On many restaurant menus, after-dinner drinks are also an after-thought. But as the cocktail renaissance continues, bartenders are rethinking the dessert and digestif menus from the ground up. Some are pairing cocktails with desserts so that the drinks are better integrated into the overall dining experience. Others are collaborating with the artisan coffee roasters to boost the buzz. Yet others have expanded their menus to include unusual after-dinner spirits, are trying new flavors beyond whipped cream and Kahlua, and have found new ways to offer dessert drinks to diners without holding up tables.
Grin and Pair It
At Firefly, a restaurant in Washington, mixologist Jon Harris pairs a cocktail with each dessert on the menu. The drinks are only $6 each, less than the desserts themselves, and are served in small glasses.
“It’s enough to satiate you; you don’t have to be committed to a full drink to help you get settled after your meal. We thought it might be a good way to make an extra last sale. It’s a relatively easy buy-in compared with a full-size cocktail,” Harris says.
For most of the drinks, Harris matches flavors in the drinks with those in the desserts. A strawberry ice cream sandwich is paired with a drink containing strawberry gin; a bourbon bread pudding, peanut caramel, and coffee ice cream dessert can be served with a cocktail containing bourbon, coffee liqueur, and almond syrup. Harris also makes an effort to pair with the texture of the dessert—for example pairing a fluffy fizz-style drink with cheesecake.
Harris says, “I think it’s easier to pair with dessert than it is with entrées. You have savory, sweet, or sour desserts and those really mimic cocktail flavors anyway. Personally I don’t like spirits with entrées; they can be overpowering. But at the end of your meal, the spirit will help settle it a little bit.”
At The Storefront Company in Chicago, they offer a special Kitchen Counter dining experience. As part of this program, a three-course dessert tasting menu is offered, along with a drink-pairing option. Rather than cocktails, the desserts are paired with regular and fortified wines by wine director John Dalesandro.
For example, a dessert with chocolate might be accompanied by Graham’s 20-year-old Port, a white cheese might go with Steinfeld Gruner Veltliner, and a bleu cheese with a Triennes St. Auguste Bordeaux Blend.
A different pairing is on offer at Comstock Saloon, a bar-driven restaurant in San Francisco. There the pairing flight is with local TCHO Chocolate and various spirits. Citrusy, fruity, and nutty chocolates are paired with pisco brandy, aged rum, and bourbon, respectively. The three-course pairing is available for $19.
Beyond cocktails, another major beverage movement in recent years has been toward better coffee that is locally roasted and served via single-cup drip. Some restaurants are redesigning their after-dinner drink menus to take advantage of the coffee craze.
Years before it became a trend, San Francisco restaurant NOPA partnered with Blue Bottle coffee roasters to provide its beans. Shortly thereafter they put the Blue Bottle Cocktail on the menu, which current bar manager Yanni Kehagiaris says is “one of the few drinks that’s become a standard. Whether it’s on the menu or not, people order it. It set the tone for future drinks.”
On the current digestif drink menu, which changes frequently except for the mainstay Blue Bottle Cocktail, there are three other cocktails containing coffee or espresso, plus a locally-made coffee liqueur for sipping. True to Kehagiaris’ “less is more” style, the coffee drinks are refinements of standards like the Molasses Brown Sugar Irish Coffee, and a drink called the Shakerato with sambuca and espresso.
The Fourth in New York is a European-style brasserie, in which coffee plays a major role. During the day, an espresso bar operates in part of the space and coffee drinks are always available with food. The only mixed drinks on the dessert menu combine their house roast with other cocktail ingredients like amari, crème de menthe, and sambuca. Next door, the same hospitality group operates the bar Singl, which offers scotch whisky and bar bites. This provides diners with an easy-access venue for after-dinner drinks, and it frees the dining room tables when guests move to the adjoining space.
New Spaces and New Solutions
In Portland, Oregon, restaurant Raven & Rose also provides a separate area where many people retire for coffee, coffee cocktails, and dessert. Above the restaurant is a large and comfortable second-floor bar that also attracts non-dining customers. The restaurant is right on Broadway, so many clients come after the theater just for cocktails and dessert.
“It helps us downstairs turning tables and it helps upstairs being a destination for dessert,” says bar director David Shenaut.
In this space, Shenaut has designed drinks that don’t simply pair with dessert, but instead can replace it altogether. Offerings include an Irish Coffee; a Flip made with chocolate stout, brandy, rum, and an egg; a New Orleans-style Milk Punch; and a drink combining Nardini amaro, kirsch, and tequila.
Shenaut says, “In Portland, we have pretty long winters and upstairs it’s a real cozy space so those big, heavy drinks are great up there.”
Back at NOPA, Yanni Kehagiaris also offers cocktails that can be replacements for dessert. A section of the digestif menu lists boldly-flavored creative drinks that incorporate typical digestif spirits like single-malt scotch whisky, sherry, and amari. Three of these drinks include either smoky scotch whisky or actual smoke, which Kehagiaris says is reminiscent of an after-meal cigar.
New York restaurant Bouley has expanded its offerings of after-dinner sipping spirits, many of which are wheeled about the room on the restaurant’s post-dinner drink cart called the Chariot de Digestif. It includes typical digestif spirits, but also some unusual ones like mezcal and special aged rums.
Head sommelier Adrien Falcon says, “Most of our spirits are not served with desserts but after. At a table of eight or 10 people, it’s not rare to see everyone go for an after-dinner drink and they [often] request us to pick for them—a different glass for everyone. Uniqueness is very important in spirits and it should be represented. On a regular basis we serve cognacs, armagnac, and calvados of course, as well as more esoteric products like apricot eau de vie, old plum liqueurs, Chartreuse VEP, and marcs.”
Raven & Rose also offers straight spirits for dessert, but Shenaut made the unusual choice to offer bourbon, rum, scotch, and cognac tasting flights on the digestif menu. Typically restaurants would prefer to turn over tables rather than encourage customers to linger, but again, the upstairs bar lures customers to have their nightcaps away from the dining room tables.
There is plenty of room for new thinking and new flavors on after-dinner drink menus. And for some bartenders, that’s a bonus. Jon Harris of Firefly says, “A lot of times when we are creating drinks we’re doing it in a vacuum, since we don’t make cocktails to pair with entrées but we can pair with dessert. This is a very effective way to expand our creativity.”