14, which won double gold in the 2013 NYISC, is added to give a slight chocolate note with hints of sarsaparilla. Only a small amount is used to give nuance without being overpowering. Two dashes of Bittermens Hell Fire Bitters are added for a touch of heat as well as some house made apple brine from pickled apples. The Neck references the original name for Somerville which was once known as "Charlestown Beyond the Neck."


  • Garnish: Pickled Apple

Shake all ingredients well with ice. Double strain into a Collins glass filled with fresh ice. Top with ginger beer and add pickled apple to garnish.

Pickled Apples

  • 1 cup Water
  • 1/2 cup Lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp/30 ml Sugar
  • 2 tbsp/30 ml Salt
  • 1 tbsp/15 ml Coriander
  • 1 tbsp/15 ml Whole black pepper corns
  • 1 tsp/5 ml Allspice
  • 1 tsp/5 ml Clove
  • 2 hearty pinches Chili flake
  • 1 Apple

Add all ingredients except apple to a jar with a tight seal, or large bowl that can then be covered. Once your brine is ready, thinly slice a cored apple width-ways and place in the brine. We use Granny Smith as they have a naturally tart flavor. We usually let it sit for one day, but the brine will absorb rather quickly so if you like them less briny they could be used in just a few of hours.

Bartenders usually get excited during a new season but there is something special about a springtime cocktail menu. It is symbolic to our own struggles, our own awakenings. Even if the quintessential spring ingredients are still sleeping under earth in April, you can see the signs of life stretching its arms through sprigs of grass pushing between the cracks of pavements. It is a time to feel energized, refreshed and ready for the joy, beauty and warm pleasures of inebriation!