Matters of the spirit: It’s all about the menu, honey

Cocktail menus are no longer what they used to be. They now come in designer avatars, meant to pique curiosity, serve as conversation starters and keep the customers coming back for more. 

When we set up Tulleeho.com in 1999 as a bar review website, on our visits to bars across the world we used to surreptitiously swipe a copy of their bar menu, both as a keepsake of our visit as also to peruse the cocktail menu later at leisure, and cocktail menus then were far removed from what we have today. 

Generic cocktail menu
Cocktail menus can sometimes make or break a bar. Image: Shutterstock

India has 30+ bars that can be counted on when it comes to the craft of the cocktail, but the menu that is meant to communicate this craft is not always up to speed. Quite often even in some of the finest bars across the country, the description of the cocktails is prosaic and run of the mill.

It’s only when one sits at the bar and directly engages with the person behind these creations that one can understand the thought that has gone behind them, and that further compels the consumer to try one of these creations rather than revert to type and go with the familiar. As Puru, a Delhi-based drinks enthusiast tells me, he always makes it a point to skip the menus and make a beeline for the bartenders and engage with them to get them to make something special for him. 

This compelled me to understand this further and speak to a few bars that have menus that excel, to see what are the common underpinnings of such menus. For those of us who are cocktail minded, and also given that most bars in India lack bar stools that help promote direct interaction between the guest and the bartender, the drinks or rather the cocktail menu becomes a crucial weapon in the bartender’s arsenal, intended to do full justice in its description to what she/he has sometimes spent months creating. 

Recognising the importance of the cocktail menu, this year, the World’s 50 Best Bars will also be honouring the best cocktail menu, with judging on criteria like design and layout, storytelling, innovation, range of drinks and sustainability. 

On a recent visit to Lair, New Delhi, a cocktail bar that caters to a mature cocktail consumer, it was heartening to see a cocktail menu divided by the level of sophistication of the drink, with 37 cocktails that, as Navjot Singh, the beverage manager, tells me, cater to every taste and preference that a consumer may have, from the simple to the experimental. Each cocktail also comes with a neat little illustration that shows the glass you’d expect it in, mentions the ingredients and also describes its tasting notes. “Why should it only be wine or whisky that has tasting notes?” asks Navjot. 

The menu is also playful. For example, it talks about oats (a cocktail ingredient), with a description of oats as something eaten in England by horses and in Scotland by men, leading to healthy horses in England, and strapping men in Scotland. The next page then describes a cocktail called the Scotsman, which uses an intriguing oats vodka. It makes you wonder how they get oats into the vodka, the whole point of the mention I guess, and a great conversation starter between guest and bartender. 

Navjot worked previously at the short-lived Novele, at Delhi’s Shangri-La (2017-18), whose menu with ingredients like celery cordial and sweet potato foam that would now probably be par for the course, was far ahead of its time. 

Sometimes a bar can also create a menu that not just describes the cocktails, but becomes a work of art in itself. In 2017, on a visit to The Bombay Canteen, I was startled to see a menu inspired by the art deco heritage of Mumbai, resembling a child’s pop-up book, with each page showcasing one of Mumbai’s unique structures and cocktails to match. As Yash Bhanage, partner, said, “Each drink reflects the design of the building, either in shape or colour.” 

The menu was also available for sale, and unlike in our early days, this time around I bought a copy! A beautiful menu does have that effect on me, and I remember in 2013, also picking up for USD 5, Resurrection, a menu at the Dead Rabbit, New York that was presented in an adult graphic novel style, with the cocktails forming part of the narrative. 

Bar tesouro, goa's intriguing and educational cocktail menu
Bar Tesouro, Goa’s intriguing cocktail menu

Bar Tesouro in Goa, easily one of the best cocktail bars in the country, has also just relaunched their menu, divided into five parts, with 25 cocktails in all. I spoke to Pankaj Balachandran, a partner in Tesouro and co-creator of the menu, about their own philosophy when it came to the menu. “A cocktail menu must be easily understandable and not intimidating. It should be simple and self-explanatory so that a customer can easily make out the kind of drink they can expect, in terms of the ingredients as also the spirit base, the glass type and even possibly the flavour profile,” says Pankaj, again corroborating what I saw at Delhi’s Lair. 

I’ve often wondered if seeing complex terms relating to techniques used for making a cocktail or fancy ingredients might act as a turn off for the consumer, but I’m willing to be persuaded by Pankaj’s argument that these terms can be intriguing and definitely act as conversation starters or ice breakers with the guests. These could relate to interestingly named ingredients (Saccharum/Parmesan air), particular phraseology for the spirits (“funky rum”), a technique used (fat wash/acid adjusted) or even a hint of playfulness with Tesouro’s Slip Me A Stranger cocktail also listing ‘love’ as an ingredient. Going through the menu at leisure it makes me think of what Willy Wonka might have created had his forte been cocktails and not chocolate. 

The new cocktail menu at home by pvr which launches on december 15 is themed 'fermentation & solar system'
The new cocktail menu at Home by PVR which launches on December 15 is themed ‘Fermentation & Solar System’

Training is critical though, both for the bar staff who are expected to discuss the menu threadbare with guests, and even more importantly the floor staff, who should be equipped enough to at least share an elevator pitch on each cocktail. 

Pankaj also highlights the importance of cocktail names citing a cocktail that they created called Midnight Brekkie, inspired by Pankaj’s own midnight breakfast of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but this time spiked with gin. The cocktail has now taken on cult status across India and has contracted to just Brekkie to its fans. 

Delhi’s PCO has taken the cocktail menu a step further in an intriguing fashion. It’s a mood cocktail wheel that encourages you to pick the mood you’re in, whether Playful or Nostalgic, for example, and what spirit might you choose with this mood. Making these two selections automatically leads to a cocktail popping up in the show window. Lost in Translation is was what popped up when I chose a playful cocktail with tequila. Menus like this will definitely lead to further consumer engagement, and given that a lot of customers in these bars are repeats, they’re likely to remember what they had last time, and keep the wheel turning till they’ve exhausted all the possibilities. Amen to that! 

Vikram achanta

Vikram Achanta is founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a drinks training and consulting firm, and a co-founder of www.tulleeho.com, a drinks website. He is also co-founder of 30 Best Bars India, India’s first bar awards and ranking platform. His Instagram handle is @rumdoodle69.

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