One of the most exciting things about the drinks industry over the last decade or so is the rise of the career bartender. More and more guys and girls are focusing their career on spirits, drinks, wines etc and forging their own path with roles in training, bartending, branding and/or launching their own businesses.
As a result of this, we are seeing more and more independent cocktail bars opening in small spaces either as hidden/speakeasy style bars off the beaten track or independent bars within hotels or office blocks or perhaps opening a new bar in a disused building.
If you’re opening your own bar, and drinks are your first love, it’s fair to say that your focus will be there – creating an experimental drink offer using house made liqueurs or bitters, small batch spirits and spending a huge amount of your working day chopping ice with antique ninja swords or filtering liquids through late Victorian tweeds – all with the aim of balancing the physics of dilution and flavour.
Whilst this is all exciting and to be applauded (and encouraged), please remember that the average person on a night out is intimated by niche drinks lists and hipster bartenders. Rather than inspiring people to try something never-before-seen, quite the opposite happens and they end up ordering their go-to mojito, sour or French martini (not actually a martini and I’m convinced that Jesus weeps every time one is poured).
One of the ways to inspire people to try new things in your bar and thus gain their trust to try new drinks, is to incorporate an individual food offer. There are several surveys out there that show - regardless of age, gender or education, the average UK customer is more comfortable trying something new when it comes to food over drinks. Therein lies the problem: as drinks are the first love of the new bartender, the food always seems to be relegated to spinster cousin status, and allowed to the party but never allowed to sit with the cool crowd. This is very much a UK thing – across Europe we are seeing amazing aperitivo style small plates in Italy to pair with drinks, tapas style eats across Spain or beautiful pickled fruits and vegetables paired with cured meats and fish across Scandinavia – all prepared and plated by the bartender with each region having its own style.
In the UK however, we seem to have adopted chicken wings as our national dish, we never seem to tire of chips and cheese, and somehow have fully embraced the obsession of putting pulled stuff on teeny tiny burgers. (Ed - There is room for a side discussion here on the use of non-plate items for serving, but as I’m still slightly scarred by the bowl of fries served on a piece of scalextric track I saw on Instagram recently, paired with a mustard aioli, served on a 1980s Lotus Esprit, I think we’ll stick to the task at hand).
When did this happen? Why did this happen?
I think we can trace the obsession with dude food (this is a media term – I would never use it through choice) with the arrival of Meat Liquor or Meat Mission – both very fresh and original concepts that were exciting when they arrived and much needed to shake up the industry. I feel that enough is enough and we should embrace Europe or North Africa for our bar food inspiration rather than the generic burgers and deep fried massive that is Trump’s America.
“But I don’t have the space”… I hear you cry. Prep-space is a problem in cocktail bars as are several other factors – storage space, skill set, finding a chef that will work in a small space or affording a chef if the food revenue is low.
Bartenders have been solving problems ever since the prohibition days and we see many problems solved today in bars across the UK with (a) the use of pre-batching to maintain quality and service, (b) avoiding all perishables to keep costs low and efficiency high or (c) the trend of bitter drinks which was a welcome arrival but is encouraged in part due to the rising costs of premium spirits and taxes.
Launching a food concept in a cocktail bar is just another task to focus your creative juices at. If prep space is low then find suppliers that will do the work for you. Beautiful cured meats, smoked fish or artisan cheeses wouldn’t be out of place in any decent cocktail bar and don’t require the presence of a chef or kitchen for service. Home-made pickles are an area to showcase your own style and fruits or vegetables can be preserved when in season using a liquor/herb/spice blend of your choosing. Pates, chutneys and new “it” ingredient - lardo - can all be sourced from local suppliers and served with crackers of some description which removes the low shelf life of bread problem. (Interestingly this kind of eating can be tailored to suit the gluten free/dairy free/vegan/fruitarian customer who seem to be everywhere just now!).
There are also plenty of chocolatier led produce in the form of truffles, chocolate covered coffee beans and French style ganache that will sit happily alongside any Amaro, old fashioned or whisky led menu.
Be creative and see what happens. It’s a chance to show off, a chance to be individual, a chance to beat the big chain venues with a menu and atmosphere that they can’t reproduce, a useful revenue source and of course, a much more successful staff food option for after-hours eating...
Please support me on my quest for better food in cocktail bars. Get the average Joe to try new food and then hit them with the experimental / progressive / individual drinks offer.