5@5 - Decoding the modern cocktail menu
January 24th, 2012
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Cocktail menus aren’t what they used to be: branded ingredient lists with suffixes like "tini" and "rita" to give you a sense of how a drink might be presented, not how it would taste.

Don’t be afraid though, it is an absolutely great time to be alive if you love good drinks.

The cocktail menu can still be your guide; even if you don’t understand 50 percent of what the heck is printed on it, you can gain a pretty good sense of what a cocktail is going to be like with the other 50 percent.

Here are a few tips from Jackson Cannon, owner of The Hawthorne and bar director of Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar, to help you along the way.

Be brave, and remember after you’ve done a bit of reading and deciphering, it is always OK to ask for some guidance.

Five Tips on Reading a Craft Cocktail Menu: Jackson Cannon

1. Navigating Menu Sections
"Listing cocktails by base spirit has become passé, and most serious cocktail menu authors will instead use other elements to categorize drinks, eschewing vodka, gin, rum, or tequila as categories. Be fearless. A section labeled 'sensational citrus' or 'farm fresh delights' are even more instructive than one based on spirit.

Decide what to drink based on your mood. Celebrating? Go to the Champagne cocktails probably marked 'sparklers,' 'bubbles' or 'celebrations.' Feeling adventurous? Pick something from the section titled 'advanced' or find a section like the one we put on the menu at Eastern Standard simply as 'OEUF' (French for egg) where we collected our flips and fizzes with whole egg or just the whites added."

2. On the house
"'House made' on a menu usually means that the establishment is pretty serious about drink making and are dedicated to working with high quality and/or unusual ingredients. While grenadine is pretty simple (pomegranate juice and sugar mostly), making your own bitters and vermouth is not.

If you see a house drink called something like, 'Woodsman’s Old Fashioned – barrel aged genever with house made maple bitters,' be advised, your drink might take a few minutes but it should be packed with flavor and love."

3. The bitter truth
"Let’s define that word bitters, because they are sooooooo hot right now! Bitters are alcoholic beverages flavored with herbal essences that have a bitter or bittersweet flavor. Many were formerly marketed as medicines, but are now commonly used as flavoring in cocktails and taken as digestives.

The major brands of Angostura, Peychaud’s and Regan’s are commonplace and it is not unusual for a cocktail bar to have more than two dozen commercial and house made flavorings of this type.

Grapefruit, rhubarb, chocolate mole, cranberry, celery, etc. - DON’T THINK THAT BECAUSE AN INGREDIENT IS A BITTER THAT YOUR DRINK WILL BE BITTER TOO! In fact aromatic bitters often tame and meld other flavors and are used in the vast majority of crafted cocktails."

4. Ask for help
"If the menu is written with little or no ingredients given, don't hesitate to ask questions, that's why they wrote it that way. Take a minute to read it to prepare. If the subtext on a cocktail reads, 'when juniper collides with Mahr's' the author is having it both ways. To the very beverage savvy they are saying 'we are putting gin in fine German beer.' To everyone else they are saying, 'we like rock operas how about you?' If you get into the spirit your server will decode it for you."

5. Cocktail terms and truisms to keep in mind
• Sours aren’t sour, they are sweet & sour.
• Juniper = Gin
• Egg whites have no flavor, only texture; and they're safer in alcoholic beverages than they are in scrambled eggs
• Flip = Whole Egg; Fizz = Egg White
• If you love tequila, it’s high time to try artisan Mezcal from Oaxaca.
• St. Germain is an elderflower liqueur. Elderflower = pear, honey, lemon balm – this stuff is like magic dust, that’s why it’s on every menu!

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Sip • Spirits • Think


soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. J

    Small correction to the last paragraph: "Fizz" doesn't mean "egg white", it generally means soda water and lemon juice (or another acid) are present. The basic drink of this type is probably the "Gin Fizz" (gin, sugar, lemon, soda water; very similar to a Tom Collins). The author may have confused this with one of the following:

    "Silver Fizz" – Gin Fizz with egg white
    "Golden Fizz" – Gin Fizz with egg yolk
    "Royal Fizz" – Gin Fizz with whole egg
    "Ramos Gin Fizz" – Silver Fizz with added lime, cream, orange flower water

    Generally "silver", "golden", and "royal" denote adding whites, yolks, or the whole egg.

    February 2, 2012 at 10:21 am | Reply
  2. Marcia

    Has annoye suggested that you might enjoy gin a bit too much if using it to brush your teeth?

    January 31, 2012 at 9:10 pm | Reply
  3. urmomlol

    If you're a man, and you're considering ordering "Champagne co cktails probably marked 'sparklers,' 'bubbles' or 'celebrations'" or some day-glo drink made with fruity liqueur, you should begin by punching yourself in the face repeatedly and then ordering a scotch, a beer, or a gin martini so you don't look like a sorority girl.

    January 25, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
    • Reilleyfam

      Soon, guys like you will be all dead and the next generation can restart the evolutionary process.

      January 25, 2012 at 7:04 pm | Reply
      • Slammy

        I got Dubs on yo' Momma-at least the Baby will have intelligence.

        January 25, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  4. urmomlol

    If you're a man, and you're considering ordering "Champagne cocktails probably marked 'sparklers,' 'bubbles' or 'celebrations'" or some day-glo drink made with fruity liqueur, you should begin by punching yourself in the face repeatedly and then ordering a scotch, a beer, or a gin martini so you don't look like a sorority girl.

    January 25, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  5. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    Johnny Walker Blue Label.....smooth without any frills

    January 25, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  6. David

    Try a "Secret Soviet." Basically a vodka martini but with Absolut Peppar and a dash of vermouth. Stuff the olive with an anchovy.

    January 25, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
  7. Conrad Shull

    A Martini made with gin and vermouth A Vodka Martini is made with vodka and vermouth. All the other "-tinis" are "stuff" in a cocktail glass.

    January 25, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Reply
    • Reality Cheque

      By definition, a martini, regardless of what you put in it, is a co cktail.

      January 25, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
      • CJM8

        You are incorrect. A martini is vodka or gin, and vermouth...period.

        January 25, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
      • Reality Cheque

        A co cktail is defined as "Any of various mixed alcoholic drinks consisting usually of brandy, whiskey, vodka, or gin combined with fruit juices or other liquors and often served chilled."

        January 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
      • Jim

        @RealityCheque – A martini is a cocktail but a cocktail is not necessarily a martini. And I agree a martini not made with either Gin or Vodka does not deserve the use of the -ini suffix

        January 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Reply
      • Reality Cheque

        @Jim, I agree with you that a martini is always a co cktail, but a co cktail isn't always a martini. However, what defines a martini is extremely debatable and I leave that argument to other folks.

        January 26, 2012 at 7:42 am | Reply
    • SherwoodOR

      Most precisely.

      January 25, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  8. Arthur

    If you like V-n-T or Screwdrivers, you should try an "Afterglow"....vodka with 1/2 OJ and 1/2 tonic....Yummy!!

    January 25, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • CJM8

      That's the

      January 25, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • CJM8

      That's the dumbest thing i've heard so far...

      January 25, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  9. Jackie Wilson's supervisor

    Johnny Walker Black. Done.

    January 25, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
  10. Veronique

    I love an Old Fashioned made with Diep 9 barrel aged genever from Belgium!

    January 25, 2012 at 9:14 am | Reply
  11. Grandpa RD

    Regency Liquor Store Vodka and Grape Kool Aid. Yum!

    January 24, 2012 at 10:46 pm | Reply
  12. Yeah but

    He didn't even mention craft cocktails. Gotta keep up with the latest nauseating trend.

    January 24, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  13. DWTF

    Bombay + Martinelles AJ = Colorado Special. Bombay shooter chased with the apple juice. I got my mind on my money, and my money on my mind.

    January 24, 2012 at 9:24 pm | Reply
  14. KED

    If the bar, or restaurant, in question has some of these elaborate cocktails available, you're not really wasting the bartender's time as most of these drinks are crafted by the same bartenders.

    My go to drinks are either bourbon neat, or a good sipping tequila neat.

    That being said, there are some great cocktails out there at these places, and some old cocktails seeing new popularity (Sazerac), twists on the Old Fashioned or Manhattan, etc. And I've never ordered a single one to come across as "hip" but rather because I enjoy a good cocktail, and I'd like to try something I'm never going to make at home.

    January 24, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Reply
  15. kit8

    Where is Angostura bitters made and how is it made?

    January 24, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Reply
    • jesh

      It's made in trinidad, which is significant because during prohibition it was one of the few bitters to survive being from another country. It's basically a fancy infusion. Herbs, roots, spices, and many other things are macerated in high proof alcohol, which concentrates the flavors. A couple dashes go a long way.

      January 24, 2012 at 10:31 pm | Reply
  16. Angel

    I was thinking of a flaming rum punch!

    January 24, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  17. Aletheya

    Scotch, Laphroaig, neat.

    No frakin' sugar. No frakin' fruit juice. No frakin' soda. No frakin' froo-froo anything. Just the Water of Life, pure and unpolluted, the way it's supposed to be.

    January 24, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Reply
    • jesh

      if you like laphroig try ardbeg 10 year. one of the finest whiskeys on the planet, and certainly in the same vein as laphroig.

      January 24, 2012 at 10:32 pm | Reply
    • SherwoodOR

      If you like Laphroaig, why not just order a shot of Listerine? It's cheaper and it tastes the same.

      January 25, 2012 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  18. Clarence

    I'll have a spiced wine, heavy on the cinnamon, light on the cloves.

    January 24, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • David55

      It is indeed a wonderful life

      January 25, 2012 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  19. Lifelong Vagitarian seeking Meat Eater

    I like mine shaken not stirred

    January 24, 2012 at 8:11 pm | Reply
  20. Steve

    I like beer

    January 24, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • J

      I agree, but only good beer. None of that bud/coors/miller tripe.

      Living in San Diego has me spoiled. We've got a dozen different microbreweries in the area with an amazing assortment of real beer with real flavor. And I like it.

      January 25, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  21. J

    You could listen to all that garbage, or you could just order bourbon neat and stop wasting the bartenders time. Especially during Happy Hour.

    If the bar is busy, you don't need an upside-down-elderberry-grasshopper with flaming nonfat whipped cream. Keep the drinks straight, and save the experimentation for your bedroom.

    January 24, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Exactly. Most of the time people order these foofy drinks in public do so to be seen as "hip".

      January 24, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Reply
    • joe

      I like Bourbon, but you should also try expanding a bit. These bartenders get paid to make drinks, which is a big reason for going to a bartender in the first place.

      January 24, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Reply
      • Jim

        Are you really going to a bartender, or a bar? I like a nice bar. The bartender? Not the big draw. I'm sure he's a nice guy and all, but, it's not why I go there.

        January 24, 2012 at 8:38 pm | Reply
      • Shanna

        I'm with Joe. I love my G-n-T, which I can make at home. If i go to a bar I want the specialty drinks made by the paid professional AND I expect to pay for their services.

        January 24, 2012 at 9:12 pm | Reply
      • descole

        @Jim in big cities where the cocktail craze has been going for about 10 years, NYC, L.A., San Francisco, bartenders are celebrities. When they interview for a job, they are asked if they have a following and how many clients they can guarantee. This is a very small part of the market. there are still tons of "regular" bars all over the city.

        January 24, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Reply
      • Reality Check

        @descole, "... in big cities where the cocktail craze has been going for about 10 years ..."

        Honey, you need to broaden your horizons. Cocktail aren't a craze. They've been around longer than the 30+ years I've been drinking. In fact, a cocktail is any alcoholic drink "consisting of a spirit or several spirits mixed with other ingredients, such as fruit juice, lemonade, or cream." People have been mixing drinks this way for centuries.

        As far as bartenders being celebrities, that's been going on longer than 10 years, too. Just using Tom Cruise's movie "Cocktail" as an example of bringing national attention to the bartenders' talents, that movie was released 24 years ago.

        January 25, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
      • Reality Cheque

        @descole, "... in big cities where the co cktail craze has been going for about 10 years ..."

        Honey, you need to broaden your horizons. Co cktails aren't a craze. They've been around longer than the 30+ years I've been drinking in those and other big cities. A co cktail is defined as "Any of various mixed alcoholic drinks consisting usually of brandy, whiskey, vodka, or gin combined with fruit juices or other liquors and often served chilled." People have been mixing drinks this way for much longer than your proposed "10 year craze."

        As far as bartenders and their celebrity, that's been going on longer than 10 years, too. Shooting even more holes in your statement, Tom Cruise's movie "Co cktail" helped to bring a level of celebrity & national attention to the bartenders' popularity. That movie was released 24 years ago. Soooo your statement is holding water like a sieve.

        January 25, 2012 at 7:56 am | Reply
      • J

        I branch out occasionally. I dig scotch, tanq and tonic, whiskey sour, gin martini or a few others. But generally keep it classic.

        I'm not there to see Bob the bartender twirl bottles or make smiley faces in whipped cream. Then again, I don't live in any of the cities mentioned (LA, NY, SF) so maybe I'm not just hip to that jive, or whatever.

        January 25, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Reply
    • KED

      If the bar, or restaurant, in question has some of these elaborate cocktails available, you're not really wasting the bartender's time as most of these drinks are crafted by the same bartenders.

      My go to drinks are either bourbon neat, or a good sipping tequila neat.

      That being said, there are some great cocktails out there at these places, and some old cocktails seeing new popularity (Sazerac), twists on the Old Fashioned or Manhattan, etc. And I've never ordered a single one to come across as "hip" but rather because I enjoy a good cocktail, and I'd like to try something I'm never going to make at home.

      January 24, 2012 at 8:36 pm | Reply
    • Josh

      At your average neighborhood pub, you're probably right. But if a bar has a menu like this guy is describing then fancy cocktails are their specialty and so it's probably worth ordering one.

      January 24, 2012 at 10:41 pm | Reply
    • Jackie Wilson's supervisor

      Amen. Look, if it's on the menu obviously you're free to order it, but I have bartender friends and during the crush they will often lie and say they don't have ingredient X, Y, or Z to make some ridiculous cocktail that takes ten minutes to make, in order to steer people towards something doable. Stop trying to make the bar into another "cafe" where you can't get black coffee anymore, and everything has to come with fifteen different add ons.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  22. lifelong meat eater

    Bacardi gold with orange juice on the rocks, good stuff.

    January 24, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Reply
  23. I, robot coupe

    Hey, it's some dude in hipster glasses hyping up hipster cocktails. They should have just had the bartender character Andy Samberg played on Portlandia write this.

    January 24, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
  24. Lifelong Vegetarian

    I second, third, and fourth St. Germain's Elderflower liqueur. It's sweet, subtle, and not overpoweringly flowery even though it's made with flowers. I love the aftertaste; it lingers, yet isn't strong. I love to just drink it by the shot, although it does do well as a base for cocktails.

    January 24, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Spoken by a lifelong vegetarian indeed.

      January 24, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Reply
    • kww

      Elderflower liqueur just sounds like heaven in a bottle, doesn't it? I've got to try that !

      January 24, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Reply
      • Lifelong Vegetarian

        Heaven in a bottle is about as accurate as it gets. *grin*

        January 25, 2012 at 2:13 am | Reply
    • Snoflinga

      How does it go with gin? I love gin, especially nice wih tonic or syrup like in a tom collins. I like the juniper flavor. It sounds like the mix of the two would be incredibly good...

      January 24, 2012 at 9:00 pm | Reply
      • Eric

        I too have tried this drink , not even sure I would call it beer . Like yusroelf I managed about half the bottle , so much smoke and also I thought a hint of tarmac on the nose !Rest went down the sink I'm afraid.

        February 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
      • kaigwrs

        jEYlaJ cibseodkqftn

        February 3, 2012 at 6:17 am | Reply
      • brzhmzcflf

        8d1XUJ yrxvmhdvzvyi

        February 4, 2012 at 5:50 am | Reply
    • Shanna

      St Germains, quality gin, sweet and sour and a splash of seven up as a Martini is incredible! My favorite new martini.

      January 24, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  25. Steven

    Also His personal website @ http://www.neillemons.com

    January 24, 2012 at 9:21 pm | Reply

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