Nicholas Karlin

The Columbia Room's Dandelion cocktail paired with a 'Flowerpot' dessert.

Restaurants Get in the Spirit of Beverage Education

Consumers are ready to learn more about their favorite libations, and restaurants are all too happy to teach them.

“Do I know everything?” Derek Brown asks. “Absolutely not.” It’s a humble admission for our nation’s first chief spirits adviser, appointed in 2015 by the U.S. National Archives. Brown, president of the Drink Company, which overseas the Columbia Room, PUB, and Reverie in D.C., even published a book on the history of the cocktail, but he still feels that what he doesn’t know will always outpace what he does. This humble attitude is common among experts in the beverage industry. It indicates an intensely studious quality shared by sommeliers, mezcaliers, brewers, and leading bartenders.

“The consumer is way more knowledgeable than they’ve ever been in the history of drinking,” Brown says. To keep up, professionals have to study up. Education becomes essential. But how do restaurants and bars gain it?

Restaurants with reputable beverage programs create informal and formal structures to educate staff and patrons. They create a culture where staff shares information freely while building time and space for professional development. Some restaurants utilize menu design and offerings to creatively educate customers.

Culture of learning

Brown has piled up awards for his cocktail programs, but he doesn’t curate them alone. For Brown, education and creation go together in developing an inclusive process. At the Columbia Room, also in D.C., Brown convenes a beverage council of business partners at the Drink Company. Together they collaborate on a menu theme for the Columbia Room’s four-course pairing of food and cocktails. Ideas are volleyed. Chefs are consulted. Bartenders sip on the drinks and share feedback. Brown tries to involve as many staff members as he can.

“They’re in on it. They’re part of the process,” Brown says. “This is our heart we’re presenting. This is our best.” The results are impressive, such as the Dandelion, a variation of a Negroni, using several dandelion parts and blending its greens with a white vermouth. It’s brightly green, floral, and aesthetic.

At Le Coucou in New York, beverage director Charles Puglia has as many as five sommeliers on the floor during dinner service.

“We have a lot of firepower for this space,” Puglia says. There is a centralized sommelier station where staff can go to ask questions instead of chasing somms around the room. “It tends to be a place where a lot of information is shared,” Puglia says.

Class: restaurant-style

Many restaurants do a daily lineup to note special occasions, menu changes, or administrative details. This is also a perfect time to sneak in a lesson.

“We try to give as much information as possible in the lineup,” Puglia says. “There is little time to dig in during service, so those 10 to 15 minutes when we’re all together is critical.”

This could be a brief dive into a French region or tasting a special wine. Le Coucou has more than 950 selections, so getting to know one in detail gives staff the knowledge and confidence to go sell it, Puglia says.

Lineups alone aren’t enough, because expertise requires depth as well as range. At Le Coucou, Puglia reaches out to distributors when industry experts are in town to represent a brand. They’ll coordinate a tasting and training for staff. “The restaurant doesn’t pay a dime for it, and it’s a good investment by the producer because they’re getting the product's name out there and building a base,” Brown says.

More than 30 employees attended when Tim Master, spirits director at beverage distributor Frederick Wildman & Sons, led a class on chartreuse and likewise when a representative for Champagne house Charles Heidsieck did a class. “They’re going to talk about their brand but in the context of the drink and the region,” Puglia says.

At Espíritu, a mezcal bar and restaurant in New Orleans, owners Jason Mitzen and Amanda Sesser created the Mezcal Society, a monthly in-house tasting club led by Mitzen. Mitzen is a master mezcalier, a certification he earned through a government-approved training program in Mexico. It culminated in five days of laboring over agave with artisans in Oaxaca.

Mitzen compares the increasingly popular spirit to wine for its complexity and terroir. Each bottle can express a deep warren of culture, biology, and geography. Espíritu’s Mezcal Society invites patrons to explore that synergy. A meeting could feature a specific producer or focus on a lesser-known spirit like sotol. It is designed for patrons, but staff are invited, too.

Flights of fancy

“Diners want an experience,” says Joe Carroll, creator of St. Anselm, which has locations in Brooklyn, New York, and D.C. “They want a spectrum of experience, and flights make that possible.” Flights don’t have to be relegated to bourbon and beer. At St. Anselm, the menu features set flights of Madeira, a fortified wine popular in Colonial times.

Vanessa Cominsky, St. Anselm’s beverage director in D.C., loves Madeira because it gives a snapshot of a specific year or a broader range of experience. The St. Anselm menu offers a flight of 19th-century Madeira or a more affordable selection that Cominsky recommends as an introductory tasting course with four styles: sercial (dry), verdelho (semi-dry), bual (semi-sweet), and malmsey (sweet). Flights help guide drinkers toward styles they like. “They make it fun and interesting to try something new,” Cominsky says.

But do Madeira flights make money?

“The sales say yes,” she says. It’s proof that education can be an important part of the broader dining experience, and it’s the experience that customers are paying for when they dine out.

At Espíritu, there are no set flights on the menu, but Mitzen keeps a running flight list in a staff handbook he calls a living document.

Sesser, who is also a biologist, loves serving a multi-regional selection by Mezcales de Leyenda to show the difference in agaves from Durango, Puebla, Guerrero, and Oaxaca. Additionally, it conveys Espíritu’s mission to only sell mezcals that are sustainably grown.

Flights become lessons not only in taste, but also in geography, economics, culture, and ecology. Similar to St. Anselm, Espíritu staff are encouraged to tailor flights for guests. “Customizing flights is where we have the most fun,” Mitzen says.

Visual cues

Good teachers know that students have different learning styles. Menus are the perfect tools to appeal to visual learners.

“A wine list can be overwhelming,” Carroll says. It’s a flood of information in print form, and for those who don’t know a lot about wine, it creates a blind dependence on sommeliers and servers for information. St. Anselm’s D.C. wine list is almost 60 pages long, but it’s also full of pictures.

“I wanted some things in the menu to be more interactive,” Carroll says.

The menu includes illustrated maps featuring wine regions splashed with red wine–hued ink to show production areas.

“I love having maps on the menu; geography is so important to understanding terroir,” Cominsky says. St. Anselm’s menus also include explanations of wine categories like yellow and orange wine.

Creative menus aren’t limited to wine. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, Creston Brewery has developed a special visual tool to explain its beer.

“We wanted to break out of the homogeneity of craft beer, or the idea of it,” says cofounder and brewmaster Scott Schultz. Rather than listing beer by style, a graphic called the C-logo visualizes hoppiness, bitterness, color, maltiness, aroma, and primary flavors.

For example, the Golden Glo could be described as a hazy wheat pale ale, but that’s a murky label for many drinkers. Instead, Creston’s C-logo shows a juice-dripping hop cone to indicate juicy hop flavor while the color scale of the ‘C’ expresses a low-bitter hoppy beer with golden wheat color and malts.

Schultz calls it a great conversation starter, as the C-logo gives customers a visual vocabulary to discuss flavors, styles, and preferences.

“Brewers have been pushing the boundaries of what beer can be,” Schultz says. “How do we pass that on to the consumer? You can only do that through education.”