It is not enough any more to have a back bar full of the latest on trend and fast selling spirits. To really capture a drinker’s imagination you need to be offering them herbs, spices, fresh fruits, and botanicals from all corners of the world to go with them.
How bars and pubs are turning to herbs, spices and garnishes to brighten up and freshen up their cocktails and spirits lists.
Inspiration for columns like this can often come when you are actually trying to do something else.
The spark for this column came whilst waiting to be served for a good 20 minutes in the pub opposite the Olympia Exhibition Centre at the end of a long day at the London Wine Fair.
The bar staff were, to be fair, more than a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who all wanted to be served at the same time with the kind of bar orders that get longer as more people catch the eye of the poor soul sent to the bar to get the drinks.
But being a London Wine Fair crowd the drinks orders were a little more complicated than a straight pint or two of lager or pale ale.
Requests to see the wine list were met with groans of frustration from the back of the five deep queue at the bar.
Which brings me to my moment of inspiration. Although it did not feel it at the time. As well as ordering an array of beers, bottles, wines and straight spirits, the person in front of me, who I later found out came from a bar in Madrid, wanted a very special gin and tonic made.
This involved asking about all the specialist gins on the back bar, where and how they were made and why one in particular was called Portobello Road.
Having finally settled on his choice – which was not the Portobello – he then asked not for the slice of lemon offered to go with it, but, wait for it, a slice of grapefruit instead. Not any old grapefruit mind. But a red one.
On being told there were no grapefruits behind the bar, our friend from Madrid insisted the sole bar tender, faced with 50 other people to serve, went to the kitchen and got one.
Which he duly did. Cutting an enormous slice of grapefruit that covered the gin and tonic completely which was enough to send our fussy Spanish friend on his way.
But it got me thinking about what is now expected of bars, pubs and the staff who work there. It is not just the beers and wines on tap, or the fridges, or the spirits on the back bar that the average customer now expects to see. They also want an increasingly complicated and sophisticated range of “extras” and accoutrements to go with them.
The days of the ice and slice, as our Olympia bar tender would testify, are long gone.
Now anything goes when it comes to what people are looking for to spice up, or give their drink a twist that no-one else has.
When they then wander around the pub with that extra touch of herb, cinnamon stick, fresh raspberry, or pomegranate floating in their drink it can act as a ripple effect around the bar as other customers see what they are having and want to order one of their one.
The Aperol phenomenon of last summer was as much about people asking “what is that orange drink” as it was people actively going to a bar wanting to order one. Similarly the Magners cider over ice craze, which still lasts to this today with any form of cider, was driven by fellow drinkers liking what they saw and going to order one for themselves.
Which all means you might need to be stopping off at the local fruit and vegetable or flower stall as often as you are stocking up on your drinks. Did you know, for example, that a common garden pansy might look quaint, but adds a spice as good as a chilli when dropped in a drink.
More exotic the better
The more exotic the ingredient the better. It all adds to the theatre of both the front and back bar.
There is a new drinking mantra in town. If it’s edible it’s drinkable. Spirits lying dormant on the back bar can be brought literally to life with a slice of orange peel, or combination of ingredients that don’t need to go as far as offering an all out cocktail. More a spirit with a twist or two. Adding a pound or two to the basic spirit price.
Which all results in improved margins as well as bringing variety, theatre and added interest.
The spirits arena is already well down the road to looking for the perfect serve and how combinations of different flavours, ingredients and bitters can all be added to the base spirit to bring extra interest and theatre to the whole category as well as individual drinks.
But this is a whole new area of innovation. There are no rules or regulations or years of experience to go back to.
And if our friend from Madrid turns up looking for his red grapefruit dressed gin and tonic, we’ll be ready and waiting to serve him.