It’s a balmy Friday in April as the sun coats Cary, North Carolina, with warm rays and a golden gleam. On the outdoor patio of The Umstead Hotel and Spa, about 15 minutes from downtown Raleigh, couples sip full-bodied red wine or partake in the afternoon tea service. Inside, sofas and upholstered chaises are positioned strategically between the bar and, two rooms away, a roaring fireplace. A harp is tucked between the chaises, yearning to be strummed.
The calm reverberates throughout the hotel, even toward the back of the interior labyrinth where, in a small banquet room, Umstead bar and lounge manager Kyle Davis stands in a pastel pink button-down shirt, one hand casually tucked into his black pants pocket. On this day he has called 11 of the servers of the Umstead’s bar and lounge here for an important meeting.
It is time for the servers to taste and inquire about the new menu of seasonally driven, specialty cocktails, slated to launch the following week.
“I want everyone to formulate an opinion on the cocktails,” he tells the room.
Seasonally inspired drinks are advantageous to offer, as consumers seek flavors that mirror the weather and produce they’re buying: ripe fruit in the warm months, cinnamon and warm spices in colder weather. Seasonal cocktail ingredients and garnishes can even be a selling point for bars—highlighting a vegetable garnish that was grown on a local farm, for example, or coordinating the cocktails with the rollout of a new food menu.
Seasonal cocktails encourage guests to drink outside of the box, Davis says—even if a seasonally inspired beverage is something that has never crossed their minds. “A guest may not necessarily say to the bartender, ‘Hey, do you have any drinks with papaya in it?’” he explains. “Most people order cocktails they’re comfortable with. So, by adding seasonal ingredients or having seasonally driven cocktails, it allows the guest to experience something different than their ordinary beverage.”
Cocktails That Sell Themselves
The basics of seasonal cocktails are as follows: Spring and summer bases are light-colored spirits, such as vodka, gin, and rum. Autumn and winter call for the amber-hued spirits, such as whiskey, dark rums, cordials, and spiced liqueurs. Fresh-squeezed juices are a smart accessory in warmer months and spices set the mood in winter, though bartenders should be careful not to overstep an ingredient’s seasonal appeal.
“Typically any sort of spice, like cinnamon, nutmeg, or clove, can be used in the fall or winter,” Davis says. “But I think if those spices were on a spring menu, a guest would hesitate a bit. Obvious seasonal ingredients, when they are used out of season—a guest may call you out on that.”
The greatest challenge for a bar dedicated to seasonal ingredients is, ironically, a lack of seasonal ingredients. Operators must wait for an ingredient to pop out of the ground, whether it’s a flower garnish or key component, so they can experiment with it—and this results in less time to conjure up and test recipe ideas before a scheduled menu rollout.
Bartenders who veer toward seasonal cocktails often incorporate uncommon garnishes, such as hopped grapefruit bitters or dehydrated lemon wheels. For the garnish in the Umstead’s tequila libation Two of Hearts, Davis cuts a piece of orange skin about the size of a coin and sets the disk aflame with a lighter, before resting it in the glass.
Clearly, Davis says, a well-dressed specialty cocktail doesn’t need a marketing campaign. “When you have a drink with a very vibrant color—a purplish or reddish or pinkish color—and you put a flower or some sort of bright garnish on the drink, that drink tends to raise some eyebrows: ‘Ooh, what’s that, what are you making there?” he explains. “I like the cocktails to sell themselves, with the way they taste and look.”
But he draws a distinction between talking points and marketing. Davis encourages his servers and bartenders to use talking points, like emphasizing how the Thai basil leaf, a garnish in the Umstead’s whiskey-based Boulevardier, is grown on the Umstead’s farm two miles away.
Whether a bar uses specialty cocktails to upsell depends on its pricing and reason for offering a specialty menu. At the Umstead, specialty cocktails are a new experience, Davis says, not a time to upsell.
“The Grey Goose martini, which is one of the most common drinks here at the bar, is $18,” he explains. “We sell our specialty cocktails for $14. So, it’s not a matter of upselling. If someone walks in here and wants a Grey Goose martini, I’m not going to argue with them, because I can make more money on it, anyway. But, the specialty cocktails are in place to offer a unique experience to our guests.”
Fervor of the Servers
Davis and his team spend weeks, if not months, crafting seasonal drinks by culling old cocktail recipes. He believes in a traditional cocktail with few ingredients: one spirit, one sour, and a sugar component to balance the drink. “Anything more than three or four ingredients, you have your refrigerator in a glass, or your leftovers in a glass,” he says.
A tasting panel comprised of the Umstead’s general manager, culinary leadership team, and the food and beverage front-of-house managers sip Davis’ creations before he rolls them out. He trusts their palates and knowledge; he added a cucumber ribbon as the garnish on the vodka-infused Kaffir Gimlet, because his panel said it was the first thing they desired after drinking it.
One way Davis extends the seasonal appeal of the cocktails is by pairing them with the food at the bar and the Umstead’s on-site restaurant, Herons. Food pairings for cocktails are a new and exciting avenue, Davis says, as he’s now able to offer a cocktail pairing option to guests who order from the chef’s tasting menu but opt out of the given wine pairing.
The people actually selling the drink—the servers—need to be as informed about the beverage as possible. That’s why Davis hosted his first cocktail seminar for bar and lounge servers in April and plans to hold a class each time the beverage menu is updated; at the Umstead, that happens four times a year, in conjunction with the bar and restaurant’s seasonal food menus.
As Davis stirred and shook the seasonal cocktails to life in front of the servers, many asked questions as they tasted them for the first time. “What’s the proper verbiage for describing chartreuse?” “This tastes like a Manhattan; is that a good thing to tell guests?”
“What if a guest wants to substitute the whiskey?” a server asks about the Boulevardier, made with bullet rye whiskey.
“That’s boring!” Davis jokes.
But he’s pleased the servers are taking the assignment seriously. He also stresses the need to communicate health issues to the guests, such as how the olive in the Jeweler is pitted or that the Circa 1862 contains nuts, for those with allergies. With other drinks, Davis prepares servers to expect strange things. Before passing around the Dirty Martini-esque Jeweler, he cautions: “It’s going to coat your mouth, it’s going to feel dirty, it’s going to feel weird.”
And it does. But, strangeness aside, the class lives up to its mission. As a server tells Davis after the session, “This got me excited about the cocktails. Now, I can talk about them in more detail with guests—not just list the ingredients.”