Beverage innovation isn’t simply out-of-the-box approaches and a dash of whimsy accompanied by a pop of wacky. True modernization stands on the shoulders of past tried-and-true recipe foundations to realize the future through culinary building blocks and sustainability, exploration in flavor with diners, and a drive for repeat visits via recurring delightful ideation.
“If the core product isn’t good, you only have a few months of marketing that can beat out a poor product,” says Tanner Agar, owner and creative director at both Rye and Apothecary in Dallas, Texas. “Most importantly, guests won’t come back to have it a second time or trust your next interesting, out-there idea because you didn’t ensure the core product was delicious.”
“In the work we do, the consistency is surprise and delight; it’s something unique. So, what brings guests back? It’s the continuous iteration of this process, which gives us new toys to play with, then sharing that with our guests,” adds Agar.
When spots like Deviation Distilling make everything including liqueurs, bitters, syrups, purees, and fat-washes in-house, this attracts guest attention and sells itself, says Tiago Amaral, bar manager and head mixologist at Denver’s Deviation Distilling. It also reflects in the numbers of the brand’s fat-washed cocktail menu, which Amaral says has double the sales of its previous list.
An imaginative, hyper-seasonal, hyper-local menu drives traffic and restaurant revenue, explains Alex Anderson, bar manager at Takibi in Portland, Oregon, while “keeping things interesting because we work with the kitchen so they change their menu often, and if they have a new fun dish, I can create a couple drinks to keep things popping and drawing guests in,” she says.
Takibi incorporates local Pacific Northwest ingredients alongside Japanese elements to tie in the restaurant’s vision, but their innovation comes from research and “getting a strong understanding of classic cocktails, why they work, why we still drink certain ones today, and why others disappeared off the face of the earth,” Anderson says. “Understanding that helps you become more creative and think further into the future without repeating.”
That creativity led to the cocktail “Bovine Therapy,” made with the kitchen’s excess rendered Wagyu fat to wash Ransom Whiskey, with Accompani Marigol, Demerara, Peychaud’s bitters, and Jade Nouvell-Orléans Absinthe. And another sustainable, kitchen-repurposed ingredient, rice water, formed cocktail, Haiku #2, showing off Sencha-infused sushi rice water, Wilderton Lustre, lime, and marionberry jam.
Anderson’s penchant for shrubs also means a rotation of seasonals from aprium to butternut squash, and their Sunstone cocktail with watermelon shrub made from a local Riesling vinegar plus Altos Plata Tequila, Verstovia Spruce Tip Vodka, Oze X Rose Sake, lime, mint, Japanese chili pepper tincture, and Peychaud’s bitters.
“The best way to achieve high-quality food with high-quality drinks that pays off is making your own sauces and syrups. You get a bartender connecting with a chef, you’re always going to get better results; the interaction between chef and bartender is important for success,” explains Amaral, “And if you don’t have a kitchen, take culinary as your backbone for making cocktails.”
Hazelnut, sesame, pistachio, bacon, and butter comprise fat-washed cocktails on Deviation’s menu. There’s bacon fat-washed Zin Fin Bourbon in the bacon churro Old Fashioned with housemade amaretto liqueur, and the Mango Lassi has pistachio-washed blood orange gin, and housemade yogurt liqueur and cardamom bitters. In the Sesame State of Mind, Deviation washed Spice Trade Gin with sesame oil and paired to housemade lemongrass syrup, ginger liqueur, and Thai chili tincture.
“The most popular cocktails are the ones that connect guests with a memory or an idea; something they already love that’s now turned into cocktail form. We’ve made cocktails out of soup, pasta, duck confit,” Agar says. “[But] restraint becomes a more important force than wild creativity … Rather than forcing more in, making it as weird and out there as you can, better to pare back so your dish and drink sing the same song and tell one message.”
Turning a chef’s beet lasagna into a cocktail sounds like a square order, but right up Agar’s alley—which is how the Inappropriate Beet Pun with goat cheese coconut foam, beets, red bell pepper, lemon, orange, honey, London Dry Gin, and strega came to life. And the indulgent Pekin Tom with duck confit-washed Stellum Bourbon, lapsang tea-infused peach liqueur, absinthe, and peach smoke formed as a palate play on savory, salty, and fatty.
For cocktail Hands Off My Peaches (honey butter-washed Repo Tequila, peach cobbler demerara, and peach vanilla “air”), moving away from overly-sour tequila cocktails to “highlight the fruity, woody notes of tequila that pairs so well with peach and show guests a cocktail they haven’t seen before while striking a lot of notes,” Agar says, adding it was the right move to coincide with local Texans and inventive beverages.
“The more versatility you can get out of any one ingredient, the better. And if you’re buying pickles, not using the brine is like money down the drain,” explains Hannah Lewis, chief marketing officer at Fermented Food Holdings headquartered in Miami, which includes brands Bubbies.
“If there’s an opportunity to not waste and use it, one, from a profitability standpoint, it makes sense, and two, from upcycling and being good stewards, it feels bad to waste something that’s so delicious and has many functional benefits,” Lewis adds. “If restaurants have an item that can act as a great infusion in a cocktail to make something whimsical or different or out there and more fun that gets people to try it.”
Bubbies’ strawberry basil probiotic cocktail recipe uses naturally-fermented dill pickle brine, strawberries, lemon, and agave syrup while their Pickled Whiskey Sour balances brine with honey, Sriracha, and cayenne. Bloody Marys swap pickle juice for Worcestershire, which creates a vegan version while giving that “umami pop” in unique ways, says Lewis.
“A lot of your competition isn’t paying attention to innovation and just wants to drive the price down as quickly as they can,” Agar explains. Watch for small ways to make your version of that beverage standout in your market, he adds; “Every category of restaurant can do this and it costs almost exactly the same as what you’re serving now, but guests can feel when a product is done with intention.”
“It’s hard to be on the pioneering edge of cocktails, but to take that first step to make things that are unique, fun, and memorable for your guests, it’s not that big a step and it’s so rewarding,” Agar adds.