C rafting a cocktail, especially a cocktail menu, is no easy feat. Like crafting a hearty meal, mixologists spend a lot of time experimenting with different flavor combinations to create a well-balanced drink. Hours, or even days, are spent behind the concoction in that glass in front of you.
For Brianna Berry, recently featured in City Paper’s May 25 issue for her coffee consulting business, Talk Coffee to Me, the second half of Berry’s business has been working with some of Charleston’s newest spots like Bodega and Pink Bellies (voted Best New Restaurant in City Paper’s 2022 Best Of awards) to create cocktails curated to pair with the establishments’ eclectic menus and vibes.
“For me, it’s two parts, at least,” Berry said. “One, having a discussion with the owner and seeing where their passions lie, what their background is or history. What kind of experience they want the customer to have; is it adventurous, is it comforting? What is the goal? And working towards that.”
Gauging the vision and goal of the new establishment pushes Berry in the right direction to follow the path of the owner or restaurateur. Once those questions have been answered, it’s time for her to hit the books (or Google).
“But then on the back side, [I do] a lot of research,” Berry added. “For instance with Pink Bellies, I was studying hundreds of years of cuisine and flavors and spices. For Bodega, it was researching Cuban and Miami and Spanish influences and seeing how we can play with flavors.”
She didn’t stop at just the flavors of each culture. Berry pushed the boundaries and researched the cultures of the respective restaurants: “I like to build on top of that and go outside of the box. Look at not only food, but cultural or social influence and try to draw inspiration from that.”
One of the cocktails Berry developed for Pink Bellies, the Pho Cocktail, takes that same approach of combining flavor with culture. Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that has gained popularity across the U.S., uses spices like cinnamon and star anise in the broth, and is popularly topped with lime juice and sriracha. For the cocktail, Berry took these flavors and crafted a syrup infused with traditional pho spices and combined it with gin, lime juice, sriracha and fish sauce to replicate the flavors of the hearty noodle dish into an ice-cold glass.
“A lot of this goes into experimentation of making syrups at home and going like, ‘What flavors work with what?’” she said.
For Bodega, Berry took a similar, but slightly different approach for the brunch spot, combining tropical flavors with easy-to-crush ingredients and approachable liquors and liqueurs.
“The idea was having batchable complex, ready-to-go ingredients as bases or pizazz for many cocktails,” she said. “Be it a house-infused spirit or, for example, the homemade allspice and pepper pineapple shrub featured in the Pine N’ Ginga.
“As much of a bop as the song (Amindi’s Pine and Ginger) it’s named after, this cocktail uses the complex acid of the shrub to balance the sweet of the ginger liqueur. We added some texture and kick with the extra spicy ginger beer and used the light and floral Striped Pig Gin as the foundation for this refresher that you could easily crush a few of.”
Roderick Groetzinger, owner of recently opened Equal Parts Bottle Shop on Johns Island, worked with his neighbor Weezy’s Ice Cream and Cocktails to create a colorful array of cocktails fit for the “‘70s, clubby vibe.”
Groetzinger takes the same approach as Berry when consulting clients on a cocktail menu: “The first part is to talk to them and find out their vision for the place,” he said. “Like ‘What is Weezy’s? What is bar X, Y and Z or your restaurant?’ — to kind of get a sense of what they want the feel of their drinks to be because to me, it’s very similar to the food.
“You want your menu to speak about who you are and what your concept is, what your identity is, and I think you don’t necessarily have to mirror that perfectly or pair it perfectly with food per se, but I think it’s important that a cocktail menu can kind of have its identity.”
Groetzinger also looks at the more technical aspects when curating a menu: like an establishment’s size, potential volume, bar setup, water use, equipment and most importantly, ice.
“A lot of other people never realize how important the ice is,” he said. “And there’s so many different ways to get to that, you know, like, is there a crushed ice machine or are we cracking it, crushing it in a bag with a mallet — all that kind of stuff. I think it’s good to get that in the beginning.”
But what happens after the menu is done and the restaurant opens?
For Groetzinger, it’s an opportunity for the establishment’s bartenders to stretch their own creative muscles, because it’s more than crafting just the menu, but training a bar or restaurant’s staff to make that menu.
“I think it’s important to engage with the staff, because you want them to feel like they’re a part of it,” he said. “You don’t want them to feel like some person handed them this thing and this is what they have to do now. You want them to be excited about it.
“It’s going to be their place and their project and then eventually, you know, it becomes theirs,” he added. “Essentially, you hope that your drinks won’t phase out, but they’re going to, because in a perfect world, you want them to succeed and grow. You want somebody to take the reins who’s gonna make it their own baby.”
Berry shares the sentiment: “I love being able to go into something, give people the tools they need to succeed, and then take a step back and let it grow on their own,” she said. “I think you always get the best results that way, not standing or hovering over or becoming obsessive, which is something I think I could easily do. I want to be able to let go of a project and see it flourish without getting in the way.”
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