Freedom of Choice

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Build-your-own bars cater to cocktail connoisseurs, adventuresome spirits, and creative tipplers.

I’ll have something bitter with Tanqueray gin and no citrus. Up please.”

While a custom-directed drink order like this is not unusual to hear in a top-quality cocktail bar, I overheard it in a little neighborhood watering hole that doesn’t even offer a drink menu. Customers are getting so educated about spirits that they want to take charge of the ordering process, often eschewing the cocktail list even if there is one. And while not every bar in every city is full of punters quite this sophisticated, there are a variety of ways to cater to customers who aren’t satisfied with the standard cocktail.

Of course, for a decade or more, some bars have been giving customers the option of building their own drinks via a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar. Bartenders serve a glass containing ice and a shot of vodka (sometimes a spicy house-infused variety), and allow drinkers to pick their own tomato/Clamato juice, hot sauces, spices, and garnishes from a drink-ingredient salad bar of sorts.

In the years since, bartenders have expanded on this model and brought it to new levels.

At Tortilla Republic in West Hollywood, California, they offer habanero-infused mezcal as a Bloody Mary base spirit. Other bars offer gin and tequila options for crafting Red Snappers and Bloody Marias. Honey Salt in Las Vegas brings the Bloody Mary bar to you, with a caddy carried to the table that includes the usual sauces plus additional fun ingredients like Manchego cheese and Slim Jim snacks.

Brasserie S&P at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco offers a fine-dining version of the Bloody Mary bar with a Build-Your-Own Champagne Cocktail bar for $25, which includes a glass of sparkling wine with a table full of various bitters, citrus peels, sugar cubes, and even some liqueurs and juices.

Beyond brunch, a few fancy hotel bars have promoted nighttime versions of this: New York’s Pegu Club and London’s Connaught Bar offer a variety of bitters and tinctures that can be added to a martini.

At other full-service restaurants, the bartenders do the mixological work but the guest makes the selection. At New York City’s rooftop venue Soaked at the Mondrian SoHo, a variety of lemonade-based cocktails—available by the glass or pitcher—are on offer. The guest chooses the base spirit (Absolut vodka, AviÓn tequila, or Bombay Sapphire gin) and a flavor of lemonade from choices like strawberry-mint and watermelon-basil.

At the Big Apple’s landmark Lincoln Ristorante, customers can build their own Bellini. They choose a Prosecco, a fresh fruit purée, and a liqueur that pairs with that specific juice. There are three Proseccos on the menu, three purées, and each purée comes with a choice of three liqueurs. That makes for a lot of options, yet it’s easy for customers to make a choice, like ordering sides for a dinner meal.


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