Saturday, October 27, 2018

:: the art of naming a drink ::

First published on the USBG National blog in November 2017; slightly adapted version here.

For many bartenders, the hardest part of getting a drink on the menu or into a competition is not the ingredients or balance but the name. Having done a cocktail blog for nearly a decade besides my time bartending, I have perhaps named more than my fair share of drinks. Indeed, I remember one time at Eastern Standard, I asked bartender Kevin Martin what the drink he was serving me was, and he replied, “I’ll know when I read it on your blog.”

One way of thinking about naming convention is looking at it as an act of compassion: how do you get the right drink into the right person’s hands when they read it on the menu? A softer or more playful-sounding name should match an easier style of drink; they are more likely to get ordered. The more cacophonous or difficult-to-pronounce or comprehend names should match cocktails with more challenging ingredients. For example, at one bar I worked at, the Laguna Sunrise was the most returned drink during my two years there. People expected an easy-going libation, and not a mezcal-laden smoke bomb. Similarly, Bobby Heugel of Houston’s Anvil at a Tales of the Cocktail talk discussed making the more advanced drinks’ names more difficult to say in order to get it in the right hands of an educated drinker who would be more motivated to give it a go. It would also steer the average customers away from often the least-profitable drinks on the menu.

Next, the name can inform the guests about the ingredients or the style of the bar. For the former, matching the origin of the spirit with a film star, movie, or book from that country can help. As for the style of bar, a saucy name might work in a neighborhood bar to gain a chuckle and a drink order but might fall flat in a more upscale place, whereas an overly serious name might detract from a fun drink. At one bar, I mentioned to a regular that I was trying to come up with all France-derived ingredient sparkling wine drink called the French Tickler, and he shook his head and declared that we were not that type of place. Furthermore, keeping to the restaurant’s theme, neighborhood, and local history are great tie-ins and make for great talking points. In fact, drink names are a great way to tell a story when presenting the drink or when people ask; moreover, it allows the staff to connect with the guests and shine light on their creative co-workers even when not present.
When Brick & Mortar first opened up in Boston, the menu was filled with great tasting cocktails created by Misty Kalkofen with intriguing names. When I inquired as to the name’s meaning, I frequently got the explanation that one of the owners had a notebook of drink names needing recipes stemming from things he came across during his day such as a photo caption on Facebook. It turned out to be a productive bit of teamwork since Misty needed drink names more than drink ideas. I have done similar for myself by keeping a list of drink names for future use. Book or poem titles, song or album titles, semi-famous people’s names, childhood games or toys, or historic events all have seemed to work. When I did Yacht Rock Sundays one summer, I had a list of 200 song titles from the playlist to choose from, and it made menu item creation go rather smoothly. Having a name list also brings up the point of whether a bartender should craft the drink first and name later or concoct the drink off of the name. Trying to do it both ways is a great exercise, but often the drink stems from an idea or request for ingredients, so the former is more likely.

There are also times when a drink does not need a new name. For example, when that recipe is already a drink, I find it in poor form to rename it perhaps save for one-off theme menus. I recently saw a local bar’s menu online that had renamed what appeared to be an Old Cuban, and I immediately thought less of the program. Unless the drink is rather well known like a Red Hook, insinuating that the drink is a house creation (even by omission) can get bad publicity such as what happened with one local bar who mis-attributed the Chartreuse Swizzle as a house invention. Mentioning the source bar or bartender in the drink description helps to avoid these issues. On a menu, a house take on a classic does not necessarily need to have a new name but merely an explanation of the ingredients of how it varies and elevates the classic. For example, a previous bar’s Dirty Martini utilized a house-made brine from a lactic ferment to tie in with the kitchen program; however, we had to be clear on whether the guest wanted the Dirty on the menu or the standard olive brine one. Sometimes generating a slight variation on the drink name as a nod to the original can help to clear up these confusions. Finally, checking on the web to see if the drink name has been taken is indeed helpful; overlap is not a killer per se but it should be taken into consideration especially if it is a semi-famous drink (or from a famous bartender) or the two recipes are pretty similar.

In competitions, the name can be rather important to win the judges’ nod. Linking the name to a bit of history or geography about the ingredient can be helpful. For example, in one Jägermeister competition on ShakeStir, I stood out above the other competitors who created Negroni riffs by avoiding the common Jägeroni or Negronimeister ones that were submitted by paying tribute to the geography of the spirit and dubbing it the Saxoni. For in-person competitions instead of strictly web-based ones, linking the name to a story helps for competitors have a bit of time during the drink build (as well as before and after) to speak, and tying in the name to the sponsor’s history or to a personal anecdote can make the drink more notable even before the judges taste it. Make sure these drink names are always positive and not showcasing a dark part of history or the world. Marketability of the drink and the contestant is on the judges’ minds.

Drink names are often one of the first ways to sell the idea to the guest or to sell it to the right guest who will enjoy it. Strangely, nonstandard conventions can work. One local restaurant called Hungry Mother had all of their drinks numbered which at first I found to be odd. However, I and other drinkers grew a fondness to certain drinks such as No. 42, and the system seemed to work.

There is no one right way to name a drink, but there are several wrong ways. Just as you would let your co-workers taste your drink during the recipe development stage, bouncing drink names off them and your guests can help guide you to the best choice.

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