One silver lining of the multiple lockdowns are that people have re-evaluated how much they appreciate all of the pomp and ceremony of bar service. Yes, we can all make cocktails in our kitchens, but there’s a joie de vivre, an ambience, a theatrical nuance lacking in the experience. Apps and websites like I Miss My Bar have popped up to fill the void, but there’s a tangible element of going to a cocktail bar you cannot recreate virtually.
As anyone who’s ever watched an episode of Come Dine With Me knows, there’s a value attached to homemade efforts. The ‘yeah, but is it homemade?’ question implies that learning to make something from scratch shows authenticity, respect for craft, and skill level worthy of admiration. But if we can all agree that professional service is worth paying for, can we also conclude that homemade isn’t always better? Let’s look at the pros and cons:
You need to make sacrifices to do something from scratch, and money is the most obvious. There’s the cost of the ingredients and often expensive equipment, but there’s also the wage costs in prep time, R&D and staff training. It’s worth weighing up the investment value over time, the infrastructure of service and the layout cost of getting everything you need before you start.
For example, the cost of a piece of equipment will reduce over time, but what about faulty parts and the electrical costs of running it? That may impact your overheads. What about longevity? If you buy a £300 piece of equipment to make an ingredient for a cocktail that will be on the menu for only three months, can you factor in that £100 a month into the sale price of the drink?
In terms of infrastructure, you need to evaluate your back bar’s size, the organisation of your speedwell, the number of staff, the number of guests and speed of delivery, and so on. Sometimes it’s worth considering the economy of scale that comes with buying in.
People forget that research and development is a significant cost factor. Experimenting takes up staff time and produce. And once you’ve discovered a new ingredient, you need to source it in bulk. Contracts and delivery fees come into play when you get new providers or wholesalers.
Now you’ve bought the equipment, you’ll need space to keep it. Have you got the storage space for bulky kit, or do you need something nimble? For example, five years ago, everyone was investing in big coffee makers for their home kitchens. They bought the milk steamers, the grinders and all the accompanying gear. They were bound to keeping it on the countertop, cleaning it regularly and even paying for expensive services, all when a classic stovetop Moka or Aeropress might have sufficed. They make great coffee, they’re easy to clean and easy to store.
Then you also need to be responsible for the freshness of your ingredients. That could mean investing in extra room or further specialist equipment. With refrigerator and freezer space at a premium in most bars, especially in the summer months, it’s worth considering.
Homemade ingredients can preserve the seasonality of fresh produce, but what about the overseas ingredients, rare or obscure ingredients? Sometimes its better to buy produce that’s already been preserved if it needs to travel a long way.
Does your audience care? Are they willing to pay more for it? Will they be able to judge the difference? If they do have a palette for homemade, where did they get it? Would they have tried better elsewhere? Is there already an industry standard that they will compare your ingredient too?
If the essential element of the cost value exchange in the cocktail purchasing process is taste, ask yourself how much of the homemade ingredient is showboating and how much is based on flavour alone. The harsh reality is: your customers don’t want to pay for your pride. An ego doesn’t make cocktails taste nice.
Time isn’t just money; it’s also one of the most emotional factors in drinks service. If using a homemade ingredient adds even an extra thirty-seconds to an order, it can turn the guest experience sour.
Then there’s variability over time too. Does your homemade ingredient keep well, or does it react and change over time? Consistency is key to customer retention, and people won’t trust your recipes if they don’t taste the same every time.
Time is a huge factor in taste too. If, for example, fruit is best juiced directly after harvest, would it be better to buy it pressed rather than juicing it yourself?
If you are trying to do too much in front of your guests, you lose the impact you could have on them. Hosting is about leading a room confidently, and that can’t happen if your focus is elsewhere. Do your homemade efforts make you more efficient in front of your guests, allowing fewer distractions and more headspace for the hosting? Consider your priorities.
Preserving flavour is the critical driver for bars and bartenders making homemade ingredients. Flavour extraction is worthwhile if you’ve found a way that’s better than mechanised, batch produced or artificial variants. A good homemade ingredient will make you stand out from your competitors, so if you can make something truly exceptional, it’s worth every ounce of sacrifice.
In the video below, Andrea Melis, Head Bartender for The Blue Bar at The Berkley Hotel, explains that natural, fresh strawberry flavour is hard to recreate. Because of that, artificial flavouring doesn’t reflect the experience of biting into the fresh fruit. Strawberry juice contains the woody remnants of the seeds and the slimy textured pulp, so it needs to be filtered, which is time-consuming. Making juice or puree also has a short shelf life, meaning fridges and wastage comes into play.
Watch to see how he resolves these issues to create The Queen of Sussex cocktail.