The art of the cocktail list
3:35PM, Nov 15, 2010
What makes a great cocktail list? We took advantage of the presence in Australia of American cocktail expert David Wondrich - someone who has spent many an hour, professionally and otherwise, perusing lists of today and yesteryear - to gain some perspective. Focus was one of his key criteria. "I'm saddened by the really large books that people hand you," he told us, "because, as my friend Dale says, you need a beer while you're figuring out what to drink." Truly, as cocktail culture in Australia ramps up and lists get ever more lavish in their production, you're likely to suffer the same paralysis that can afflict wine lovers presented with an especially hefty cellar to choose from. It's not the worst problem to be faced with, of course, and conversely many good bars prefer a talk-first, offer-the-list-second approach. Laudable as that may be, a really nicely composed cocktail list can not only inspire new and interesting drinking in the moment but fire the imagination for adventures on the visits to come.
We've taken a broad-brush approach in trying to single out the nation's best examples. We put out a cattle call for submissions back in the October issue, and we've also discreetly pocketed lists that have impressed us on our recent travels. We don't want to make too many hard and fast rules - despite our learned colleague Dr Wondrich's expressed preference for brevity, we've found some lists that are justified in their length - but by the same token, characteristics such as clarity and ease of navigation are always going to be a plus. There are some perfectly thrilling lists out there with no greater graphical flourish than 10-point Helvetica type, and we're never going to criticise a list for its lack of curlicues and gewgaws, but there's no denying that good design can bring a new dimension of pleasure to the search for a thirst-quencher. Spelling mistakes, as ever, suggest to the reader a certain lack of care (for the record, bar folk, it's Hemingway, with just the one m), and shop-worn, misattributed quotations are something best left to the other guys.
As for the selection of drinks, we're looking for personality, taste and a suggestion of authority. "I like at least some hint as to what's in the drink - a list of ingredients, say - and I also like a little story on each," Wondrich continues. And balance: "I hate those lists that have 12 drinks and all of them have house-infused vodka in them." Maybe, he says, you could throw in something for the guy who likes a glass of whiskey with a little bitters in it.
Ben Davidson, national spirits ambassador for Signé here in Australia, sums it up: "Ultimately the cocktail list is like the calling card of the bar, it's the published document that says 'this is what we do here'."
Short Cocktail List of the Year
"I like a single-pager," Dave Wondrich tells us, and we concur. There's much to be said for having the confidence to produce a list that's short, sweet and to the point. Of course your patrons can order off-list and of course you'll be happy to serve them that way, but even a single sheet of A4 - or less - can serve as a statement of intent, a focal point for the imbiber's interest. And if brevity is the soul of wit (not to mention lingerie), you'll find no greater amusement than the list at Sydney saloon Shady Pines. With Picasso-like economy, everything you need to know about the bar is sketched for you in just seven drinks. The 20th Century and the Old Pal show they know their classics, the Mexicola - tequila, lime, Tabasco, Coca-Cola and salt - shows they're far from precious and not afraid of a little fun, and the Scotch Finger served with the Hot Buttered Whisky shows they're more than just a little bit cracked.
Winner: Shady Pines, Sydney. Honourable mentions: Greenhouse, Perth; Flinders Hotel, Sydney; Grasshopper, Sydney.
Best-Written Cocktail List of the Year
"Don't look fiercely at people, or talk loudly or harshly, but cultivate a smiling countenance and a quiet, but firm tone of speech," reads one of the house rules. "Gentlemen, don't approach ladies; and if you are so lucky to have one approach you, endear her as you would your mother," reads another. And then there's the controversial favourite: "No hooting, no hollering." They're funny, they're sweet, they're endearing, but they were probably better the first time you read the first variation on the theme at Milk & Honey in New York back in the day, so only the one gold star for the various Australian bars that have lifted the idea for their own ends. We have been pretty taken with the appalling word-plays that lace Chris Hysted's list at Black Pearl (a Pisco drink called Chile Mornings, the egg-rich Custardy Battle, not to mention the 30 Odd Foot of Punch), and the more-or-less oblique Mighty Boosh references, but then along came the list that includes, among its variations on the classic Tom Collins, a Phil Collins, noting "divorce rock never tasted so good". There's the drink that's dubbed "an ode to Salt-N-Pepa's first single - before they were talkin' 'bout sex, and long before they started fighting about Christianity," and there's the suggestion that the Fireside Chat is good enough to have "gotten Roosevelt himself back on his own two feet". Any list that convincingly references Herbie Hancock, Ron Burgundy and the Notorious BIG on its first page alone (and spoils the ending to the Twilight series on the second) gets our thumbs-up. Bars are supposed to be fun, remember?
Winner: Carlton Yacht Club, Melbourne. Honourable mentions: Black Pearl, Melbourne; The Bowery, Brisbane; Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney.
Most Thirst-Provoking Cocktail List of the Year
Yes, it's Der Raum. On the one hand it's like a tour of everything that's right about bartending tradition, a list steeped in Baker, Embury, Thomas and Craddock. On the other, it's one of the very few lists that harnesses the progressive approach of the world's envelope-pushing restaurants, and successfully bends this approach to the task of making interesting and, above all, balanced and palatable drinks. Among its cleanly designed, nicely typeset pages and clear, correct type, you'll find a Zazerac ("Jack Straub's 1914 Drinks is our source reference but if any of you bar nerds can quote an earlier mention, this one's on the house"), a tribute to British artist Damien Hirst (in the form of the Pharmacy: pear and roast capsicum gin, "administered" sweet Italian bitters and citrus pill) and a tip of the hat to the bar's fellow travellers in its Melbourne Temperance Society World's Best selection of drinks from guest bartenders from other leading venues. Stimulating, focused and dangerously drinkable.
Winner: Der Raum, Melbourne. Honourable mentions: Eau-de-Vie, Sydney (check out two of their cocktails in the videos above); 1806, Melbourne; The Bowery, Brisbane; The Lark, Brisbane; Chez Regine, Melbourne; Rockpool Bar & Grill, Sydney.
Best-Looking Cocktail List of the Year
There's more scope in the context and content of a cocktail list for design intervention than there is in, say, wine lists or menus: the whimsical illustrations on the list at Brisbane newcomer Canvas; Matt Bax's artworks on Der Raum's list; Earl Carter's photography on the jacket of the list at Rockpool Bar & Grill; and simply the very fitting use of type at Helvetica in Perth. Melbourne's branch of the international Match chain marries utility and style with its handy glass-shape icons on its thoroughly glossy pamphlet. But in the final analysis, nothing holds a candle to the list proffered at Brisbane's Bowery. From the spiral binding and embossing on the cover, to the fake hand-written "to your health!" inscription from bar owners Steph Canfell and Cam Birt on the inside jacket, to Kristian Hawker's photography and the fine work done by Designfront (both duly credited on the contents page, no less), this is a cocktail list that can stand with any in the world.
Winner: The Bowery, Brisbane. Honourable mentions: Match, Melbourne; Canvas, Brisbane; Der Raum, Melbourne; Helvetica, Perth.
Cocktail List of the Year
The big one. It's really all about the package. There are things to enjoy on the lists of so many of Australia's top bars - laughs, graceful designs, tastes of the cocktail's rich history, you name it. But it's still pretty rare to have them come together in a single document. And yet The Bowery pulls it off. There are all the design kicks mentioned above (it has a notes section at the back, for goodness' sake), but every tastefully executed flourish - the richness of the paper stock, the elegant font variations, the restrained use of colour - is matched by an equally knowing sentiment, whether it's a footnote on the production and pronunciation of falernum or the vitamin A content of passionfruit or an unobtrusive discursion on the history of the Bloody Mary or the use of palm sugar in mixed drinks. And these are met in turn by a choice of drinks that honours the old and the new, the cocktail obsessive and the mixology greenhorn, in the simple, useful categories of "strong", "dry", "bitter", "sour", "sweet" and "favourites". It's a list that can point you to the drink you want with a minimum of fuss, but it's also a worthy read in its own right, both entertaining and instructive. And Hemingway is spelled correctly. If that's not a winning mix of balance and simplicity, nothing is.
Winner: The Bowery, Brisbane. Honourable mentions: Eau-de-Vie, Sydney; 1806, Melbourne; Der Raum, Melbourne.