Cocktail Menus Are Broken—Here’s How to Fix Them
Nothing files away the carefree edge of happy hour like a cocktail menu littered with pretentious, self-congratulatory words. “Craft.” “Bespoke.” “Housemade.”
Flowery language, vague descriptors and poor design have no place on a cocktail menu. Here are the problems we see far too often, along with tips on how to fix them.
Thankfully, bars and bartenders have moved away from the cheap bottled mixers that dominated bar drinks throughout the 1980s and ‘90s. In today’s best cocktail bars, a wide array of syrups, mixers and bitters are made in-house. But noting that items on your menu are “housemade” or “handcrafted” doesn’t make you look fancy. It makes you look defensive. If you use good ingredients in your drinks, customers shouldn’t have to learn about it from you rubbing their faces in it.
If you’re working in a cocktail bar and not using fresh citrus and other fruit juices—first of all, ew, no. And second, know that any discerning drinkers out there will be able to taste the difference. No need to underline it on your menu unless you’re using fresh durian, jackfruit or noni juice.
Though it’s one of the biggest points of contention in the spirits industry, “craft” means next to nothing. The term is often used to describe products from smaller distilleries, but even that isn’t always accurate. Steer clear of any mention of “craft bourbon” or “craft vodka” on cocktail menus. Depending on your definition, spirits like Maker’s Mark and Absolut could reasonably be described as craft, even though they’re owned by giant corporations.
On a similar note, companies making other cocktail ingredients like syrups and bitters have the tendency to lean on the term “artisan” and (worse yet) “artisanal.” While we’re sure these people are, in fact, artisans, leave it off the cocktail menu. You sound like someone we don’t want to drink with.
Your cocktails are made to order. Congratulations. We order drinks. You make them. You are not a Savile Row tailor.
6. Free-floating flavors
This is the sin of saying too little. Your menu says there’s “lavender” in this drink. Is it syrup, tincture, bitters, cordial, liqueur or some other form of additive? Being specific gives your customers a more concrete idea of what a drink will taste like. Help us understand what we’re ordering before we spend $15 on it.
7. Precious typefaces
We get it. You met this designer at a party last month and he offered to redesign your menu for a forgiven bar tab and he used all these edgy distressed typefaces that look like they’re from a steampunk Wes Anderson film. But we can’t order from your menu if we can’t read it. Save your hipster obscurantism for the bar. We spend a lot longer looking at that.
8. Poor Design
A menu that showcases the personality and style of a bar is an easy way to pull customers in. But yellow text on a white background? Hard pass. Poor organization? We’re trying to relax, not solve a puzzle. Make it easy to distinguish between the food, cocktails, beer and wine, and use emphasis to direct us to what we’re looking for quickly. When in doubt, keep it simple: black lettering on a white background is the little black dress of cocktail menu design.