Bartenders are hitting the bottle, these days. And hard.
That’s because a growing number of them have turned on to serving house-made bottled cocktails at the bar. Now, make no mistake, these aren’t your drunk Aunt Suzy’s Durango coolers; these bottles contain carefully crafted cocktails that are poured out into individual portions and capped.
“It’s like a sexy version of bottle service,” explains Brad Gubbins, bar manager at the Spirit House in Toronto, which has mastered its presentation with eight-ounce bottles, often sporting hand-written labels and wax seals. They are served up with two frozen coupe glasses on a platter. “The amount of photos that get taken is amazing, more than when the birthday cakes come out,” he says.
Ease is part of the equation. Bottled cocktails can be prepped in advance and popped open for speedy service, so they reduce the problem of long waits and, arguably a bigger problem – inconsistency.
At Keefer Bar in Vancouver’s Chinatown, which is known for elaborate concoctions with obscure ingredients, bar manager Danielle Tatarin says she thought of bottling as a solution to laborious mixing, such as the six-ingredient Red Lantern, which makes use of red ginseng tincture. But she discovered a bonus: Her customers loved them.
The move away from pretension and twee cocktails has been driving people toward this trend, with many choosing to bypass the glass and drink straight from the bottle. “A cocktail in a bottle is a little more relaxed than one served in a fancy glass,” explains Tatarin. “It can appeal to a broader range of people ’cause it’s a little more manly.”
Even the decidedly unpretentious Jack Astor’s chain is in on it, with bottled peach, lime and wild-berry margaritas for sale.
Joan Olsen, caterer and private chef for the French Consul General is a fan of bottled cocktails, both at bars and at home – her boyfriend makes batches and caps negronis and other aperitif cocktails. “I love the whole concept of it. My favourite is an Aperol spritz,” says Olsen. “They’re cute and would appeal to girls differently than boys, who I’m sure would never use a straw and would just drink from the bottle.”
Says Jonathan Gonsenhauser, Toronto’s Momofuku Noodle Bar beverage manager: “It’s about having a little bit of fun. We don’t pour them table-side, but just serve them with a wedge of lime.”
He says space was the primary motivation for introducing bottled cocktails, since there isn’t enough room for a full-service bar. Momofuku offers a range of rotating flavours, including an Aperol-tinged gin and tonic.
Carbonated drinks arguably work better straight from the bottle, since the carbon dioxide doesn’t dissipate as quickly as it would in a glass.
Gubbins argues that bottled cocktails actually taste better. “If you look at the original style of a mint julep from Georgia and Kentucky, they were making it in large jars and letting it sit for a few days,” the Spirit House bar manager explains. “Bottle-aging lets flavours mingle and can really help the right cocktail.”
Juleps aren’t the only historical antecedent, either. The Pimm’s No. 1 Cup, a diluted gin and herb mix first concocted in 1821 for take-away service, is a solid contender for being the first bottled cocktail. There were also a variety of bottled rum punches available throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
It all started to go downhill when Heublein launched a line of bottled cocktails in the 1960s and 1970s, including the less-than-auspicious “Hobo’s Wife” and Brass Monkey – the start of the bottled cocktail’s rep as a sub-standard drink, something which cocktail aficionados still pull out as an objection to the new trend of bottled cocktails in bars.
At the Keefer Bar, however, where standards are always kept high, they have yet to hear a complaint.
“I think because our drinks are pretty grownup and sophisticated,” says Tatarin, “nobody thinks that we’re selling a peach wine cooler here.”