Inventive Menus

How do leading bar owners approach drink development? In a creatively competitive environment, how can you invent a stand-out drink or menu? Should we focus operations on what guests want and expect, or should we try to forge the industry forward by thinking outside of the box?

We asked industry professionals Rich Woods from Scout, Max Venning of Three Sheets Bars, and Marcis Dzelzainis, who co-owns Fare and Sager+Wilde, how they approached their creative process. We’ve formulated some of the decisions you might consider when creating a new drink or cocktail menu from that discussion.


1. Decide What Your End Goal Is

Interestingly, many of our speakers across different panels said they began creating a new drink with an idea of what they wanted it to taste like when it was finished.

That light at the end of the tunnel goal will keep you on the tracks you need to get there. However, not every drink on a menu needs to be the one that launches your career. You may want to create something with a more prosaic function in mind. An end goal could just as easily be a pouring contract, a speedy or easy to make event drink or something to commemorate a loyal regular.


2. Factor in Your Client’s Knowledge

Appreciate the sphere of understanding your guests will have. Are you attracting a clientele that regularly goes to highly technical gastronomic restaurants? If not, they may not be familiar with the flavours and lexicon of high-end dining. Do your guests understand the categories of ingredients you are using or how their origins result in certain flavours?

If you take your guest’s frames of reference for granted, no matter how good your drinks will taste, they won’t translate well on a menu or in a competition. You need to give them something tangible to relate to that doesn’t baffle or exploit them.


3. Impose a Timeframe

Contrary to popular belief, a deadline is your friend. All creative entrepreneurs know that deadlines can help you overcome procrastination, make your goals distinct, provide your process with a structure and keep you motivated and productive.

Service time is also a defining factor for any cocktail bar. If taste is your primary specification, for example, then how does time play into the making of the drink or the theatre of the serve? These considerations will affect your guest’s experience of the drink regardless of your feelings on the matter.


4. Think About Guest Preferences

This is perhaps one of the more mutable aspects of your process. When developing a menu, it’s worth considering your spectrum of drinks from eye-openers to dust settlers, from tall to short, cold to warm and so on. There’s a reason those forms have evolved — they reflect the range of customers’ desires and tastes.

As Rich Woods says in the discussion, we don’t create drinks for ourselves. We make them for other people. If you are developing a menu for an existing venue, you will know your most popular form of drinks and rely on data to inform your updates. If you’re opening somewhere entirely new or working towards a competition, research is your friend. Have a look around other venues, watch what people order and enjoy, take into account your drinker’s history, for example, if they’re a judge, what drinks they’ve liked in previous competitions and draw conclusions from that.


5. Test, Test, Test.

The truth is, pure innovation is rare because there is a thin line between something that is genuinely experimentally successful and total nonsense. The difference is often imperceptible to a novice. So, naivety is not a great place to begin breaking the rules from. That’s where testing is vital. If you’re willing to break free from everyday expectations, you need to be willing to trail the reception of a new drink or menu to see if the concept lands. If it doesn’t, go back to the drawing board or have a plan B in place.

Testing is a way of propelling the knowledge that comes from experience. Once you have accumulated a wealth of this kind of understanding, you can begin to subvert to rules and challenge your guests instead of indulging them.


6. Innovation is Mostly Inspiration

The truth is that creativity is a spectrum of resistance. As Marcis Dzelzainis says during the discussion, we can either stay married to tradition, react against it or push away from it entirely. There is very little pure innovation in the world, and the truth is, ideas form a cannon of understanding that evolves into inspiration over time.

For example, Phillipe Starck broke the design world’s “form follows function” rule when he created the Juicy Salif citrus juicer. He was inspired by the experience of squeezing lemon juice over calamari in an Italian restaurant. He quickly sketched his bandy-legged lemon squeezer on his paper table mat and later sent it to Alberto Alessi, who put it into production.

That experience of looking at suckers and tentacles, needing a juice drip over a dinner plate rather than a mixing bowl or glass, combined with the ambience and elegance of Italian dining, made him push the concept of what a juicer should look like. Because it happened so quickly, it seems like it came from thin air, and yet, the futuristic-looking object came from a logical thought process. And before he got there, he had already developed a design philosophy, an astute understanding of design technology and a wealth of professional experience. He knew when an idea had legs, so to speak.


7. Use Concepts to Create Limits

A human brain is paralysed by innumerable opportunities, so you can foster original thinking by limiting your options. Therefore, imposing a concept or theme on your creative process can help you move away from your comfort zone and push the boundaries of conventional thought.

For more creative tips on subjects like inviting inspiration, building creative teams, letting go of control, the collaborative process, establishing a repertoire, craftsmanship, how to get in the creative mindset and more, watch our expert’s discussion on creativity.

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