On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss what they look for in a local restaurant’s cocktail program. Do things like proper ice or glassware matter at these establishments? Should neighborhood spots partner with acclaimed bars or bartenders in order to appeal to patrons? Tune in to learn more
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Wow, Memorial Day weekend came and went. We’re recording prior, so it’s fine.
Z: I’d like to tell you people I said on the last podcast, it was going to be nice weather. It actually rained the whole weekend.
A: Is it actually supposed to?
Z: Yeah. You look at the forecast like, well, OK.
J: No more outdoor activities.
Z: We’ll put the kids in raincoats and just do it because I cannot spend three and a half days straight locked indoors with my children. I already did that the last couple of years.
A: Yeah, that’s true. So, what have you been drinking, Zach?
Z: What have I been drinking? That’s a good question, and I will have more exciting answers probably after I actually go on this trip. But this week has been kind of light on drinking, with the exception of one cocktail that I made at the behest of my wife, as is often the impetus for my cocktail creations these days. We have these two bottles of amaro that came from a local producer here in Seattle. I think I’ve talked about it before, Fast Penny Spirits. And she wanted something with bianca amaro. So it’s like a white amaro of sorts. And I decided I was going to make a White Negroni riff, but I decided that I was going to do something a little bit different. Normally, you would use gin, some kind of herbal liqueur, and then a lighter-style vermouth. Essentially a white vermouth of some kind. I have this fascination with dry Curaçao. I think it’s a really underutilized ingredient in a lot of cocktails. So I decided to do it equal parts gin, dry Curacao and what they call amaro bianca, but it’s really more in the category of a suze or a light colored herbal liqueur. It was really good. I was really pleased with it. The orange note from Curaçao comes through, but it’s very dry in general and so it doesn’t get cloyingly sweet. As discussed on the podcast recently, I used one of my favorite gins, Roku. Because I wanted something that was on that citrus profile and very aromatic. It turned out really nicely. So that’s my big creation for the week. How about you, Joanna?
J: I love your cocktail escapades, Zach. I love hearing about them. They’re so fun.
Z: I love hearing about yours. It’s a fun thing that we share.
J: Oh, yeah. I didn’t make anything for myself this weekend, but we did go to a new neighborhood restaurant called Pasta Louise in Park Slope. I was inspired to go there by a recent piece that we published from Aaron Goldfarb. And I had their house Gimlet, which I think is called Grandma’s Gimlet, and it was awesome. It had lime juice and grapefruit in it. It has a fennel liqueur in it as well, which was such a nice touch. I don’t order Gimlets often. I feel like I should, but this one was really, really great. And I also had a mezcal highball of sorts that was on their menu. It was good. I think I’m just not a mezcal person, I’ve decided.
A: It is one of these things that I feel like is a little bit polarizing.
A: And I would like to get into mezcal. Maybe we’ll see once this mezcal list is published, if I give some of those a try, and I can be convinced. But a lot of the ones I’ve had, for me, are just all smoke.
J: Yeah, I was having a conversation. I think somebody came through the office recently and he’s making his own mezcal. He was like, “I think a lot of people associate mezcal with smoke, or that’s how they know mezcal doesn’t have to be that way, actually.” And I didn’t know that myself. So I would like to try some that aren’t just smoke bombs. I am willing to try it and order the drinks, but it’s just not my favorite right now.
Z: I want to add one real point here too. If you’re looking at mezcal as a cocktail ingredient, I think more often than not someone’s going to reach for something that is on the smokier side. Because that’s one of the notes that they want to include in the cocktail. It’s basically that or a peated Scotch or something like that if you want to add that smoky note through a spirit. And if you’re looking for something to sip, I would say that there is a huge wealth of mezcals that are not particularly smoky and in fact carry forward lots of other flavors. To some extent with all spirits, but I think especially something like mezcal, where there’s so much variety within the category, what someone might choose to put in a cocktail versus what you might choose to have neat or on the rocks is going to be pretty different.
J: Yeah, sure. Especially now with the ones that are available on the market. Adam?
A: Well, I didn’t have a lot of drinks this week because I had the flu.
J: I’m sorry to hear that.
A: Honestly, I thought it was worse than when I had Covid. It’s just not fun, like, at all. But last weekend, prior to getting the flu, I went to the bar in Brooklyn that some are really obsessed with called Grand Army.
J: Yes, good bar.
A: So it was my second time going. I thought it was really great. And they have a Spice Girls-themed cocktail menu right now, which is pretty funny. They do themes there. I had two cocktails that I thought were quite delicious. One was a Little Gucci Dress.
A: It’s their version of a sessionable Martini. Mr. McKirdy will have to be the judge. I did have their Dry Martini as well, their traditional Martini.
J: Is that Posh Spice?
A: No, it was its own thing. We were all like, “Oh, let’s have Martinis,” at the end after we’d already had two cocktails. I should specify a gin. And I said, Fords and they were like, “That’s our well gin.” Well aren’t I in the know?
J: Was it a 50/50, that it’s sessionable?
A: So it’s gin, dry vermouth, mango brandy, and Cocchi Rosa.
J: Is that a Martini?
A: In name. It was their Martini riff. And then I also had Spice Force 5, which was bourbon, aged rum, amontillado sherry and salted corn. It’s basically an Old Fashioned, but they really recommended it. I was really trying to get the zig-zag-a but, you know.
Z: That’s all you wanted to do perhaps?
A: Yeah, exactly. That was good, Zach.
J: He knows the Spice Girls.
A: It was a fun menu, though. I love the creativity. I love when places do that. And then over the weekend, I made my first mocktail in a while. I went to visit my niece and nephew. My niece said to my nephew — my niece is 6 and my nephew is 3 — “Uncle Adam is famous for his cocktails.” And then she asked me if I could make her a mocktail because I took her on a date night when she came to visit recently, and I got her a mocktail. So I made her a mocktail, which literally is just lemonade. I literally squeezed some citrus, added some agave, put it in Nick & Nora glass and she’s like, “This is the best drink I’ve ever had.” The little boy was not as into it.
Z: I did something very similar with my son. I was making his lunch the other day and he was getting grumpy about taking grape juice, which I don’t know why because he loves grape juice. And I was like, “Well, what if I make you a drink?” Because he obviously sees me make drinks for Caitlin or people who come over. And he’s like, “Oh, OK.” All I did was add a little bit of grenadine. Not that horrific, like neon stuff.
J: From our Dirty Shirleys.
Z: Not from our Dirty Shirley episode, but the stuff I had actually made from pomegranates a while back and some oleo-saccharum and shook it up. And he was just obsessed with that. He drank and he was like, “This is the best juice.” And I was like, “OK, sure.”
A: Yeah, exactly.
Z: Turns out, kids are easily impressed.
A: I’m not the best, so it was great.
Z: Your niece doesn’t know that. So you’re in the clear for a few more years.
A: I added some sparkling water, too, so it was bubbly, and she was real into it.
Z: It’s just a virgin press, you’re good.
A: Yeah, exactly. Speaking of cocktails, this week I went to a restaurant when I’d gotten back to New York with some friends. It was a neighborhood restaurant that had a very serious cocktail list. What I want to talk about is, it seems like there are a lot of neighborhood restaurants, and we just ran a piece on it that Aaron Goldfarb wrote for us about how we’re seeing a lot more neighborhood restaurants bring in well-known bartenders. Or higher bars, like how this menu is “brought to you by Death & Co” to do cocktails for them. But in my opinion, the cocktails never go all the way. They’re often not in the most appropriate glassware. Sometimes, the ice is not the ideal ice. Yet they’re charging the same prices as well-known cocktail bars. Nice cocktail bars, places where that’s what they specialize in. I’m curious what you guys think of this trend and if you think that the majority of consumers care or are happy to pay this price. Or are they judging those cocktails against the cocktails they’re getting when they’re going to cocktail bars?
J: I think this is a good trend. I like this trend. I think it’s a nice surprise if you go to a restaurant that you don’t think will necessarily have a great cocktail program, and then it happens to have great cocktails. I don’t think people are comparing them to going to a cocktail bar.
A: Do you think we have to suspend all the things we’ve been taught in the past, that publications such as ours have written? Things like, you can judge a cocktail program based on its ice. There’s a well-known senior staff writer at VinePair who may or may not have written that article about how Kold-Draft ice is one way to tell if a bar takes their cocktail seriously. Does that just not matter at a restaurant?
Z: Go ahead, Joanna, and then I will weigh in here.
J: I don’t think it matters. Unless you’re going to that restaurant knowing that you’re going to have a cocktail or whatever, the expectations and the bar for those types of details should be lower. That’s what I think. They shouldn’t have sh*t ice or serve it to you in a plastic cup or something. I think it should have decent ice. It doesn’t have to have a full ice program or Kold-Draft ice or whatever. I think the expectation should be lower. It should be nice that they have good cocktails at a restaurant where you’re going to eat versus going to a cocktail bar where you have really high expectations for those things. Because that’s what the cocktail bar does, right? The restaurant does all these other things. The cocktail program is only a part of the restaurant’s business.
J: And then for a cocktail bar, if it doesn’t have good ice or a good ice program, then what are we doing here?
J: So I disagree with the senior staff writer in question. His name is Tim McKirdy.
Z: Adam always likes to use analogies that I don’t understand. So I’m going to use an analogy that I hope you do understand.
Z: I think of this kind of thing as creating a character in a video game.
A: I don’t understand this already. I don’t play video games.
Z: Whether you’re creating a character in an RPG and you’re assigning stats or doing it in a sports game where you’re creating a player or whatever, you are given a pool of points to put towards various attributes. And you can’t just make the person, the character, the player great at everything. Opening any kind of establishment is a little bit the same, in my understanding. You can’t just make your bar have all the best ingredients, the most talented staff, the perfect ice, glassware, etc. and also be a neighborhood joint and also have accessible prices and stuff like that. I think about that sometimes even in the realm of bars, more specifically, where you think about something like a dive bar. A dive bar excels at being fast service; less expensive drinks. And a really high-end cocktail bar can be the opposite end of the spectrum. It can take you 20 minutes to get a cocktail. It’s going to hopefully be really, really amazing and presented to you in the optimal fashion. But you can’t be going in there expecting to be in an environment with 100 other people having a fun time and getting drinks quickly. That’s just not the kind of vibe in those places. We don’t think of either one of those as being a bad bar; you’re just setting out to accomplish something different. With these restaurants that we’re talking about, what they are attempting to accomplish, and I think in some cases do accomplish, is giving people like me, who has two kids, who would like to go out to dinner sometimes, but I’m also cognizant of the fact that there are establishments that are just off limits to my kids, both literally and legally. They can’t go into certain bars and places that are for people who are 21 and up. And also lots of places that frankly, for the consideration of the patrons around me, I wouldn’t bring them to because they’re going to ruin someone else’s evening, even if they’re relatively well behaved. Before I had kids, there were places I wanted to go to not be around kids. And even as an adult with kids, sometimes there are places I want to go to not be around kids, to be fair. What is probably happening in a lot of these instances on an understandable basis is that most of the cost that goes into a drink are the raw ingredients and the labor. And yes, expensive ice cubes are going to add to the cost of a drink. Fancy glassware or special glassware will also bump up the cost of the drink. But generally speaking, if you were to price out using the standard pricing models that most establishments use, the difference between the same cocktail at a really high-end cocktail bar and the same cocktail in a neighborhood restaurant is going to be a dollar, maybe two, to account for those things. If you’re getting the same ingredients and they’re assembled correctly, I don’t think it’s the case that it’s not being made or served with Kold-Draft ice, therefore I should pay half price. Not that that’s what you’re saying, Adam, I want to be clear. But really the price difference is actually pretty negligible because a lot of those costs are going to be in both drinks.
A: To take this question further, fine. I understand what you’re saying, but then why are so many restaurants attaching these lists to well-known bartenders or to well-known bars? Most recently, when I was in Jackson Hole, I went to a family restaurant four or five years ago. Their menu was done by Death & Co. You have other family restaurants now that we read about in Brooklyn that are having well-known bartenders who are doing their cocktail programs, but they’re not behind the bar ever. They probably came in, they created the bar program, they trained the staff, and they left. The person going to those restaurants doesn’t know those people or care. Why are we seeing their names in the menus? Why is that part of the press push? It doesn’t even matter. As long as you know you can get a good cocktail, why are we attaching all these other people to the list? That’s my question.
J: I think that they think it does matter. Especially in the last few years, people care more about this stuff. And to see a cocktail menu at a restaurant, you can be like, “Oh I know Death & Co, these are going to be really good cocktails.”
A: To piggyback on the question as you’re answering, do you think that that is what allows them to apologize for the things that you might not find that you would have initially judged it for? It’s just a cocktail list. There’s no name attached to it. And then you get the cocktail in a glass that you wouldn’t normally expect and it’s with ice you wouldn’t normally expect. But now, at least we see Death & Co. So you think, “OK, well, it’s still going to be a good drink.”
J: I don’t know. I’m not sure. I feel like I know what your answer would be if you were that diner. But I think that for regular people who aren’t tapped into the drinks world in the way that we are, probably not. I think that they would say, “This is fine.” Again, the expectations of the drinks at a restaurant are different than if you go to a cocktail bar.
A: I mean, I agree. I never have the same expectation to get the same quality cocktail at a restaurant that I do at a bar. Unless the restaurant is trying to say that it wants to be known for its cocktail program. If you want to be known for your cocktail program, then I would expect really high-quality cocktails. If you have a cocktail program, you’re entering your bartenders in bartender competitions and things like that. But usually those restaurants then go above and beyond with super-clear ice and things like that. Crown Shy is a perfect example of that. They take their cocktail program really seriously. They obviously have Overstory, but Crown Shy’s cocktails have always been very good. Everything about those cocktails is done the way you would expect at a very high-end cocktail bar.
J: I guess the other part of this that feels a little different is that at Crown Shy, there’s a very vibrant bar scene alone, versus just going there for the restaurant. You’re going to Crown Shy and you know that you can go sit at the bar and have cocktails there because their cocktail program is amazing. Versus some of these places, I guess, that we’re talking about right now. They are the neighborhood restaurant and not necessarily known to be a bar.
Z: How much of this is something we’ve talked about on the podcast before, which is just a general increased interest in cocktails and spirits?
J: Yes, I was going to mention that, too.
Z: To the appropriate demographic in the kind of spaces where people might have expected to go out to dinner, whether with family or not, and have a bottle of wine or a glass of wine or two or a beer or something. Now, more and more people want cocktails. Frankly, it would be pretty silly of these places not to offer cocktails. And if one of the ways to do that is to say, “Hey, we don’t necessarily have someone in our restaurant group or a cocktail expert. But we can go out and pay a certain amount of money to have a consultant come in or an existing bar come in and consult.” If we’re going to pay for that, we might as well get the shine that comes along with that and put their name on our list. Again, it’s going to make people more inclined to go to that place or that restaurant in the first place. If you like cocktails but you’re going out for a dinner with people who don’t want to go to a cocktail bar or it’s not the kind of evening you’re out for, then the place that has the badge of authenticity of an established cocktail creator of one form or another attached to it, you’re going to opt for that place. Generally, you might be more willing to get a second drink or something. That’s talked about in Aaron’s piece a lot. One of the reasons that places are doing this, too, is that, obviously it’s a huge return on investment.
J: Stay a little longer.
Z: Yeah, stay a little longer, get someone to order a second drink. As we talked about on the podcast, too, this is the profitable section of a restaurant. If you can drive more revenue towards your beverage program, cocktails or otherwise, you’re going to be better off financially. You can’t usually sell someone a second entree the way you can a second drink.
J: Right? This is exactly what happened to me this past weekend. We went to this place, Pasta Louise, and their menu is literally just like pasta and salads. At any other place like that, I would probably just get a glass of wine with dinner. But they have this cocktail menu. And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to have these cocktails.” Well, I obviously knew about it from this piece, but also they were really appealing and really thoughtful. I decided to opt for a cocktail in this instance instead of getting a glass of wine. And that’s the conversation we had about the by-the-glass list at restaurants and people opting for cocktails instead.
Z: I have a question for you, Adam. A thing that’s always been interesting to me, is when we look at the cocktail programs in restaurants and these kinds of neighborhood-type spots that we’ve been talking about. Something that’s not a super- high-end restaurant. Joanna, I want an opinion on this, too. I just was thinking about it because Adam raised it before. Would you prefer, in that situation, to have it be: Here’s our cocktail list, but our cocktail list is eight classics. Maybe we have a little take on them or whatever, versus what seems to be described in some of these that are in Aaron’s piece, and some that we’ve seen out and about. What I am not sure about is, if in some of these cases, I really trust a restaurant to get an elaborate, original creation right. I would be dubious in some sense. I’d be thrilled and very happy to order one of these places’ takes on a Negroni or a Manhattan or a slightly more esoteric cocktail, like a Paper Plane or something. But I don’t know that I want some totally original creation. Because frankly, I’ve tried a lot of those in places, and they don’t generally land super well. Whether or not you have the name of a famous bartender or bar attached to them, in the end, so much of the execution of those drinks comes down to whoever is making them — especially if that person is removed from whatever original training was done. Where you do lose me a little bit is not the ice or the glassware, but just my concern that the drink itself will be poorly executed or just not balanced in the way that I want a cocktail to be. And that’s where I think something less ambitious might serve these restaurants better.
A: So do I feel like I would rather have classic cocktails?
Z: You go into a place and see one of these kinds of places and you see a drink where you might know the ingredients, but it’s a formulation that you are totally unfamiliar with. It’s like, “Oh, it’s our original creation.” I am generally skeptical of those in places that are not really good cocktail bars, just in general. Unfortunately, I’ve been part of the creation of some of these drinks and or seen them created in restaurants I worked at and stuff. Two people try it and say, “Yeah it seems fine.” We think about cocktail creation as this incredibly elaborate process. And in some places, it is. But in a lot of places, some bartender has a wild hair and they make a drink and it just goes on the menu. Is everyone executing it correctly? I don’t know. Those aren’t the places where I want to try originals.
J: Is that where you think having Death & Co on the menu would give you more faith to try something like that?
Z: It would with some drinks. I think anything that looks like it involves a lot of precision or technique, I would be still dubious of. Again, maybe these places are intentionally avoiding that kind of cocktail. Again, I don’t think I’d want a Ramos Gin Fizz in one of these bars, even if it said Death & Co on it.
A: Well, that’s why I think it’s an interesting question. If I see classic cocktails on your cocktail list, I assume you know how to make those cocktails. If I see Negroni, Gin Martini, Manhattan, I’m hoping it’s going to be pretty good. If I get burned, I’m going to be a little upset.
J: Do you try it first?
A: I would order it. What I think is so interesting about Aaron’s piece is, that’s what I’m questioning. He’s saying there were no good cocktails in his neighborhood — but for him, a cocktail writer. I wonder for how many people the cocktails were just fine in Park Slope. Because there’s a lot of restaurants that do classic cocktails and probably do a Gin Martini well enough for the majority of people, especially parents who are going out and want a cocktail while their kids are running around and they’re trying to slam pasta in their face at 6 p.m. on a Sunday. That’s where I’m a little curious as to who gives a sh*t about the family restaurant doing even more elaborate cocktails. I think the majority of people don’t care. If you want a cocktail, make a good Martini; make a good Negroni. That’s all that matters.
J: The bar is low.
A: The bar is very low.
J: That’s why I think the ice doesn’t matter.
A: We’re all getting to the same point.
J: We all agree.
A: We all agree. Where I care about the cocktail being amazing is at these places that are trying to be, not family restaurants, but that mid-high end. We’re not trying to be Michelin star, but we’d like to get one or two stars in The New York Times. Maybe one star. And we’re going to charge you $18 or $20 for a cocktail. You’re definitely going to pay $25 to $30 an entree. That’s where I think I’m interested in if this works. But with the family restaurant, I just don’t think it matters.
J: I think in that high-end restaurant that you’re talking about, the former example, they’re trying to do it all.
A: Crown Shy wants two Michelin stars; they’re trying to be a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s like a neighborhood bistro maybe. Like Union Square Cafe, but Union Square Cafe is even way to high end.There’s that kind of restaurant in every neighborhood. Walter’s would be a good example in my neighborhood. It’s not a family restaurant. Walter’s is trying to be a little bit nicer than that. Maybe they’d want the Death & Co on their menu.
J: Right. Have you experienced any of these places in your neighborhood, Zach?
Z: Yeah, it’s funny. I was thinking about how, when Caitlin and I go out to eat with the kids, do we get cocktails? Because we often get wine. But then I was thinking about the last time we went out, which was for Mother’s Day. We took our kids because we take our kids to most places. And we went to a place called Flintcreek, which is in our general neighborhood. The Michelin folks don’t review restaurants in Seattle. So, it’s irrelevant what their aspirations are in that regard. But it’s certainly aspiring to be a higher-end restaurant for kind of being in a neighborhood. We each did get a cocktail to start out and they were original-ish creations. They were good. I don’t think there’s a ton of people who go in there just to hang out at the bar. The bar is in the middle of the restaurant, which is kind of another thing. Some time, we’ll talk about just design on these things. I think a bar that’s in the middle of the restaurant is never going to be quite the same as a bar that you walk into right away. In any case, there I would have a definite higher level of expectation for what family restaurants we go to. There’s a pizza place that we go to, and I sometimes get a Negroni there because they do a reasonable job with it. But my expectations are much lower for sure. This is a really interesting thing, and I would love to hear from listeners about this at email@example.com. To me, it feels like a very hard-to-define line. I don’t if it’s a price line or if it’s a vibe line or what, but when you go across it, now my expectations are high for this cocktail and if you don’t make it right, you don’t put it in the right glassware, you don’t use the right ice, etc., now we got a problem. Not that I’m going to start sh*t, but you have failed me as a patron. On the other side of that line, as long as it tastes reasonably good, I don’t really care what you serve it to me in and I don’t really care what ice you use. But if it’s bad, if it’s totally incorrectly made, I’ll send it back. I don’t know if I can define what that bar is for somebody that’s not a cocktail bar. Obviously, for a straight-up cocktail bar, that is my expectation. And if you don’t meet it, then that’s a problem. But for a restaurant — a place that’s aspiring to be a full-on, full-service restaurant — I don’t know that I can put a specific definition to where that starts.
A: There’s this pizzeria that’s trying to be family, but also nice, near me and they make a good Negroni and they serve it with well ice. And I don’t give a sh*t. It’s a Negroni that I want at the time and my bar’s not that high at that point. Because also, the pizzas are $16 to $18 a pie. Why would a place like that try to go super high end? They wouldn’t, because then they’re competing with what they are, which is a family friendly restaurant that’s also an affordable, family- friendly restaurant. Also, for these families that I think can go out to these insanely expensive meals, I would like to know what they do for a living.
A: Anyways, very interesting. We’d love to hear your thoughts as well. Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ve been getting amazing emails over the last few weeks from listeners about the topics we’ve covered recently. We’d love to hear from more of you, so let us know. Joanna and Zach, I’ll talk to you on Friday.
J: Talk to you Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.