I had a chance to visit Seattle this Summer with my family. Since we had the kids with us, I didn’t get a chance to do a real detailed exploration of this, one of America’s premier cocktail towns, but I made sure to have enough time to hit a few highlights, and to get a feel for the general cocktail environment in town.
For a variety of reasons, I will lead with a review of Liberty, at 517 15th Ave. E. (@LibertyLovesYou on Twitter) Liberty is the love child of cocktail warriors Andrew Friedman and Keith Waldbauer. Andrew started Liberty in 2006, with Keith joining him later, so that makes this a very well-established and long-lived high-end bar. I’ve known, or at least “internet known”, Keith since I started blogging, as his now fallow Moving at the Speed of Life was one of the first cocktail blogs I read and among the first such blogs written by a working pro.
Liberty and its owners take great care to characterize it as “just a neighborhood bar”, rather than some Fancy Dan Craft Bar.
This is a load of bull fritters.
I insist that this is a fabulous, high-end bar. From the back wall (pictured above) full of a head-spinning array of ingredients headlined by a magnificent but not over the top selection of whisk(e)ys, to the menu filled with a great selection of classics and modern creations, to each and every drink that I saw placed before me or any other customer, Liberty is a cocktail lover’s dream. This is place with drinks like the Point of No Return, which simply lists fire among its ingredients. (If you visit Liberty, be sure to try one. It’s both delicious and a lot of fun to watch being made.)
There is also an excellent balance between the types of drinks on the menu. Andrew and Keith offer not just a wide variety of spirit bases and flavor profiles, but also what I’ll call “levels” of drinks. Many craft palaces I enter have menus of naught but ridiculously baroque concoctions that will be awesome to talk about with one’s fellow geeks at Tales of the Cocktail, but are too bitter, complex, or simply weird for anyone else. There are drinks here for the snob who isn’t “on duty” that evening, and the “training wheels” offerings still have something of interest to be learned from.
That said, Liberty also really is a neighborhood joint. Liberty’s location is one of the things that really strikes me about it. It is is located on a fairly modest stretch of retail shopping in a quiet residential neighborhood, rather than in the restaurant, tourist, or entertainment districts where most “serious” craft bars dwell.
Tourists like me are an anomaly in Liberty, and businessmen drinking here are likely doing so on their own dime, rather than an expense account. As a result, the prices are almost shockingly modest for such offerings.
To satisfy the Licensing Gods’ demand for food service, not to mention that of any reasonable drinker’s stomach, Liberty has the elegant and tasty solution of devoting about five feet of its bar to a sushi counter, with one or two cutters as demand warrants.
The place has that well-used feel of many older bars, the kind that have been open forever, have seen weddings and wakes, sometimes for the same customer, yet never ever feel run-down, through the sheer force of the love and responsibility of its proprietors. The seating is comfortable, both at the bar and around the room. The bar itself is moderately sized and fits in visually, rather than dominating the space like some altar to the Gods of Fernet and Angostura. There is even a large back room for meetings and private parties, but which is essentially invisible to the regular clientele.
Your average oblivious Jack and Coke drinker could make of Liberty his Third Place happily for years and never care or even realize that he was spending his time in a temple of high-end concoctions.
And this last point, the seamless melding of tavern and cocktail palace is what makes Liberty so interesting to me and, so important to the craft movement.
Craft cocktails as an industry have had a fascinating decade-plus of growth now, and are in a different stage of development in nearly every city in America. When you travel like I do all over the country killing people, you can move forward and backward through the whole history of the craft, using airline or auto as your time machine.
Many locales still have yet to see the first blush of our passion; the only “lime” in bars still has with the word “Rose’s” writ upon the bottle. Other cities have merely discovered the joys, and the commercial possibilities, of fresh or more exotic ingredients. Many, like my own Columbus, have a few restaurants and bars that are making a try at true high-end drinks. And cities like Seattle or New York have reached the point where the craft bars are a well-understood phenomenon, and most high-end restaurants have reached the point of having to offer competitive programs of their own.
But like any movement that is reaching maturity, at least in some markets, there is now a lot of angst about where to go from here. Because the simple facts are, craft cocktails made with exotic syrups, or oddball bitters, or cinnamon smoke, are not for everyone. And even among those who do enjoy them, they are unprepared to drink them all the time. There are very real limits to speed of growth and profitability in the craft movement.
This is why bars like Liberty, and Anvil in Houston, and to some extent Passenger or Bourbon in Washington, DC, are so significant, and why I admire them so much. These are places that serve all drinkers well, not just our specific clientele. The aforementioned Mr. Jack and Coke can happily hang out there with his buddy Mr. Vieux Carre. And Mr. Sazerac can find the opportunity to hit on Miss Greyhound here. (Mr. Grey Goose Martini, don’t waste your time hitting on Miss Knob Creek Old-Fashioned. It’s not going to end well for you.)
Bar like Liberty are where previously undiscovered reserves of cocktail lovers (as opposed to cocktail drinkers) will be uncovered. The easy atmosphere provides no barrier to entry for the uninitiated (quite the contrary), but the magnificent offerings are the sort that can open doors and minds. If you visit Seattle, take the time one evening to cab your way to Liberty and settle in for a great evening. If you live there, this is the kind of place you take your uninitiated friends when they are resisting being initiated….
I don’t want Tiki Month to end without a quick listing of what appear to me to be the big three Tiki events of each year. None, alas, are held during Tiki Month, but each seems to sell out, so now is probably a good time to make your plans to get your pagan on.
For all my fellow classic cocktail nerds, if you don’t get enough of Jeff Berry at Tales of the Cocktail, where he is treated like a rock star, visit one of these events, where I’m pretty sure the Bum is considered the Messiah….
For West Coast Americans, there is Tiki Oasis in San Diego. The 2012 event will be held August 16-19. There aren’t a lot of details at the website for this year’s event yet, but it seems that this year’s sub-theme will be spy genre fun.
Having a sub-theme at a Tiki event is an interesting idea, and ought to help broaden the appeal and perhaps bring in a few new folks to the movement, though I think that spy fun is a better fit with Tiki than last year’s South of the Border idea. You can see, and hear, the way Tiki and spy stuff overlap and compliment each other in this audio podcast episode of The Quiet Village, which I profiled earlier this month.
Next up is Ohana, Luau at the Lake. Alas for me, even though Ohana is a production of the Fraternal Order of Moai, whose origins are right here in Ohio, Ohana is held at Lake George, NY. This year’s dates are June 21-24, 2012.
Lake George appears to be a perfect place for a retro event like a Tiki convention, as it is one of those time-capsules of the pre-Disney, honky-tonk vacation era like Niagara Falls, ON or Ober Gatlinburg, TN. The headquarters for Ohana is the The Tiki Resort (autoplay video at that link). Tickets went on sale for Ohana just a month ago, and rooms at the Tiki are already sold out. Tickets for the event, and other rooms in Lake George are still available.
In Fort Lauderdale, FL, you can attend the Hukilau. The Hukilau will be April 19-22, 2012, and while it is headquartered at the Best Western Oceanside, it is spiritually centered on the legendary Tiki palace, the Mai Kai. I’ve been to the Mai Kai, and it rocked at 6:30 on a normal Thursday. I can only imagine what it will be like during Hukilau.
The Hukilau is the first of these big fetes and if you want to go, I’d get on the stick. South Florida in April is frankly awesome, and if you go to Hukilau, you should add on a day or two so you can go to the beach. You’ll have no time to do so during the event, I’m sure.
I’ve never been to any of these, and I’d dearly love to. But I know for a fact I can’t make it to any of them this year, drat it. If any of you do go, and write about it, drop me an email. I want to read the story, and I’ll throw some Tiki supplemental linkage your way!
Over the Martin Luther King Holiday, I took my family to Chicago for the long weekend.
You voluntarily went to Chicago… in January…
Because I have a nine year-old daughter, who absolutely had to have one of these:
She had saved up her money (a lot of money), so we took her to Chicago to the American Girl Doll store to buy the doll, and do the Experience, including brunch in the store’s restaurant.
We’d have done dinner instead, but I hear the cocktail program there is terrible….
This, however, left me with a powerful thirst each evening. Fortune smiled upon me in this in the shape of Sable Kitchen & Bar. I’ve written before of my fondness for the Kimpton chain of boutiquey hotels. We chose one of their Chicago offerings, the Palomar, because it has a pool, only to find from my “legion” of cocktail geek twitter correspondents that adjoining its lobby was one of the most highly recommended bars in the city!
I was surprised to such a nice hotel bar, Bambara, in the Hotel Marlowe in Boston. I was amazed to find not just an above and beyond hotel bar, but an absolute top-shelf craft bar in the Palomar. Really. It rocks.
Sable is a restaurant as well. And a delicious one. Chef Heather Terhune (@HeatherTerhune) runs a smooth and elegant operation. The menu is an eclectic mix of range of dishes from sides such as duck fat french fries and all sorts of game entrees, to things like sweet corn creme brulee and bacon jam with toasted baguette points. They offer fried chicken on waffles for both dinner and weekend breakfast. Most of the larger dishes are offered in half-portions to facilitate a Tapas-like sharing experience.
And it is all really very good, though I’ll admit that while the bacon jam was as tasty as I expected, it had more of a novelty appeal for me. Still, you know if you go, you’ll order it, because, well, bacon jam.
Terhune is a contestant in the current season of Top Chef. I don’t watch the show myself, but I was told by some fellow guests that she is being given the “villain’s cut” by the show’s editors… poor girl. But that probably means she’ll be around til the end. Regardless, I don’t care. I’d eat at Sable often if I lived anywhere near.
But the bar….
The room is on a corner of the hotel, with solid glass walls on two sides of the very large space. The decor is modern, all dark leather and wood with metal accents. The bar itself is huge, about 40 feet long, with a massive liquor wall behind, boasting an impressive selection of all manner of spirits, rather than the 73 identical bottles of Grey Goose you find behind too many bars.
The bar has a design element that I’ve not really seen before and which works very well. Most of the bar is dark wood, and fronted by large, comfortable bar stools. But two segments of the bar, about 6-7 feet long each, are glowing blocks of white marble. There is no seating here and these spaces are for patron standing, rather than server access. For all its high-end nature, Sable is not an intimate environment. It is a hotel property after all, and well situated in downtown Chicago, so I’m imaging it is packed to the gills with power ties after regular workdays. It was plenty full every night we were there on a holiday weekend. (Yes, I had at least one drink there every night. Shut up.)
Crowds suck especially hard for a cocktail geek, as once the seats at the bar fill up, it is ordinarily impossible to interact with the bartenders without looming over or squeezing between other patrons. If they will put up with you trying. These blocks of standing room only at Sable’s bar go a long way to fixing this. Yes, they can fill up too, but people who are standing are more likely to make room happily, and the crowd in these segments naturally turns over much faster. The bottom line is, even on a busy night, you can still get to the bar staff.
And at Sable, getting to the bar staff is well worth the effort. Lead Dog Mike Ryan (@gastronautmike), who is currently sporting a lot more hair than in his picture on Sable’s website, is a star. A former chef, I’m guessing he just liked people too much to stay in the kitchen. Mike has a terrific resume, including Violet Hour; can carry on a cocktail geek conversation with the best of them; mixes drinks with care, craft, and style, while somehow also being swift; and has allegedly read this blog before. So what more can I say? Oh yeah, he also has what I consider the most important quality in any manager, bar or otherwise: He attracts good people.
Mike Ryan, now with 250% more hair.
I drank there every night, but Friday night Sable was the only place I drank. I spent a couple of hours bellied up to one of those glowing marble sections of the bar, trying to find the limits of former Pittsburgh bartending fixture, Fred Sarkis (@FredSarkis), and failing. This is how the Official Illustrator of the Cocktailosphere™ told me on Twitter to recognize Fred: “Reddish mustache, powerful build, probably wearing a vest. Moving swiftly & smoothly, making shakers beg for mercy.” Accurate but incomplete, as Fred has added a gigantic bartender’s beard since Pittsburgh.
I felt like being a pain in the ass, as usual, so I just kept describing elements I wanted in my drink and letting Fred decide what to make me. Everything he returned to me was not only essentially what I asked for, it was good too. He made me an Old-Fashioned with yellow chartreuse and cinnamon syrup that was particularly good.
I blush to say that I can’t remember the name of the bartender who served me Sunday before an early bedtime, but he too knew his drinks and his drink talk.
The cocktail menu is lovely, as you can see in the picture above, with a thick cover and page after page of about half original cocktails and a listing of spirits. The word “vodka” appears but twice. And while they put a certain cocktail on the menu, they have the puckish balls to refer to it by its proper name, the Kangaroo. The menu is also liberally sprinkled with a variety of excellent quotes of cocktail jokes and aphorisms. Many of these I had not read before, which is saying something. I was able to resist stealing one only because it is available online.
Sable is a wonderful cocktail bar, earning a spot in the overall top echelon of bars I’ve been to around the country. It bests a number I can think of with far wider reputations. It isn’t intimate, but the noise level is reasonable, and the crowd surprisingly manageable due to the innovative bar layout. There are no crazy high-end Ice Programs or Soda Programs, but I could perceive nary a corner cut either. Most importantly, should your fancy extend beyond the menu, the staff has the inventory and tools, and moreover the knowledge and inclination, to take you there. If you live in Chicago, you really need to explore Sable for yourself. And if you travel to the city, Sable alone is enough to put the Palomar on your short list of places to stay.
Last year, innovative bartender and consultant Eben Freeman led a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail on Intellectual Property. I ripped Eben a new one about it, based mostly on coverage of the session in The Atlantic. Eben was gracious enough to visit this venue himself and respond at length in the comments. The gist was that while the Atlantic article did a reasonable job of outlining the issues that concerned him, it did him a disservice as to his suggested remedies. He also suggested that had I actually attended, I’d have had a different view. That’s the problem with blogging, we usually don’t have the resources to do enough shoe-leather reporting.
Well, this year, I did manage to attend Tales of the Cocktail. And there was one session that I was looking very much forward to attending in person: Intellectual Property II, with Eben Freeman….
Eben was joined on the panel by intellectual property attorneys Sheila Fox Morrison and Riley Lageson of Davis Wright Tremaine, LLC. All three began the session with the explicit declaration that their mommas hadn’t raised no dummies, and that they had learned much from the general reaction to last year’s event. This presentation was a refinement and clarification of what they presented last year, with a focus this year on proactive business practices to protect your intellectual property, rather than legal action.
Since this approach was essentially what I’d ranted in favor of last year, I naturally am of the opinion that this year’s version was a giant, riotous success….
The seminar was broken up into several segments, the first ones dealing each with a specific kind of intellectual property protection. Sheila would define the segment and outline its legal implications. Riley would amplify business consequences, and Eben would add anecdotes or other context for the bar world. They would then conclude with a discussion of the best means of conflict resolution and, more importantly, prevention.
They began with patents. This is the most complicated, most laborious, most expensive, most lucrative area of intellectual property protection. It also has the least application in the cocktail world, so I will summarize the while thing thus: If you really do invent some new bar tool, machine, or culinary process, consult with a qualified IP lawyer. (And either get ready to dip into the vast reserves of accumulated capital most culinary types have built over their careers… or start sizing up your better-heeled customers as investors.)
The first legally registered trademark was for a booze product.
Next for discussion was trademark protection. Given much of the controversy on this subject of late, there was a real buzz in the room when we got to this point. I thought Eben did a good job heading off the crowd’s urge to make this topical by briefly addressing, then spiking any discussion of navy rums, bar syrups, or tiki bars. This was good, because there was a lot to go over here on a subject that has been pretty hot lately, is important, and is not well understood. For my part, I was glad to have some of my beliefs confirmed, and to discover that some other things that I “knew”, turned out not to be true. (Turn of phrase copied from Ronald Reagan, lest anyone think I’m being a plagiarist.)
Here’s my definition of trademark, as gleaned from this discussion and other reading: A trademark is a word or phrase, in some circumstances a logo or graphic, to which the holder is granted exclusive right of use in commercial speech in a specific arena of commerce to identify the holder’s goods or services. In some circumstances relating to well-known and long-standing trademarks, this protection can extend beyond the holder’s own commercial field to broader commercial speech. Trademarks are more of a living property than other IP protections in that they remain in force indefinitely, so long as the holder maintains and nurtures that property in certain specific ways. Finally, the societal good which justifies trademark protection is not property protection for the holder’s investment, but consumer protection. Trademarks exist to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace.
One of the more famous, and complex, trademarks.
There were several key takeaways from this part of the session for me. First was that as a matter of practice, trademark is less an intellectual property protection as it is a marketing device. I felt confirmed in my main takeaway from my last post on this, that the negative marketing consequences of employing trademark protection in the cocktail industry may often outweigh any positive ones. Companies and individuals should think long and hard before they go around trademarking cocktail products, recipes, etc. The discussion never got around to the process of how or whether a particular trademark should be granted (e.g. Disney’s near-debacle with SEAL TEAM 6), and I apologize for not thinking to ask the question myself.
The second thing is that the “evergreen” protection of trademark protection is only maintained with a lot of fertilizer. It is not just a part of the requirements, but it is the responsibility of the trademark holder to actively monitor and guard the use of the trademark. Remember that trademarks are at their heart a consumer protection. The holder of a trademark only maintains it by ensuring what Sheila termed “quality control”. The point here is not that a holder has to make sure that everything sold under its trademark is “good” (we all buy crappy stuff with ® on it all the time), but that it is what the consumer expects when they see the trademark. Fulfilling this requirement requires active vigilance, and sometimes active measures, for as long as you wish to maintain the trademark. So, if you are Gus Tatory, private bartender in Peoria, you have every right and power to trademark your new Calcutta Cooler® cocktail if you like. Just expect to lose money every day you maintain that trademark yourself.
The last big thing to come out of this part of the session was a big clarification for me, regarding the aforementioned requirements of protecting trademark rights. In actual practice, the bright-line enforcement requirements of preserving a trademark we keep hearing about, and which holders keep brandishing in defense of bullying charges are not in practice so bright-line. The use of private contracts or licenses can provide protections for all sides in many disputes. Marginally infringing behavior does not have to be forbidden outright, every time, just to preserve the copyright. Minor considerations or even just a mutually-agreed upon disclaimer may be enough to settle many disputes in a manner that won’t result in a PR nightmare and damage to the very brand being protected. The only real requirement that I think overrides is ensuring that efforts are made to maintain that “quality control” in consumer expectations.
The last main segment of IP protection discussed was copyright law, with a healthy does of work for hire. Much of this segment was new ground, added this year in response to requests. Most of that, I’ll be covering in a separate post, as it pertained to journalists and writers, rather than the industry professionals targeted in the material I’m discussing here.
The big thing about copyright is that you can’t copyright recipes. As creativity in the bar industry becomes more and more valuable, this central fact continues to escape many professionals, and to rankle those who do understand it. So Gus Tatory from our example above can require Bob’s Bar on Central Park to make his Calcutta Cooler exactly the way Gus says it is to be made (through the use of trademark protection), but he has no way to stop them from using his exact recipe, and calling it something else. Nor can he get one red cent from them for this either. It’s not gonna happen, and whining about it is both bad business and bad for your stomach lining. And, since most of us are one good bitch session away from a peptic ulcer anyway, it’s a good idea to turn our eyes to what you can do to protect and profit from your ideas.
Not Shown: Actual amount of money to be earned creating cocktails….
Having outlined the traditional forms of raw Intellectual Property protections, Eben took a few moments to tell a parable. It starred… Eben Freeman.
Eben took a one year job with an establishment to design and implement a new bar program. Only a few months in, he had done his job well and the bar program was humming along smoothly. The menu worked. The bartenders were trained and capable of training replacements. In short, all the work had been done.
And the business terminated Eben long before his year was up….
Um, not to put too fine a point on it, but of course they did! Frankly, any business person who would not do this (given these raw circumstances) is unlikely to be a successful one. If a consultant or other contract professional has completed the work to be done, then they are dead weight going forward.
Back to the parable. Not only is Eben out several months of promised compensation, but all the work he did, all the ideas and creations he produced for the bar, is now the property of the bar, with no residual value owned by him. Most of what he produced, most of what anyone produces in the bar consulting (or any other consulting field for that matter) isn’t really protectable property through any of the above rights we discussed. First and foremost, you can’t protect recipes. And if there is anything of his work that might be considered ownable intellectual property, it doesn’t belong to him, it belongs to the bar. This is due to a concept called Work For Hire. Any idea, invention, or piece of passionate, purple prose you produce while on the job for someone else is by default the property of the employer.
[UPDATE: Sheila Fox Morrison has written me with a correction/amplification to the previous paragraph:
It would be important to note the if a person is a traditional employee (paid by the hour or on salary, with benefits, etc), the above underlined statement is true. However, it is the opposite if one is a contractor (project based, contractor is responsible for its owns taxes, no benefits etc). If one is a contractor all protectable IP is owned by the contractor unless there is an agreement to the contrary, but the hiring party likely will have a non-exclusive license to use all work product.
Thanks, Sheila. I'll note that her response provides a useful example of what I'm saying below.]
In the end, Eben was left with a third of his expected pay and no residual value for all the work he did.
It’s a sad outcome… and it’s exactly the way things should have worked out… given Eben’s actions.
Yes, it’s cold.
We may love to think that the cocktail business is a congenial, collegial, friendly environment where gentlemen rule. But the facts are that it is an intensely competitive, low-profitability business segment where nice guys are likely to finish sitting on someone else’s barstool.
Please note, I am not suggesting that good business people should or do screw everyone available, as hard as they can, at every opportunity. Hollywood villains aside, in the real world acting this way often makes it hard to hire the next good person, and impossible to get a good night’s sleep.
But in Eben’s own story about himself, he wasn’t getting screwed. It was just sensible business. So why was he unhappy? Because, as Eben himself and his panel emphasized this year, Eben had been a bad businessperson.
A formerly bad businessperson speaks….
Eben has learned how to prevent, painlessly but painstakingly, virtually all of the ways this job failed to work out. He learned the hard, bloody way, and has been banging away at these IP sessions at Tales for two years now to help others get the same knowledge without the whole professional road-kill part of the learning curve.
The answers to the problems in Eben’s parable, and to most of the others that arise from the limitations discussed above in traditional IP rights are: Contracts and Licenses. A reasonably, intelligently crafted contract will put employer and consultant (or bartender or manager) on the same side, with the same expectations.
Eben took on a contract with project-based responsibilities, but time-based compensation. He did a bang up job on the job, so there was no need to pay him for more time than it took to do it. Had the contract specified that payment for the project was X, then Eben would have gotten X. It might have come in 12 monthly payments to accommodate a new business’s cash flow, but it would have been for the project, not 12 months of work.
And all the work Eben did became the property of the bar. The concept of Work for Hire bit him on the ass. But WFH is not absolute. A reasonably well-drafted contract can dictate any assignation of these rights. Do any new ideas, drinks, etc. belong to Eben? The Bar? Both?
Through a license, perhaps Eben owns them, but the business has an indefinite license to use them. Maybe the restaurant’s license requires Eben to not sell his ideas to any other joint in town, or for 18 months. Sheila made the point very clear that, “the great thing about a contract is that it can say pretty much whatever you want it to.”
And as I alluded to above, this doesn’t just apply to contract workers. Employment contracts can be crafted in the same way, preserving rights for the employee (or the business owner).
Of course, it is possible that one side in a contract won’t want to be a reasonable negotiator. This is absolutely fabulous, if you ask me. If a guy wants to be a greedy, unreasonable sonofabitch over your contract, what on Earth makes you think he’d be anything other than poison to work with? Go find a better job (if you are worth a damn yourself) and watch for whoever buys his assets when he goes bankrupt… a bankruptcy that won’t be spilling onto your reputation.
There was a tremendous amount more in this session than I can go over in this already over-long post. A last concept I’ll touch on in closing was advocated by both Riley and Sheila. One somewhat sure way to prevent your ideas from being copied is to go all Don Beach and Vic Bergeron. They can’t steal your stuff if they don’t know what it is. And if you must let employees mix your secret Fabulous Fandango, make them sign a non-disclosure contract as a condition of employment.
Of course, while keeping lots of secrets in the drinks world may make you seem an exotic force of nature, it also might leave you viewed as a colossal douchebag…. There are no truly free lunches.
The whole discussion was an incredibly useful and interesting hour and a half. If you missed it, I bet Eben will be doing some variation on it next year at Tales. The lost year you save may be your own.
Yes, really. My first post written after Tales of the Cocktail 2011 is a road review of an airport bar. Bear with me, it’s worth the journey.
I had the superior sense and forethought to book my flight home from New Orleans in the afternoon, but the result was that I had three hours in Atlanta Hartsfield at dinner time. I idly tweeted, “Hmmm. 3 hour layover in ATL. Anyone know where the best Sazerac is made in Concourse C?” I fully intended to sup on lukewarm Budweiser and chicken fingers, so the tweet was really just an idle musing on how cocktail-spoiled I’d become in The Big Easy. Thus, I was surprised to receive this reply moments later from follower @Vespajet, moments later: “Nowhere on that concourse. Your best bet in terms of cocktails is One Flew South on Concourse E.”
With a shrug, I set off. Concourse E is the main international rib in ATL, so I figured that if there was decent food and the chance of an un-shaken Manhattan to be had in this or any airport, it would be found there.
One Flew South is located right at the top of the escalators accessing the councourse. It is an elegant modern sushi bar, restaurant and cocktail lounge. It is decorated in spare, Japanese style, all in white enamel and blonde woods, with modern white leather and chrome seating that is more comfortable than it looks. (This is more important than it might sound at first, since this place is designed for travelers who may have just spent up to 12 hours scrunched into those pretzel molds they call coach seating.) There are 11 seats at the bar, a few less in front of the sushi chefs, and a bunch of two person tables surrounding these.
I slipped into a seat in the middle of the bar, not expecting much, and that’s when all the fun began….
Bartender Norm Johnson presented me with both sushi and cocktail menus as I sat (an important detail I highlighted in my last post on menus), and I almost laughed out loud. No Sazerac, but this menu offered me such non-obvious but essential craft cocktails as Bellinis, French 75s (gin, sorry NOLA), Vieux Carrés, Negronis, and Aviations. They offer Pisco Sours and ‘Treuse or Dares… These are raw egg white drinks… In an airport bar.
As I sipped my Aviation (what else to go with first in an airport bar?), I started paying real attention. Just how crafty is this bar, I wondered. The next drink someone ordered was a simple gin and tonic…
“Really?” I asked Norm. “You have a Kold-Draft machine here?”
Yep. No soda gun, either, only premium bottled mixers. They have a small but useful selection of fresh juices and herbs. I counted at least nine bitters. (Unaccountably, no Angostura.) And they boast a pretty interesting selection of premium liquors and liqueurs.
The sushi offerings were limited but very well executed, with excellent quality tuna. While the drinks are priced very much in line with a regular craft bar, the food prices are up there where you’d expect for the captive airport clientele. They offer non-sushi dishes as well that looked pretty good, but I saw none served whilst I was there.
Of course, you can build a nice facility, stock it with great stuff, and still have a crappy result if you don’t have the most critical element of any bar, craft or otherwise: good staff. Rather than the usual parade of temporary journeymen who toil behind the mahogany-print vinyl in most ‘tween runway establishments, One Flew South boasts a small, long-term professional staff. Norm has been there the whole three years the bar has been open. He’s enough of a drink geek to have fun with the resources he has before him, but isn’t self-indulgent about it. He also has that great judgement about character that let him treat every customer at the bar with me in a subtly different way from the one next to them. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that he has a private bartending firm, as well.
So, is One Flew South another Pegu Club? No, of course not. But it is a damn well-executed classic cocktail bar with some nice touches that would be worth a spot in a local’s rotation if it were located in Buckhead. And it wildly exceeds any reasonable expectations a traveler should have for a refuge between flights. If you fly through Atlanta and have the time, I highly recommend a ride on the train to Concourse E. It’s the best bar I’ve ever seen in an airport. Say, “hi,” to Norm for me.
I originally posted this session writeup on Tales of the Cocktail’s own TalesBlog. I’m re-posting it here because I like it, it needed some links and improvements, and as a lead in to all the other material I’m going to have here in coming days about the kind of learned mayhem that was Tales of the Cocktail 2011.
It is odd to kick off a discussion of a critical business tool with the hope that your customers will steal it. But that was precisely the tack taken by Angus Winchester and Sean Finter in their Pro-Session, The Menu, at this year’s Tales. Their contention is that the menu is the most important piece of paper, perhaps the most important implement in a craft cocktail establishment. It is integral to customer satisfaction, to a smooth operation, to marketing, and most importantly to profitability. And it is often the result of great sweat, toil, and inspiration. Finally, many craft cocktail bar menus not only don’t accomplish what they were made for, they actually achieve the opposite.
I’ll get back the “stealing” issue in a bit. Before you worry about your menu growing legs, you need to be sure that it grows profits.
Menu writers all too often create a menu, then tailor operations to suit that menu. This can have negative consequences in many ways, and is a backwards approach to the issue. Angus asserted that “90% of cocktail menus are designed to fail”, because they are not a serious representation of the product the bar actually needs to sell to be successful.
First, many cocktail menus are simply too large. This can be a problem in several ways. It can require a bar to have to stock too many ingredients, many of them perishable. It can take up too much of a customer’s time, time they could be generating revenue. “Are you a bar or a library?” asked Sean. It can be so long that customers will give up and order most drinks from the first page, or they might just order something else entirely, throwing off your expected sales mix. It can also overtax your POS system and prevent you from properly analyzing sales to see not only what is actually selling, but whether you are maintaining good operational efficiency.
But the biggest problem with an overlarge menu is this: While the top 20% of your staff will happily and easily execute a long list to perfection, the bottom 20% will not. There is no worse thing to happen with a menu than for one of your staff to make anything on it wrong. Wait, yes there is, they could tell the customer that they don’t know how to make it. When I mentioned this on Twitter during the session, I got heavy, immediate feedback from all over the country. Agreement was very strong. If this has ever happened to you as a customer, you should already know how important it is to ensure this never happens on your watch as an owner or manager.
Simply put, you must ensure that you don’t get carried away and make your menu for elites, be they elite customers, or elite staff. Only when you craft your offerings to suit the desires of your customers, and the abilities of your staff, can the menu drive profits for you.
The other point stressed most by Angus (and while some might find it debatable. I don’t), is that too many bars are too in love with their own creations, to the point that that is all their menu consists of.
Too many of your rank and file customers will reject a menu filled only with choices they have never seen or heard of, and will go off menu to order. The more guests order from your menu, the faster your operation, the happier the customers, and the more accomplished your staff will become. Both Angus and Sean contended that you could conceivably have a menu that encompasses the only drinks you offer at all, just as with restaurant food menu. I understand the idea here, but as a customer type, I’d likely be fairly hacked off by this approach.
The old classics are still around for a reason. They are really good. Use them as a touch point for
customers to give cred to any originals you do decide to employ.
“There are maybe fifteen drinks created in the last twenty years in the entire world that will still be around in another twenty,” contended Angus. It is damn near impossible to create a menu filled entirely with originals that will hold up for any length of time. Most bars which want to feature only “signature drinks” don’t understand the real meaning of that phrase. You may view it as your favorite creation, something that identifies you to you. But if you sell only three a night, while you move a sea of your take on an old classic, your customers will see that as your signature. If the world beats a path to your Manhattan, it doesn’t matter that is was invented 140 years ago.
The session was packed with far too much good advice to relay it all here, so I’ll finish with several critical elements that they highlighted.
Language is important. You can allow no typos, no grammatical errors. (You menu is not a blog post.) Hire a professional editor at the very least. Sean and Angus likened the quality of writing on your menu to the cleanliness of your bathrooms. If either is, um, untidy it will turn off many of your customers outright, and leave the rest at least subconsciously doubting you and your product.
Still on the language, Use evocative descriptions. Talk about the flavors in a cocktail, rather than name-dropping a bunch of ingredients that many customers will not be equipped to evaluate. Just because you know the difference between Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters, doesn’t mean that all (or most) of your customers do.
Finally, you need to choose a balance in how much you write on a menu. Many menus include meaningless factoids, even at the expense of useful information, while others are so terse that they convey no real information at all. Try to create a conversation in some instances, but never a rambling one.
Take lessons from restaurant menus. Every customer need their own, and needs it virtually as they sit down. Your menu does you no good being presented only on request. And if it is made a part of their greeting, the customer will be far more likely to respect what’s on it as being what they should choose from.
Consider offering an array of drinks with a wider range of prices. Many customers who experience sticker shock on first entering a craft bar may feel a lot more adventurous about that eleven dollar cocktail after they’ve first had one of the $6.50 highballs next to it on the menu.
Also, you need to go deeper in your analysis as you set your prices. A simple focus on gross profit of X percent over your cost of ingredients will not properly price a drink. Consider a drink that you serve in a relatively fragile stem cocktail glass. It is going to cost ruinously more over the long haul than another you put in something more sturdy like a thick double-old-fashioned. And a “cheap to make” Moscow Mule will end up losing you a ton if you forget to factor in the theft rate of all those copper mugs you employ in your revivalist frenzy.
And that brings us back to wanting your menus to be stolen. A great menu is a great business card for a bar. If your customers walk off with it, they will have a reason to talk about you, to remember you, and to come back to try something else on that document. Not all menus are cheap enough for you to employ this strategy, of course. Go ahead and keep good tabs on the leather-bound, brass-accented tome you put out there. Conversely, others are produced too simply or cheaply to really become worth stealing, much less become a keepsake.
As a bar owner, all these decisions are yours, but the real takeaway from this seminar is that your menu will drive the profitability of your craft bar… in one direction or the other.
This year I will finally be attending Tales of the Cocktail. I’d love to meet up at some point with any of you who read this. Best way to get to me is through Twitter: @DAWinship or you can try my email. I get in early Wednesday. I have to leave for another funeral (a brutally unexpected one) that very evening, but I’ll be back Thursday night to learn all I can! I may put a few observations here, or you will probably find anything I manage to post over at TalesBlog, the official blog of Tales.
Our journey from Boston to San Francisco for the third leg of the Great Cross-Country Barcrawl was the most eventful travel day of the trip. I won’t go into it here because I don’t have the time. I’ll simply say it involved broken landing gear and a near fist-fight in a jetway between little old me and a body builder who had at least a hundred pounds of muscle on me and the steroid-driven anger of the Hulk. What possessed me to get into it with such a monster, you ask? I just couldn’t stand by while he repeatedly f-bombed a sixteen year old girl who was just trying to help. In any event, we got to San Francisco, uncrashed and unpunched.
It won’t shock you to know there were lots of non-cocktail-related things to do in the Bay Area. We enjoyed a trip up to Sonoma to visit my brother and his family, where we mixed in a sparkling wine tasting at Domaine Carneros.
My brother’s house in Sonoma… wait, that’s Domaine Carneros.
It’s nice too.
It was instructive to compare in one trip the pinnacle of distillery public faces (Maker’s Mark, as well as Four Roses) with those routinely presented by the wineries, big and small, you see across Sonoma and Napa Counties. A lot of the money you pay for your bottle of wine goes into lush, inviting landscaping and huge, magnificent buildings with tangential relation to production. A lot of the money you pay for your bottle of Maker’s Mark goes into huge, ugly buildings scattered around a cornfield, filled with barrels and growing black fungus on the neighbors, whilst they turn base liquor into gold.
We also finally got to the activities on the Barcrawl that the PeguWife was plotting from the start, the textile arts. We a great afternoon touring the Balenciaga exhibit at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. It was gorgeous. We also visited her favorite fabric store on Earth, Britex Fabrics just off Union Square.
The PeguWife appreciates this dress in sort of the same way I smile at a professionally crafted and garnished Scorpion Bowl. Source: Robin Chapman News
Finally, we had the most touristy day possible in San Francisco. We ate at Fisherman’s Wharf at one of the grand dames of waterfront restaurants: Alioto’s. When we sat down, I told our waiter, “If you have fresh lime juice, I’ll have a Gin Rickey. Otherwise I’ll just go with a Budweiser.”
“Budweiser it is,” he replied briskly.
The food was pretty good and the view wonderful.
After that, we took a cruise on the Red and White Fleet, going under both the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and circling Alcatraz. It was a lovely, brisk day, with the Oracle America’s Cup racing boats whipping by us in all directions at amazing speed. None of them capsized for our entertainment, that happened the day before. This is a gorgeous cruise and I can highly recommend it.
And even if your heart is made of stone and you can’t enjoy the magnificent natural and architectural wonders you see, the audio narration of the cruise is worth it. The information presented is interesting, of course, but that is not the comedy gold contained therein.
This being San Francisco, the narration is simply the most over-the-top, politically correct piece of work ever composed by man. No vista of natural beauty can be examined without musing on how much more attractive it would be if humanity, er, wasn’t around to appreciate it. No work of man can be observed without some digression on the darker nature of the society that birthed it.
And nothing of any sort can be mentioned without a reminder that the American Indians who lived hereabouts, or anywhere else for that matter, led far more magnificent, moral lives than we do, dedicated solely and actively to the preservation of their environment. There is no element of the tour that is presented free of a jarring contextualization from the PC library. And this omnipresence is what makes it so entertaining. By the time we reached Alcatraz, I’d stopped listening for the occasional outright inaccuracy and instead was enjoying immensely the sheer ingenuity of how they managed to find the evil of Western Civ in everything you see.
I don’t care what your political inclinations are, if any, you’ll enjoy this cruise for the view, the nice ride, and especially for the audio tour.
And now, back to the drink posts. Here is the into for my Washington breakdown, as well as the Boston stop. And below are my San Francisco reviews:
Smuggler’s Cove (Forthcoming)
Hobson’s Choice Bar (Forthcoming)
The Alembic (Forthcoming)
Heaven’s Dog (Forthcoming)
Harry’s Starlight Room and the Hotel Bars of San Francisco (Forthcoming)
For the last three stops of the Great Cross-Country Barcrawl, Maggi and I stayed at Kimpton Hotels, a new chain for us. (The one we liked in DC was full.) In Boston, we stayed at the Hotel Marlowe, on the river in Cambridge. I want to do a quick post at this point about the Marlowe’s restaurant and bar: Bambara.
With the exception of Ritz-Carltons (and San Francisco hotels, as I shall discuss soon), I usually only enter hotel bars when exhausted and intending only to self-medicate. “Double vodka martini, lots of vermouth, hold the fruit,” is my usual, let’s-get-this-over-with order. I was very pleasantly surprised with what the Marlowe had in store for us.
We needed a convenient place to eat before heading out to Drink for the evening. To our surprise, our own hotel’s restaurant was the highest rated place on OpenTable in the immediate vicinity. With a shrug, we went on down. Bambara is a smallish place with a very open floor-plan and lots of windows. The menu is light but inspired by New England traditions and ingredients. You’ll be shocked, shocked to note all the lobster on it…. We mostly stuck with appetizers so we could try more things, and found everything to be generally quite good.
As is our practice, we had a seat at the bar for a drink before getting our table. That is when I looked down at the fairly extensive cocktail menu and saw the following, for the first time ever, in any hotel bar: A Pegu.
You just don’t see men execute a good swoon much any more…
I did not swoon. I may have giggled a bit giddily, but that is it.
Anyway, said Pegu was delicious, but I do question where they got the making instructions for it. It looked like this:
Orange wedge, and served on the rocks? Really?
I had to tease there, but Pegus on the menu (+1000), executed weirdly but still deliciously (-250), aside, it’s not a bad cocktail menu at all. Damned impressive, in fact, for a hotel bar.
There are more vodka drinks than I’d want, but fewer than I’d expect. They sport a good selection of classics (including one I won’t name because they don’t deserve a visit form the Trademark Cops) and a number of originals. Whoever is responsible for the menu likes blueberries (again with the local influences) and really likes spicy drinks. It’s a nice selection, and those we tried we all well-balanced and tasty.
Bambara is a nice restaurant, considered by itself. If you are looking for a hotel in Boston (or Cambridge to be exact), a place of this quality in which to have a cocktail should be a huge checkmark in favor of the Marlowe.
This review is part of my larger Great Cross-Country Bar Crawl series. Here is the main post for our Boston stop, with links to all reviews for the city.
Our last stop in the Boston round of the Great Cross-Country Barcrawl was Clio. Located in the Eliot Hotel on Commonweatlh, Clio and the Bar @ Clio (which also serves Uni Sashimi Bar) are an intimate, upscale, fabulous dining and drinking experience. Clio was actually the only place we went on the entire coast-to-coast extravaganza where I did not enter the bar. But Maggi deserved a dinner free of the constant cocktail chatter we engaged in to this point on the trip. So of course I spent the dinner with nose buried in the fabulous cocktail menu and pestering our waiter instead of the bartender….
The dining room is a small affair, with elegant table settings and soft, contemporary decor. The atmosphere is quiet and graceful, but not stuffy. Our waiter was friendly, knowledgeable, and eager to serve, but exuded none of that obnoxious, extravagant grovelling that mars many a truly upscale room. More on him later.
The menu is very interesting and changes daily. It is a bit nouvelle cuisine, with some molecular gastronmic elements thrown in. I get my guard up a bit when I first visit a restaurant with a menu like this. But since Chef Ken Oringer demonstrates through the results that his aim is pleasing your palate rather than demonstrating his magnificence, the food was delicious and approachable.
We went with the smaller of the two tasting menus offered each evening. May I suggest that you definitely go that way yourself if you visit. The offerings were delicious and made a very cogent progression through the whole meal.
The really surprising dish that stood out in both our minds was the tomato water martini. There was no alcohol in it, and it served as a soup course. It consisted of the most amazingly clear, but rich tomato water with a bit of basil oil drizzled on the surface. Instead of an olive, there was a nearly identical-looking caperberry and a sprinkling of chopped jicama for garnish. To the side was a tiny lollypop of frozen tomato pulp, from that left over making the water I guess.
I have no idea how they made tomato water this clear, but it has definitely rekindled my interest in perfecting the Plasma Mary.
The cocktail menu at Clio is 32 pages long. Several are lists of the extensive spirit selection they offer, but most are collections of cocktails. There is a huge Tiki section, including a whole page of Dr. Funk variations. There is a page of molecular mixology experiments. The largest section is gin drinks, with most of the greats contained therein, with a notable omission…. Get with the program, Todd. There’s even a nice glossary in the back, and the phrase, “Yeah, we’re fired up about booze.”
The last words in the cocktail menu are, “If you find this menu… keep it.” While admitting nothing, I may have found a copy in my jacket pocket after we left the restaurant. For the cocktail aficionado, perusing this menu is almost as much fun as I imagine it was to write it.
As a last note, several of the offerings on the cocktail menu are usually available only Monday-Thursday, such as the Ramos Gin Fizz. We visited on a Saturday, and I ordered one before I read the restriction. But our waiter insisted on doing the leg, er, armwork himself, and I got the best RGF I had on the entire barcrawl. I’m really hoping I left a big enough tip.
Clio is a wonderful, though not cheap, dining and drinking experience. I can heartily recommend it.
This review is part of my larger Great Cross-Country Bar Crawl series. Here is the main post for our Boston stop, with links to all reviews for the city.