The optional base has long been a norm with familiar classic drinks like the Sour, the Collins and the Mule, where vodka, gin, whiskey or even tequila can change the character of the drink. But now some bartenders are taking the idea of the optional base spirit and also applying it to original recipes, allowing guests to specify their preferred base in drinks with chameleon-like flavor profiles. “It gives customers the option to choose a flavor they love,” says Aimee DiAndrea, owner of DiAnoia’s Eatery in Pittsburgh, where the house Shakerato is served with the option of limoncello, sambuca or amaretto.
The decision to offer the drink with three different spirit options came from personal experience. “In Italy, [my husband] and I had the most amazing meal at Trattoria Buzzino in Florence, and when we ordered some espresso to finish the meal, they brought over a bunch of different bottles and left them at our table,” DiAndrea recalls. “They told us to just add what we wanted to our coffee, then walked away leaving the bottles on the table. We quickly realized that we each had a different favorite or go-to flavor that we enjoyed, and we loved being able to choose the liqueur we liked, and we wished it was this way in the States.”
Jason Stevens, bar and beverage manager of La Corsha Hospitality Group in Austin, says he works a choose-your-own option into almost every bar program he builds because it’s an easy way to get guests to try something new. For the most recent menu at Boiler Nine Bar + Grill, Stevens designed an entire menu based on a concept called Booze Your Own Adventure. “Reading through classic recipes, I kept encountering tons of cocktails that use the same flavors, same citrus, same modifiers, similar proportions, with the only main difference being the base spirit. I loved how these seemingly similar cocktail recipes worked so well with dramatically different base spirits,” Stevens says. The menu set-up is simple—guests select a classically structured cocktail and a base spirit from a small number of options that best suit a specific drink. “We planned on only having the Booze Your Own Adventure menu for a season, but guests loved it so much that we decided to keep it going.”
Stevens’ Red Macaw—a cross between the Paloma and the Donga Punch—is a great example of this approach, and at Mattie’s where he also manages the beverage program, the Bacchus Cup crosses the Margarita, Pimm’s Cup, and Moscow Mule, allowing patrons to choose from tequila, Pimm’s #1 or vodka. “Fresh ginger and citrus go with just about every spirit imaginable, hibiscus is a light spirit’s best friend and creates a beautiful ruby-colored drink, and Grüner Veltliner’s crisp minerality helps stitch everything together,” says Stevens. At the bar, the Bacchus Cup is kegged and pulled from draft to order, then the preferred spirit is added to the drink. “It’s our top-selling drink, and using familiar cocktail terms like Margarita, Pimm’s Cup, and Mule, it’s easy to discuss the flavor options with guests.”
Figuring out which spirits to offer with each cocktail can require some R&D on the bartender’s part. At The Mockingbird in Nashville, the agua fresca–inspired Punchin’ Bag changes with every season. Guests choose from any spirit on the menu to include in their preferred version, and the drink is served in a baggie with a straw, the way many aguas frescas are served in Mexico. “We tested various fruit, citrus, spices and herbs, and married them with different spirits, and we realized that as long as you have a balanced base, any spirit will be fantastic with the punch,” says assistant general manager Jennifer Fuller. “Naturally, you’ll have different combinations of booze and punch that pair better than others, but by allowing guests to customize, they’re able to enjoy it no matter their preference.”
Like what you see? Get more of the best of liquid culture when you sign up for our bi-monthly magazine. Subscribe now and save up to 59%—it’s just $21.95 for one year or $32.95 for two years. Click here for details.