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.