Mixing innovation with entertainment, restaurants are creating over-the-top cocktails from smoke-filled bubbles to Ferris wheels.

It’s no secret that having a thoughtful, carefully curated cocktail menu can greatly enhance the restaurant dining experience. Lately, many restaurants are kicking it up a notch and creating over-the-top, show-stopping cocktails that not only offer a delicious drink, but an element of entertainment, interaction, or surprise.

At Bourbon Steak Nashville, the most popular cocktail is an engaging spectacle for guests: a tableside smoked Old Fashioned. This distinctive offering was crafted to add an element of novelty to the menu. The decision to present this classic cocktail in a fresh, interactive manner stems from the restaurant’s emphasis on bourbon and the Old Fashioned’s status as the favorite cocktail among patrons. And this one brings the bar experience directly to the diners with the cocktail prepared tableside and then smoked live, says AJ Johnston, general manager at Bourbon Steak Nashville.

“It’s the interaction,” Johnston explains. “The ability to entertain the guest not only visually, but talk through what the process is, what makes it unique, flavor profiles, textures.”

The experience allows knowledgeable bartenders to talk about bourbon and also explain the preparation process; the cocktail is fat washed with trimmed fat from A5 Wagyu steaks. Johnston says this adds a smokey, beefy, juicy element to the Old Fashioned. A5 Fat Washed Blanton’s Bourbon is combined with sugar and Angostura bitters, then smoked with hickory smoke.

Johnston notes that this educational aspect, combined with the enjoyment it brings, adds a layer of value to the experience (the cocktail is priced at $45). Guests benefit from the additional experience of engaging with the mixologist, rather than merely having a drink placed before them. The establishment also features other dynamic tableside cocktails, like a single-barrel Mint Julep accompanied by flamed cinnamon, or a Manhattan enhanced with a flaming orange zest.

The drink is one of the most mentioned items in reviews, along with the famous duck fat fries, and Johnston finds guests come in knowing they just haveto order the tableside Old Fashioned they heard a friend talk about. “People come for the experience, the show, that’s part of it,” he says.

The team of cocktail enthusiasts at 618 Restaurant located in New Jersey are also giving people a show when it comes to cocktails. It’s about being memorable and exceeding expectations, says hospitality manager Corinne Miller. Guests are entertained by various cocktails with unique presentations, like drinks topped with a smoke-filled bubble mimicking scoops of an ice cream cone, served in a skull topped with a flamed orange, or shareable cocktails served in a rotating Ferris wheel with lit sparklers.

These over-the-top cocktails offer an element of surprise. “We want to engage our guests and give a one-of-a-kind experience that is unique to them,” Miller says.

“The reactions we elicit are what fuel the creative flame for us to continue to find more new and innovative ways to ‘wow’ our guests,” she continues. Besides “wowing” customers in-person, 618 Restaurant is captivating social media with their creative concoctions, with 17,000 followers on Instagram.

“The reality is we taste with our eyes first, and social media gives us the opportunity to draw more followers and fans into our establishment,” she adds.

Restaurants across the country are also opting to entertain guests with an over-the-top Bloody Mary cocktail. The simple celery sticks and olives have evolved to elaborate garnishes piled high in glasses—grilled cheese, donuts, tater tots, sliders, shrimp, and more inventive toppers.

Take the Barnyard Bloody Mary at Farmer’s Table in San Diego, California, for example, where a giant pitcher of Bloody Mary that serves four is loaded with enough food to be a meal itself. The drink is adorned with more than 15 ingredients including barbeque-drizzled bacon, Andouille sausage, grilled corn, mozzarella, bacon-wrapped shrimp, pickled vegetables (jalapeno, cauliflower, carrot), blue-cheese stuffed olive, tomatoes, chorizo, lemon slices, celery, lettuce, and, not to be missed, an entire whole-roasted chicken.

Fernando Urteaga, director of public relations for Formula Marketing (which represents Farmer’s Table), says the exaggerated number of good restaurants across the county has raised the bar and elevated guests’ expectations for when they go out to eat. “People go out, not only to satisfy their hunger, but to walk away with a positive and memorable experience; to be well-fed and entertained,” Urteaga says, adding that people are always searching for the newest thing that stands out.

Farmer’s Table’s Barnyard Bloody Mary “provides guests with that entertainment and memorable experience,” says Urteaga. “We strived to create a drink that was visually shocking in order to provide the wow-factor, while still creating a blend of flavors so extreme that harmoniously work together.”

The drink was rated by The Food Network as one of the “Most Over the Top Bloody Marys in America,” and has garnered similarly positive media praise. “The exposure has been a game-changer for us,” Urteaga says, noting that the restaurant has become a “must-visit” for both locals and tourists when visiting San Diego. The drink has also attracted a lot of attention on social media, with guests often excited to post the eye-catching concoction to their feeds.

“That initial exposure piques guests’ interest, and their curiosity prompts them to check out our menu and the rest of our selection of unique dishes and drinks,” Urteaga says.

The color-changing cocktail at The Goat in Ohio is the one appearing most on social media. A mix of vodka, house-made simple syrup, and butterfly pea tea is the base drink, but guests are given a shot of freshly squeezed lemon juice on the side, giving the experience of pouring it in and watching the color change.

“Guests really enjoy trying something they can engage with; even though the ingredients are super simple, it is very refreshing and tasty,” says Haley Wagner, business development manager at The Goat. “Once one person orders it, it will be ordered by other guests around them who see the cocktail in action.” Guests have come in before even looking at the menu, asking if the color-changing cocktail is available.

A show-stopping cocktail offers multiple advantages; it generates interest and buzz on social media, captivates patrons in the restaurant, and spreads through word-of-mouth. It also provides extra value for the customer and, most importantly, delivers a memorable and entertaining experience for guests.

Bar Management, Beverage, Feature, Menu Innovations