PUNCH is an independent, online magazine in collaboration with Ten Speed Press. They’re in the business of narrative journalism—written and visual—on wine, spirits and cocktails, and the culture that surrounds them.
Over the past couple years, the conversation about how to build more sustainable cocktails has evolved from high-concept solutions, like seasonal ferments, to simple, more widely applicable techniques or tricks. The question isn’t just about how this can spawn creativity and waste reduction at craft cocktail bars, but how it can trickle down to home bartending, as well.
Citrus in particular, undoubtedly one of the bar world’s biggest waste products, has been a primary focus of bartenders Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths of the bar pop up and online platform, Trash Tiki. They’ve been calling on “citrus stocks,” an umbrella term for a liquid made by extracting flavor from juiced fruit, which can be used in place of fresh juice in a variety of drinks. These stocks can be used on their own in place of citrus, or incorporated into more cordial-like syrups for use in cocktails.
“About two years before we started Trash Tiki, we were standing at Dandelyan in London, where Kelsey was head bartender, as the trash was being taken out,” says Griffiths. “It was something like 20 kilos of lime, orange and grapefruit, so the room smelled amazing.” It inspired the pair to consider ways to extract those flavors and aromas: “As bartenders, we know that 80 percent of what we taste is what we smell,” he adds.
In its first iteration, Griffiths and Ramage came up with a recipe they dubbed “Pink Citrus,” which was less of a stock and more of a hot steep involving freshly-brewed hibiscus tea poured over blanched lime shells, adjusted with malic and citric acids. Using that base, the duo developed a fully fledged citrus stock, made with added sugar, which would offer both flavor and body to drink recipes and be shelf stable.
The power of the citrus stock method lies in its adaptability. While its main purpose is to function as a stand-in for citrus, you can also mix it with fresh citrus juice (the Trash Tiki team calls on an equal-parts blend that they call “stuice”), which is particularly effective in highballs and frozen cocktails. Another option is to fortify the stock with sugar to make an ingredient that reads much like a cordial, and can be used in the same applications.
Today, plenty of other bartenders have begun to use the Trash Tiki specs and develop their own, which can each be used in a wide variety of cocktail applications, from sours to highballs. Here, four ways to extract that last bit of flavor from your citrus to create a stock—plus, what you can do with it after.
This citrus stock formula was created with plenty of wiggle room and customization in mind. Griffiths suggests adjusting it based on the type of citrus you are using, as well as the drink you hope to make. More recently, the Trash Tiki duo has been cutting down the stock with fresh juice to make an ingredient they call “stuice.” “We’ve created this recipe to be totally scalable as venues for our pop-ups tend to vary a lot” write Griffiths and Ramage on their website. “Literally you could do a half batch, or times this by 10 and the only variable will be time it takes to reduce.”
Working closely with the Trash Tiki team,Pouring Ribbons’ Brooke Toscano uses their lime stock for the bar’s kegged cocktails. In addition, she’s developed a hybrid formula she calls Sour Lemon: “It is closer to an in-between of a stock and a cordial. We add more sugar to stabilize it and help with the viscosity of the cocktail. While the lime stock stays good longer than fresh lime, it still has a shelf life. Our Sour Lemon no longer has to be tossed in a certain amount of time.”
Houston’s Michael Neff created this playful riff on a low-waste stock that also happens to taste something like classic Sprite. At Cottonmouth Club, Neff uses the Sprite syrup in their rye-based Long Lost Pal cocktail alongside dry vermouth and Bruto Americano. “Use this concentrate as you would simple syrup for a zesty, bright, and citrusy addition to cocktails,” says Neff. “Or, to make ‘Sprite,’ combine one part concentrate with two parts Topo Chico and enjoy over ice or in a highball.”
For a no-heat version of flavor extraction, Los Angeles’ Aaron Polsky developed this formula that uses peels only (rather than husks). He’s worked with various iterations of the recipe to create a fresh-juice cocktail program for Coachella and other large music festivals, as well as for kegged cocktails prepared for Harvard & Stone
We’ve partnered with Bacardi Women in Leadership for a series dedicated to exploring the theme of “originality” with some of today’s most inspiring leaders. For more information and tickets, click here.
It’s easy to mistake novelty for originality, but—thanks in part to our rapidly diminishing degrees of separation—it’s also never been easier to sniff out and experience innovation in all forms. In healthcare, originality can mean creating new conduits for access as Hers has done for birth control and prescription skincare. In food, it can mean quietly tearing down the gendered system of exclusivity that surrounds it, as chef Niki Nakayama has done at L.A.’s modern kaiseki restaurant, n/naka.
Ironically, in cocktails, it’s partly the field’s constantly referenced relationship to the past that makes the craft of tending bar so intriguing. How can one innovate when nearly every drink must necessarily be built from a classic blueprint? Because most new drinks’ very DNA is based upon those Manhattans and Negronis and Daiquiris that came before, it can be difficult to suss out innovation. But within distinct boundaries, true creativity can be mined. And when done well—The Aviary’s flamboyant aestheticism, Ryan Chetiyawardana’s proposition for zero waste, the whiz-bang science approach at Existing Conditions—originality takes on a singular, philosophical meaning. From the vibrant petri dish of the cocktail renaissance have arisen entire spirit category reinventions, a decade-strong tiki revival and science-ing of all stripes. At this point, it seems cocktails have hit a saturation of innovation.
So, in a world where nothing seems new anymore, what does originality really look like in drinks, and how do we define it? As an unwitting reaction to so much baroque invention, innovation seems to be cropping up in ways much subtler than in years past. For example, at Nitecap in New York, Natasha David imposes boundaries upon her staff, asking that they find originality via the ingredients and materials already available within the bar’s four walls. In Chicago, Carley Gaskin founded her city’s first cocktail catering company. And in Toronto, Kelsey Ramage co-created Trash Tiki to challenge the idea that fantastical cocktails can’t be sustainable.
In wine, sometimes originality means reconsidering the back-end—literally upending or subverting the dominant business model for an unconventional, smaller and, necessarily, more considered approach. For Helen Johannesen, originality meant tucking her eponymous, diminutive wine store into the rear of a restaurant, like a secret bonus cellar. And for Krista Scruggs who farms her own land and makes natural wines near Burlington, Vermont, innovation means going with your gut and making yourself vulnerable, even when it’s scary or risky.
To get an idea of how originality is imprinting upon the drinks world, we surveyed a cross section of women at the top of their fields to see how they set themselves apart in a day and age where nothing seems new anymore.
Natasha David | Owner, Nitecap | New York
A fixture on New York’s cocktail scene for nearly a decade, Natasha David has built bar menus from coast to coast alongside her husband Jeremy Oertel for You & Me, their consultancy company. Best known as the unflappable leader behind Nitecap on the Lower East Side, David is constantly pushing for innovation from inside the bar.
“While I think innovation is important and creating new techniques is important, I like to challenge myself and my bartenders to come up with a drink with things that are on the back bar. I think it’s pretty boundary-pushing to stick to the back bar because you’re not relying on this cool thing with an automatic hook. Standing out with simplicity is much harder. Relying on the basics helps somebody to learn how to develop the more complex skills.
“Now, for us at Nitecap, originality and innovation means always trying to find ways to be sustainable. We don’t advertise it, but we use a ton of cordials made in-house with our waste juice. We turn the waste of the raspberry syrup into a fruit leather, which we use as a garnish. Pineapple pulp gets spiced and put it in a dehydrator. When we pickle we use the brine in drinks.
“When I first started working with Alex [Day] and Dave [Kaplan] the newest thing I learned was how to sous vide. I had never heard of it because it was only used in kitchens. When it started crossing over into bars it was completely revolutionary. It changed the way that syrups were being made. Suddenly raspberry syrup, whose flavors were always muted, became very bright flavors. It changed things for me a lot, knowing I didn’t always have to muddle fresh fruits to get those flavors.”
Carley Gaskin | Owner, Hospitality 201 | Chicago
Winner of USBG’s 2018 Most Imaginative Bartender competition sponsored by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® Gin, Carley Gaskin started her career in Chicago at Bad Hunter, where she became deeply interested in sustainable drink-making, and pivoted to open her own cocktail catering company.
“A lot of new creations come from necessity. I’ve had the privilege of working at a lot of restaurants where chefs work alongside bartenders to create fluid concepts. I like to go to a kitchen and ask what they’re throwing away—to find a way to build a cocktail around sustainability. I own a cocktail catering company in Chicago, and we go through a lot of waste. We juice 200 liters of something and we’ve got over 200 lemon peels left over. So, we need to find a way to reuse things.
“We try to use citrus peels to make stocks. We dehydrate a lot, we do a lot of work with a company called The Roof Crop, which builds rooftops around Chicago and grows vegetables and flowers and herbs. We take the things they wouldn’t usually sell like ugly produce or browned basil for syrups and infusions. And it’s all locally sourced.”
Helen Johannesen | Owner, Helen’s; Partner, Jon & Vinny’s | Los Angeles
The long-time beverage director for Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo’s restaurant empire, New York-native Helen Johannesen defied convention and opened her eponymous wine shop nested within an all-day restaurant in West Hollywood.
“[It’s] too much pressure [to think about doing something new]. That’s like wishing to get nominated for a James Beard Award. The place I always start from is ‘What am I interested in? What do I think is cool?’
“I think sometimes [originality] happens on a subconscious level more so than through an active determination to create something fresh and new per se. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I just think about what’s inspiring me and what my staff is attaching to. I think it’s dangerous to go about curating or revitalizing or creating programs to set a new trend. That feels like a gray area.
“I spent six years running other peoples’ businesses and other peoples’ beverage programs, and even though I thought of them as my own, I didn’t own them. You should take ownership in the world for what you’re doing, but when you do that you align your identity with someone else’s vision. It’s different to say ‘this is my shop and it’s called Helen’s.’ No one’s going to define it for you, you have to define it for yourself. That requires a great level of humility. I couldn’t assume people would know what [Helen’s] was. The reality is that you have to create the world, you have to create the baby.”
Kelsey Ramage | Owner, Trash Tiki | Toronto
A professedly punk rock bartender, Kelsey Ramage co-founded the pop-up known as Trash Tiki as a thesis statement against waste in the cocktail industry.
“Innovation is probably at the forefront of what I think about whenever I’m creating something new. All of my drinks come from classics, and everything’s been done when it comes to creating a new spec. When I’m ideating, I start thinking about a story or an ethos, which often comes from ingredients. Where’s it from, how was it farmed?
“To me, innovation takes a little bit more insight into the future. Where novelty is of the moment—it’s a flash in the pan, or lasts the five to 30 minutes you have the cocktail in front of you—truly innovative drinks take some thinking toward ‘What will this be like in six months or a year, two years from now?’”
Krista Scruggs | Owner, ZAFA Wines | Burlington, VT
Winemaker Krista Scruggs dreams up some of the natural wine world’s most subversive blends, including apple-and-grape co-ferments that have drinkers reconsidering what American wine can look like.
“I try not to consider [innovation] when I’m making things. I believe in open-source. I believe we’re influenced by our surroundings. I rely on my instincts and what’s going on in my head and my heart. If I were to think about trying to be different, I would put a boundary on myself. If you put me in a line with everyone else, I’m still the only me. I’m not trying to mimic or emulate anyone else. I’m just trying to be me.
“It’s a vulnerable thing to do and I think most people are scared to do it. And when you’re out there being vulnerable and taking risks, people resonate with it. On one side of the coin, it’s beautiful and reaffirming, and on the other side, to be honest and transparent in the industry means people want to put you on a pedestal. I think there’s great expectation and criticism and judgment from people who are willing to be transparent or vulnerable. The cost is that I feel a lot of anxiety. I’m speaking on my sixth panel this year. I have anxiety attacks before all of them. Being vulnerable is not easy, but that’s being free. I get to be me. The worth outweighs the cost.”
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The Tequila Sunrise wasn’t always a punchline. Traditionally a simple mix of tequila and orange juice with a bit of grenadine added to create an ombre effect, the drink earned a reputation as a kitschy, sweet “disco drink.” But like so many other ’70s drinks exhumed from the dustbin of history, the Tequila Sunrise has reinvented itself for the modern era.
Take, for instance, the version at New York’s Ghost Donkey. Head bartender Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez begins with a split base of tequila and mezcal, which is lengthened with bitter orange juice and topped with spicy hibiscus-habanero syrup in place of grenadine. It’s the fourth-biggest seller on the menu. “I was surprised that so many people appreciate it,” he says, simultaneously acknowledging the double whammy appeal of an agave-based cocktail paired with an Instagram worthy presentation.
The most widely-accepted Tequila Sunrise origin story points to Prohibition, when Hollywood celebrities flocked to the famed Agua Caliente racetrack and resort in Tijuana, where the signature drink was known by the same name. Drink historian David Wondrich has described the original as a Margarita-like “tequila daisy,” made with tequila and lime, plus a bit of crème de cassis for the “sunrise” effect. The Arizona Biltmore Hotel also claims ownership of a similar drink, created during the 1930s or early 1940s, when bartender Gene Sulit devised a drink for a guest seeking a poolside-appropriate refreshment. A third story places it in 1970s Sausalito, California, where Bobby Lozoff, a bartender at the Trident restaurant, is generally credited for adding orange juice and grenadine in place of lime and cassis, creating the version we know best today.
While no one has been able to confirm which origin story is accurate, there’s no doubt that the drink rose to canonical status in the 1970s, at least in part thanks to Keith Richards, who nicknamed the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour, “The Cocaine and Tequila Sunrise Tour.” The following year, Don Henley and Glenn Frey also gave the drink an assist when the Eagles released “Tequila Sunrise” on their album Desperado.
“My mom would listen to that Eagles song,” remembers Todd Thrasher of Tiki TNT in Washington, D.C. “It’s not a terrible cocktail, but the Rose’s grenadine aspect is absolutely terrible.” His tikified take on the drink drops the red grenadine and swaps in blue Curaçao, which is backed up by lemon, passionfruit and saline.
At Houston’s Anvil, Bobby Heugel offers a version that hews more closely to the original, using a mix of crème de cassis and grenadine; he drops the orange juice altogether in favor of lemon. Like Thrasher’s version, Natasha David’s Sumerian Sunrise also skips the grenadine, instead calling on Campari, which is cleverly trapped beneath a rock of ice so that it swirls into view when the glass is tapped. She’s not alone; in her Mujer Italiana Va a Jalisco,Gina Chersevani of Buffalo & Bergen in Washington, D.C., also uses the iconic red bitter, which adds a burst of refreshing bittersweetness, “like a Sour Patch Kid,” she says.
Chersevani also notes that the Sunrise provides an opportunity to explore seasonal and exotic produce, options that weren’t available in the midcentury. “You can manipulate that into anything,” she says. “Your yuzu, ugli fruit, rambutan, different kinds of lime, oranges from Valencia—so many things to choose from.” That variability adds nuance to the drink, but also enables it to slot into a wide range of bar and restaurant concepts, she adds.
Perhaps the ultimate sign that the modern Tequila Sunrise revolution has arrived: Most consumers don’t even realize they are ordering one. In part, that’s because some bartenders are soft-pedaling the connection. For example, Jimenez named his riff the Mezcal Sun-Risa, a deliberate misdirect. It omits the tequila reference (though there’s just as much of it as mezcal in the recipe), and plays on the word sonrisa, Spanish for “smile.” Had he stuck with the original name, he protests, “people would think it was sweet, and mine is anything but sweet.”
Similarly, Thrasher’s blue drink is named Wet Money—not even a nod in the direction of its inspiration. He takes a certain subversive pleasure in that stealth revival, though. His blue version sells briskly, he notes, but “no one has asked me for a Tequila Sunrise in 10 years.”
Spring is finally here and the harbingers are all about. Baseball season has begun, backyard grills have been put back into use and cocktail bars are frantically scrambling to roll out their newmenus.
You’ll hear a similarly frantic clattering of tins and jiggers again come July, when the summer menus are due. And then again in October. Then January. And then the cycle begins all over again. The seasonally-changing cocktail menu, an idea that arose some ten or so years ago during the creative heyday of the craft cocktail movement, is still the prevailing model. Some bars, like Trick Dog in San Francisco and Pouring Ribbons in New York, have escaped the grind of flipping their entire menu every three months by going in for the concept menu. But even those have to be turned over at least once or twice a year.
There is, however, a third, far-less-explored option: Don’t change your menu at all.
While it was once the norm, in today’s environment of hyper innovation and constant reinvention, the idea of a set drink list is downright unusual and, to a certain extent, held in disdain. The rare bars that stick to the same array of drinks risk being labeled as lazy museum pieces.
Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the high-profile adherents to this menu approach are in New York, a city with a reputation for honoring the cocktail classics. These include Sauvage, The Long Island Bar and Fort Defiance, all in Brooklyn, and Pegu Club, which is arguably the mothership of the stay-the-course school of cocktail menus. Several modern classics created by Pegu co-owner Audrey Saunders—including the Gin-Gin Mule, Earl Grey MarTEAni, Tantris Sidecar and Fitty-Fitty Martini—have been on offer since day one, in 2005.
For Toby Cecchini, who co-owns The Long Island Bar, as well as The Rockwell Place, a new bar also in Brooklyn, a steady menu just makes good business sense. “I have friends who kill themselves turning out these incredibly elaborate lists four times a year, when I feel like customers, who don’t drink seasonally anyway, largely wouldn’t care or perhaps even notice if you kept the same list for a year,” he says. He recalls doing a stint at Death & Co. years ago, looking at the 95-drink menu and thinking the staff was purposefully making themselves miserable. “I’ve never been convinced it’s necessarily worth the incessant striving to change for change’s sake.”
When St. John Frizell opened Fort Defiance, he planned to follow the herd and flip his menu every few weeks. “That idea lasted about three months,” he says. “I learned that consistency is, I think, the most important criteria by which diners judge restaurants, even if they don’t realize it.” As a result, familiar drinks like the Criterium (a long drink made with gin, Zucca Rabarbaro, grapefruit, lemon juice and sugar) and the bar’s famous take on the Irish Coffee greet regulars every visit.
“Simply put, Martinis and Sazeracs aren’t seasonal,” says Frizell. “And I like having simple, classic drinks like that on the menu.”
The honing of classics—both old like the Sazerac and modern like the Criterium—is one of the greatest advantages of the unchanging menu, according to advocates. And such constancy can be said to be in keeping with The Bar’s traditional standing, in the patron’s mind, as something to lean on—a bastion of familiarity and comfort.
To others, however, too much comfort is a danger. One of the regular knocks against such lists is that they breed apathy and boredom among the staff, but Frizell and Cecchini, as well as William Elliott of Sauvage, think steadfast menus actually breed as much creativity in bartenders—just of a different sort.
“Like food, the results are best after making a drink hundreds and hundreds of times,” says Elliott. At Sauvage, there are four core house cocktails that never leave the list: Riding Tigers, a sparkling cocktail made with crémant, pisco, armagnac, Pineau des Charentes; Sloe Moon’s Rose, a fruit-forward crushed ice drink with sloeberry gin, framboise, lime and bitters; Bitter Storm Over Ulm, another crushed ice drink made with Suze, lemon, Macvin du Jura wine and pear; and the Pastis Cobbler, a cobbler with a pastis base, as the name suggests. “Tiny tweaks to technique can truly bump the end result to an all-time high. Thus, bartenders make a cocktail better after six months of making them.”
Elliott added that the time bartenders might devote to learning the specs of 30 new cocktails every few months can, instead, be devoted to developing and sharpening other skills associated with bartending, such as timing, poise, wit and worldliness.
Cecchini, who is lucky to run what he calls “a kind of retirement home for super-veteran bartenders,” agrees. These barkeeps, like Phil Ward, KJ Williams, David Moo and Cecchini himself, have arguably matured in their attitude towards their craft in such a way that they find interest in any drink order put before them, even if it’s the 100th request that night for a Boulevardier, one of the bar’s mainstays. To their seasoned eyes and hands, there is more potential profit sharpening their advanced drink-building and people skills than learning a new parlor trick.
“There may be only eight or nine drinks on the cocktail list, but the arsenal of expertise embodied by our combined years behind the bar means that we can accommodate and generally improve on nearly any request,” he says.
None of the menus at these bars are immutable, however. At Pegu, one quarter of the menu changes every season, and Cecchini admits that even his customers enjoy a little novelty now and then. But they also, conversely, dislike change. More than once, he has experienced the ire of patrons when a favorite drink has been removed from the LIB menu.
“We have this group that’s been coming in for six years who call themselves The Pendennis Club, and basically only drink the iteration of the Pendennis Club Cocktail I’ve put on the list,” he says. “When I once took it off, they screamed bloody murder. I tried to placate them with the seemingly obvious point that, you know, we can still perfectly easily make that cocktail for you. But so many others continued asking for it; in the end I just caved and put it back on.”
While the benefits of a familiar list—especially at places like The Long Island Bar and Fort Defiance, which are, in essence, neighborhood bars with strong local fan bases—may be evident, they may well remain in the minority. The seasonal menu will continue, in Elliott’s fatalistic appraisal, “because it sounds good, and is an industry norm; and because most people copy things that sound good and are industry norms.”
Frizell partly blames seasonal menus on the deadline-a-minute press of the Internet age, whose thirst for new cocktail recipes is never quenched. Without new menus, there would be no more “7 New Spring Cocktails to Try Right Now” articles. And we can’t have that. Bartenders play along because new cocktails gain them momentary notoriety and increase their earning power. He longs for a day when the media praise bartenders for something other than rampant, non-stop creativity. That thing? “Knowing when to leave well enough alone,” says Frizell.
Jägermeister is the liqueur everyone loves to hate. Blame the Jägerbomb—or college, in general. But the German amaro’s fortunes have improved. Over the last several years, “Jäger,” as it’s better known, has graduated to find its place in a host of grown-up cocktails. While some iterations elevate the liqueur, finessing it into established formulas like the Old-Fashioned or Negroni, others fully embrace its down-market appeal.
Consider the Jägerita. As Jäger is often served ice-cold in shot form, incorporating it into a frozen drink seems only natural. David Cordoba of 28 Hongkong Street did just that, subbing tequila with the herbal liqueur for a more biting take on the frozen Margarita. At New York’s Amor y Amargo, Sother Teague draws parallels between Jäger’s strong-bitter-sweet profile and the core components of an Old-Fashioned. His Black Apple Old Fashioned builds off the liqueur as a base, simply upping the spirit and bitters quotient by adding apple brandy and apple bitters to the mix. Similarly, Gaz Regan’s Negroni calls for Jäger in place of the regular Campari, which still supplies the drink’s signature bitter flair, but with darker, more intense herbal notes.
In an unexpected pairing, bittersweet Jäger teams up with funky aged cachaça in the Rio Grande Sour, where the two ingredients face-off within the context of a traditional sour. Perhaps even more unconventional, in Brother Cleve’s Loser—named for the song by Seattle grunge band, Tad—Jäger is backed up by Pepsi Cola, beef broth, espresso liqueur and spicy habanero bitters. It’s a bold lineup, made only more so by the finishing touch, which comes in the form of a Slim Jim. It’s meant to drink like a distant relative of the Jack and Coke, and it’s just the kind of recipe that manages to pay homage to both Jäger’s past and present.
Jäger's All Grown Up
Black Apple Old-Fashioned: Sother Teague’s take on the classic ups the spice quotient. [Recipe]
Rio Grande Sour: Funky, aged cachaça stars in this bittersweet, frothy sour. [Recipe]
Loser: Brother Cleve’s jerky-garnished spin on the Jack and Coke. [Recipe]
Jägerita: The frozen Margarita takes on a new form. [Recipe]
Gaz Regan's Negroni: Is it a Negroni if you make it with Jäger? [Recipe]
Douglas Fairbanks is best remembered for playing self-assured, sword-swinging heroes in silent films throughout the 1920s. A versatile actor turned action icon, he delighted moviegoers with his cocksure, debonair portrayals of Zorro, D’Artagnan and Robin Hood, performing all his own stunts to showcase his acrobatic prowess.
“A superb physical specimen, possessing an inherent radiance and magnetism,” according to Hollywood historian Jeffrey Vance, Fairbanks stayed in peak fighting form via vigorous exercise, and a fierce abstinence from alcohol. “Perhaps the greatest foe to athletic success among young college men is strong drink,” writes Fairbanks in Making Life Worthwhile, a self-help book he authored in 1918. “Personally, I have never tasted liquor of any sort.”
This means the teetotaler likely never tried his own cocktail, a mixture of gin, apricot brandy, lemon and egg white whose tracks lead back to Prohibition-era Cuba.
Brian Kane, bartender at The International in Philadelphia, first encountered the potable Fairbanks in an old Sloppy Joe’s Cocktails Manual he picked up at a used bookstore. Printed seasonally throughout the 1930s, it’s a pocket guide to everything José Abeal Otero offered customers at his famous Havana dive in the years preceding the 1959 revolution. Shaken and served in a flute, the Douglas Fairbanks shared the Sloppy Joe’s bill with other luminaries of the period, including his second wife Mary Pickford, whose rum-based, Cuban-made namesake enjoys much more modern attention.
While it appears in the pages of a Cuban cocktail book, there is little evidence confirming where, when or even if the Douglas Fairbanks was born on Cuban soil. The Savoy Cocktail Book from 1930 features a Fairbanks recipe close to the Sloppy Joe’s version, offering evidence that it had existed prior to publication. But complicating matters is the mention of a second Fairbanks in the same book—this one a 2-to-1 Martini with orange bitters and crème de noyaux.
Turns out the latter variation, also listed in Harry McElhone’s 1921 ABC of Mixing Cocktails and in a 1930 edition of Bill Boothby’s World Drinks and How to Mix Them, was invented in St. Louis in 1907, inspired not by The Thief of Bagdad but by a lawmaker—Charles W. Fairbanks, Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president from 1905 to 1909. Predictably, these dueling Fairbankses have blurred together over the years, but it’s the Sloppy Joe’s spec that got Kane’s gears turning.
“You can’t just take a cocktail out of a book and not tinker with it,” says Kane, who began messing with the recipe in his previous position as beverage director of Abe Fisher. His updated version, the Fairbanks Loan No. 2, starts with a split base of gin and Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple Rum, which incorporates the actual rind and flesh of Victoria pineapples—a nod to the fruit brandy base of the original.
A desire to keep the Fairbanks fruit-forward informed what might be Kane’s wonkiest tweak. In a separate glass, he’ll stir together Lillet, Cynar and Campari in a ratio of 4 to 2 to 1 in an impromptu cordial, then add a half-ounce of this “Lilletperitif,” as he calls it, to the Douglas Fairbanks tin. The acidity of Lillet mellows the gin, he says, while the citrus notes present in all three backbar staples reinforce the fresh lemon and lime, kept to a cumulative half-ounce (there’s only so much room in the glass). “If you really want to go to town on this drink, I will always say this is the best way to go,” says Kane, adding that a straight half-ounce of either Lillet or Aperol would work “in a pinch.” Nixing the egg white and adding a touch of honey syrup completes Kane’s version of the drink, which, he acknowledges, takes a few creative liberties.
“This variation is a bit of a stretch. But it’s delicious, so consider it a director’s cut,” or, he says, “a Daiquiri on steroids.”
It’s rare to walk into a bar and recognize none of the bottles on the backbar. After all, most commercial spirits are distributed by a few multinationals whose global reach allows you to order a familiar cocktail, no matter where you are in the world. But even the most seasoned drinkers will tell you: Becketts Kopf is unlike any other bar.
“I have no idea what any of their stuff is,” says Naren Young, creative director of New York City’s Dante and one of the world’s most-traveled bartenders.
Husband-and-wife duo Oliver Ebert and Cristina Neves opened Becketts Kopf in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg more than a decade ago as a traditional cocktail bar. Over the years, however, it has evolved into a compendium of obscure spirits sourced from nearby producers. Today, nearly all of their bottles bear the names of small German and Austrian distilleries. There is a red-beet brandy from Austria that Ebert and Neves mix with an almond liqueur, red quinquina, blood orange juice and a grain spirit distilled from wheat, rye, and malt in a cocktail called Red Roots. There is a rowanberry brandy from Bavaria that they stir with tequila and Madeira in the Bird of Pray cocktail. Their coffee cocktails are redolent, with a coffee distillate from beans from the Barn, one of the most famous roasters in Berlin. They have several bottles of Korn, a grain alcohol that Ebert calls the “German vodka,” and they mix their Manhattans with German rye.
Ebert and Neves aren’t scouring Germany and Austria for products simply for the sake of being local, which can result in less-than-stellar results. “Germans and Austrians are the best distillers in the world,” says Ebert. The realization has transformed Becketts Kopf into a distinctly German and, at the same time, world-class institution. (After his most recent visit, Young declared Becketts Kopf, not for the first time nor likely the last, the “best bar in Germany.”)
It’s an impressive feat considering Ebert and Neves had no bartending experience when they opened Becketts Kopf back in 2004. But at that time, they weren’t alone—practically no one in Berlin could mix a proper drink when they first opened. “Fifteen years ago, no one in Germany knew what a Sazerac is,” says Ebert.
The pair’s own interest in cocktails began when Ebert brought home a copy of Harry Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book from a used bookstore. They began mixing cocktails for friends, and their collection grew to include more volumes, like Jerry Thomas’ Bar-tenders Guide. After a while, they wanted to share their drinks with a wider audience and sought out a space for a bar on an empty block of Prenzlauer Berg, one of the hippest neighborhoods in Berlin at the time. They put a picture of Samuel Beckett in the window (Ebert has a background in theater) and installed a gold-tiled backboard with a painting of a lily at its center. They screwed in a few Edison bulbs above the bar and dimmed the rest of the lights, creating a dramatic Caravaggio-like contrast.
In the early days, Ebert and Neves struggled to find even basic ingredients like bitters. They had to persuade their ice supplier to build a new machine just so they could have big, transparent cubes, one of the hallmarks of a quality cocktail bar. Customers were skeptical of the higher prices. “The first year, we always heard, ‘Is this the whole cocktail? It’s very small,’” says Ebert. “The second-most-common complaint was that the drink was too strong.”
With time, though, Ebert and Neves developed a loyal base of regulars, and as they became more confident in their bartending skills, they developed a deeper interest in the spirits they were using. “We started to think about what’s inside the bottle—how it’s made, what the raw product is and where it comes from,” says Ebert.
They realized that most of the commercial distilleries knew little about the provenance and quality of their ingredients. Their disappointment led them to the German countryside, where many small distilleries made Obstbrands, or fruit brandies, with local crops. Few of these brandies ever travel far from their distilleries; you would be hard-pressed to even find them in German bars. “Nobody used Obstbrand for mixing,” says Neves. “It was not classic.”
They were amazed by what they found. “We discovered a lot of flavors we did not know existed,” says Ebert. They tasted brandies with flavors like mandarin, rhubarb, sea buckthorn and sunchoke. The Obstbrands somehow tasted truer to the fruits than the fruits themselves. “You can never taste the soul of a fruit if you have it fresh and bite into it,” says Ebert. “You have to distill it.”
The distillers that Ebert and Neves sourced their spirits from often farmed their own crops, inspecting every individual berry or piece of fruit to make sure it was ripe. They fermented without sugar or any other additives before distilling it. (They used a slightly different process for nuts and herbs with no natural sugars, macerating them in a neutral alcohol and then distilling them into a spirit known as Geist.) They controlled the temperature precisely and distilled slowly in order to preserve the fruit’s flavor. One particular Austrian distiller, whom Ebert visited recently, needed two tons of fresh raspberries to make just 50 liters of raspberry brandy. “Fruit brandies are the most complicated things to distill,” says Ebert.
Slowly, Ebert and Neves replaced the fruit liqueurs at their bar with local products. They ditched their commercial cherry brandy (made from cherry juice, neutral spirit and sugar) for a cherry Obstbrand from a small German distiller called Schloss Zinzow. Instead of applejack, they mixed a Jack Rose with an unaged Obstbrand made from Elstar apples.
By 2012, several classic cocktail bars had opened in Berlin, expanding the city’s cocktail literacy. Sazeracs and Negronis were no longer novel, but Ebert and Neves, consistently one step ahead of the curve, were turning heads with their new recipes built on German spirits. In 2013, Mixology Magazine named Ebert Germany’s mixologist of the year.
Along the way, he and Neves developed relationships with many local distillers and began to collaborate on a range of specialty spirits as part of Freimeisterkollektiv, a platform designed to allow independent distillers to sell directly to consumers (Ebert is a partner). It opened up an avenue for the duo to collaborate directly with some of their favorite distillers and make those products available outside the confines of their bar. Ebert had always wondered why, for instance, coffee liqueurs never tasted like the coffee he drank in the morning. He introduced Ralf Rüller, the roaster from the Barn, to Josef Farthofer, an independent distiller in Austria, and together the three of them developed a clear coffee distillate from single-origin Kenyan beans.
Now the rest of the cocktail world is waking up to what Ebert and Neves discovered years ago. The notion of sourcing local ingredients and terroir-driven spirits is no longer unheard of; German, Austrian and Swiss distillers have dominated the World Spirit Awards in recent years; and it’s not uncommon for representatives of multinational brands to stop by Becketts Kopf and praise the drinks (just recently a group of Campari employees passed through and were wooed by a Campari-less Negroni). For Ebert, the lesson is simple: “If you are open-minded, if you do not always think in small-minded business terms, you will enjoy more things in life.”
In Cuba, there’s an old adage: Sin azúcar no hay pais. Translation: Without sugar, there is no country. Hiking among the decrepit remains of mills, barracks and plantations in Cuba’s Valle de los Ingenios, a UNESCO World Heritage site near the colonial city of Trinidad, it’s apparent just how vital sugar once was to the country’s national identity. At its peak as Cuba’s principal sugar region, the valley had over 50 working mills requiring an engine of 11,000 laborers. It’s also here that the Canchánchara cocktail was created, its formula a reflection of Central Cuba’s agricultural and emancipatory heritage.
Virtually unknown off the island, the Canchánchara is made with aguardiente de caña (the first distillation of sugar cane), honey, limón crillo (also known as Mexican lime or key lime) and water. Its invention is attributed to the mambises, guerrilla fighters in the Ten Years’ War (1868–1878) and the War of Independence (1895–1898).
“It’s the original Cuban cocktail,” says Julio Cabrera, co-owner of Miami’s Café La Trova, a new Cuban restaurant and bar in the Little Havana neighborhood. “The drink is named after the leather-covered flask that the mambises carried on their saddles. They would drink it before battle and as a morning toddy to ward off cold, hunger and fatigue.” Cabrera, who grew up in Cuba, where his father owned a bar, has built a career in the tradition of cantinero, or Cuban-style bartending. The Canchánchara, he says, “never gained the same recognition as the Daiquiri or Mojito because it wasn’t created by a bartender or a bar, nor promoted by a liquor company.” He explains that it also didn’t benefit from popularity in Havana during Prohibition, when Americans flocked to the island to skirt temperance.
Travel guide Dennis Valdés Pilar, who hails from Trinidad, says the Canchánchara has always been intertwined with his city’s identity and culture. “It incorporates the region’s history of slavery and struggle for independence,” he says. For slaves working 18-hour days in the cane fields of the Valle de los Ingenios, the drink acted as a restorative tonic in the same way that switchel did in the American South.
According to Pilar, slaves historically consumed beverages from jícaras, squat vessels made from the dried fruit of calabash trees, which are now typically made from clay. Though ice was not part of the Canchánchara’s original recipe, today the drink is stirred or shaken and served over ice in a jícara sans garnish, except for perhaps a slender bamboo straw.
When the Soviet Union, Cuba’s longtime ally, collapsed in 1991, the island’s sugar empire declined; today cane is grown only for domestic use and is supplemented by imports. And for a time during the late 20th century, says Cabrera, the Canchánchara was lost to Trinidad, even as it achieved some popularity in Havana. Happily, the cocktail has experienced a revival in its birthplace.
Despite the simple formula, there’s considerable variation amongst Cancháncharas, ranging from delightfully viscid to cloying or watery. Most Cuban bars now use plata rum instead of aguardiente (Cabrera attributes this to availability), and the drink may be made with pure honey or honey simple syrup. In Trinidad, a UNESCO-designated site where horse carts nearly outnumber cars, the most popular spot for a Canchánchara is Taberna la Canchánchara. Formerly a residence in one of the city’s oldest buildings, it’s a rustic bar with stone floors and heavy wooden beams. Since 1994, locals and tourists have come to sip the namesake cocktail on the shady patio and purchase bottles of Santero Aguardiente de Cuba. At Restaurante El Criollo, a paladar (privately owned restaurant), an excellent Canchánchara rich with fragrant local honey can be had while overlooking Trinidad’s cobbled streets and pastel-hued, 16th-century colonial buildings.
In Cabrera’s version, called La Chancleta (Spanish for “flip-flops”), he uses local sunflower and orange blossom honey syrup laced with ginger juice for aromatic zing. “I add just enough to the cocktail to flavor it, rather than make it viscous,” he says. “It’s too hard to get dissolution if you use honey straight.” Cabrera uses Yaguara Cachaça Ouro because its profile is similar to Cuban aguardiente. Alternatively, he likes Clément Premiére Canne Rhum Blanc Agricole.
Perhaps it wasn’t touted by Hemingway or created in a famous cocktail bar in Havana, but like so much vital to the persistence of Cuban culture and memory, says Pilar, “[the Canchánchara] has the power to take you to the past. Its magic is rooted in our struggles and ancestors.”
Almost always, we’d come late and stay late. In those days, the bar didn’t even open until 8 p.m. But the path was always the same: Walk down East 9th Street, find the “ON AIR” sign glowing above a flight of stairs, descend and ring the buzzer next to an otherwise unmarked, locked door.
Eventually, someone would open it with a wary look, not because the place wanted to keep a low profile—often there was a line up the stairs—but because back then the East Village went bad pretty quickly east of 3rd Avenue. Inside, you would supplicate before a thin rope and eventually, hopefully, be ushered to a seat in a small back room with dim light, a few booths, a low bar with a maneki-neko (the ubiquitous beckoning cat) statue behind it, a tatami screen or two and graffiti on every wall.
Decibel, which quietly celebrated its 25th birthday last year, proclaimed itself to be New York’s first sake bar. But it was far more than that, at least to a generation of thirsty and often disillusioned New Yorkers. Sake Bar Decibel, as it’s officially known, was a last stand of sorts before the East Village went the way of Whole Foods—and just as important, it was the place where many of the city’s professional eaters and drinkers learned about sake.
In the mid-1990s, I’d go there on a date, or a would-be date, or with hacker friends who wanted to discreetly talk about how technology could make the world a better place (spoiler: it didn’t) or about the dystopian undercarriage of the dot-com era (spoiler: there was one). But many of the customers were Japanese punks or art kids—as were most of the servers—and on occasion when it grew late you’d notice men there in what I’ll call transactional arrangements. You could still smoke in bars in those days, and Decibel’s darkness always had a perceptible haze that added to the overall grunge. The soundtrack would rev with punk and trance and the precursors of emo.
While you could order shochu or a saketini, if you were serious about drinks, you came to Decibel for sake. The space may have been stygian, but its sake selection was more extensive than probably anywhere in the country at the time. Its list was filled with 60 or more of some of the best sakes being exported from Japan, denoted by terms like daiginjo and yamahai, that were as yet unfamiliar not only to newbies like me but to many Japanese as well. You’d soak them up with rudimentary snacks, prepared in the microwave up front.
Decibel is improbably, remarkably, as busy as it ever was—maybe more so. The stickers and graffiti that always graced the walls seem to cover nearly every inch of every surface today; the bathrooms are cleaner, and “they use a computer now,” says Miki Kanematsu, one of Decibel’s early managers. But the experience of drinking there has remained very much the same for a quarter-century—and that’s hardly supposition. I’ve been going there since its beginning, when I was as many of its customers are today: barely out of college, dreaming of a future of creative bliss while accepting a more sobering reality in a mundane corner of tech, in my case as an early employee of one of the first online ad firms. (Oh, for the days when the font of evil was spelled A-O-L.)
Of course, that was a totally different New York. Unemployment, just 4 percent today, was over 13 percent. Tompkins Square Park, a couple blocks away, had recently reopened after riots and attempts to empty its homeless encampments, although you still didn’t walk its perimeter at night if you had any sense. The East Village was a melting pot of Ukranian emigrés, smack addicts and post-punk burnouts, whereas today it has become a haven for Urban Outfitters, fancy hotels and four Starbucks. Veselka wasn’t yet a tourist attraction, just a coffee shop with Slavic accents. But somehow, of all places, it’s Decibel that has remained largely unbowed through the years.
I realized not long ago that I really knew nothing about Decibel’s history, despite its seminal spot in my drinking history.
At the surface, its longevity tells a tale of survival in New York’s brutally unforgiving restaurant economy. Its 25th birthday quietly passed last year with nary a mention, but any establishment that keeps its doors open so long earns an enviable status. Its origins in the last stretch of 20th-century New York puts it in company with stalwarts like Tribeca Grill (1990), Gramercy Tavern (1994) and Balthazar (1997). Much like its neighbor, the equally pioneering Angel’s Share (which opened the same year and similarly endures), Decibel predated by nearly a decade most of the city’s recently important bars, even Milk & Honey. Indeed, most great 1980s and ’90s bars, including the epic I.M. Pei–designed Fifty Seven Fifty Seven, in the Four Seasons Hotel, have vanished. (So have most of the shitty ones, like Decibel’s neighbor Continental, which helped at least two generations of college kids make bad decisions before closing, largely unmourned, late last year.)
Arguably, the sheer improbability of its aesthetic was what helped it to survive. A Japanese punk speakeasy, but with great sake? It’s the sort of combination that, if you conceived of it today, would feel utterly contrived, as though you’d drunk too much cough syrup and were dreaming up hotel-bar concepts with Ian Schrager. Yet even its sillier cocktail offerings, like the Lychee Martini, were benchmarks in their own way. “It was the first place in New York that had that drink,” recalls Takahiro Okada, another former manager.
I can’t quite say Decibel’s creation was entirely uncalculated, but it was calculated in a relatively innocent way, in that it mirrored its neighborhood’s growth. By 1990 that part of the East Village was morphing from its Ukrainian roots into a miniature Japantown. It had become a sanctuary for Japanese expats who had escaped to New York to pursue careers in art or fashion or music, described by the New York Times as the early-1990s equivalent of “the young Americans who flocked to Paris in the years after World War I.” And they frequented the passel of Japanese restaurants and bars that had opened along 9th Street.
Several of those were run by a man named Shuji Bon Yagi. In 1984, he opened his first Japanese restaurant there, the Edo-style sushi spot Hasaki, to compete with tonier joints uptown that he couldn’t afford. (Hasaki remains open today, just up the street from Decibel.) By the mid-1980s, Bon Yagi had the lease on an underground bar space at 240 East 9th Street. And in 1989, he opened Candy B1, a karaoke joint that was notable for its live band (technically making it a namaoke joint). Four years later, he refitted the space as Decibel, although initially it served whisky and beer.
But good sake had finally started to arrive in the United States, and Yagi was ever more taken with it, in particular after he tried one called Koshi No Kanbai from the mountainous Niigata prefecture. True, it was early to induce Americans to drink sake, but Yagi took an essential long view. Before long, the bar found a steady clientele—mostly Japanese at first, then increasingly mixed. “When I opened Decibel, it didn’t take off right away,” he tells me. “Most people, when it doesn’t take off right away, they decide to change.”
The punk aesthetic was partly a segue from the space’s former karaoke days. But it also was a reflection of the East Village, and those young Japanese who were busy rejecting the conservatism of the culture back home while embracing nearly everything foreign: music, tattoos, radical art, you name it. Shonen Knife, one of the seminal female punk bands, was already famous. In 1996, Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, the trip-hop duo known as Cibo Matto, released their debut album, Viva! La Woman, which intertwined that New York expat culture with their love of eating and drinking. (Extra sugar, extra salt / Extra oil and MSG!) More than a few of these expats ended up working at Decibel, which helped to explain why its staff typically looked they’d stepped off a stage at an underground Tokyo club.
But that would have quickly grown tiresome, if not for how dead-serious Yagi and his managers took their sake selections. Even if most of the staff wasn’t particularly versed in the nuances of various styles—things aren’t much different today, candidly—you could point to just about anything on the list and taste something far better than any sake you’d had before.
This wasn’t just curation. Yagi had the good fortune to open Decibel at a transformative moment for the sake industry. During much of the century, sake was graded on a tax-based system that forced most brewers to downgrade their best products, making low-grade sake the norm. But as of 1992, a new scale was enforced, based in part on the degree of rice polishing. It catalyzed a preference for more refined sakes, including the highly polished junmai daiginjo style, whose muted style and clarity were considered—especially among the finance types who did business with Japanese counterparts—to represent the same “purity” that the neutrality of Grey Goose would a decade later. As ever more high-quality sake began arriving in the country, shipped in refrigerated containers, Yagi bought all he could. Many of these were revelations not only for Americans, but also for many of Decibel’s Japanese customers and staff, who’d grown up drinking the cheap stuff.
“Even when I was in Japan,” says Kanematsu, who came to New York as a tourist from Kochi prefecture and began working at Decibel in 1996, “I hadn’t really had sake like that before.”
On the one hand, Decibel oozed its punkish cool with a Tokyo twist, an extension of the fascination many Americans had with anything Japanese during the 1980s: Benihana, Nintendo, Comme des Garçons. The food—now as then—wasn’t meant to be particularly notable; it was a combination of the familiar, like shumai, and the traditional but unfamiliar, like the wasabi-doused raw octopus known as takowasa. But the drinking was always serious, or could be. That unique mix drew a growing cadre of industry types and budding writers, such that most people who were serious about food and drink in New York during the 1990s have a Decibel story.
“These aloof, insanely attractive punk-rock Japanese kids seemed to be running the place,” recalls Besha Rodell, a longtime restaurant critic who now covers Australian dining for the New York Times and frequented Decibel during her college years. “It was that hospitality-kid fantasy of someone just opening the exact thing they wanted to do and having it work.”
By the time he opened Decibel, Yagi had been in the neighborhood for nearly two decades. He had arrived in the United States in 1968 and came to New York in 1976, hanging out in the East Village through those darker days, which helps to explain the framed picture of him, lounging on a couch with a full pre-hipster beard, that hangs above his desk. Among his endeavors: running a diner, 103 Second Ave., one of the late-night 1980s hangouts for an increasingly arty downtown crowd—including, in his telling, a patron who would provide inspiration for the graffiti on Decibel’s walls. “Keith Haring would come in, and he’d write in my bathroom,” says Yagi. “And being Japanese and believing in cleanliness, I’d scrape it off.”
As time went on, Yagi became a sort of Keith McNally of New York’s Japanese food community, an unofficial mayor of 9th Street. Today, his company, T.I.C. Group, essentially controls most of the block on which Decibel sits, encompassing a mini-empire of 15 restaurants and bars. That includes Rai Rai Ken, which helped to introduce New Yorkers to ramen years before a guy named David Chang opened his noodle bar around the corner; Soba-Ya, one of the city’s seminal spots for buckwheat noodles; the teahouse Cha-An; the Japanese coffee shop Hi-Collar; and another basement sake bar, Sakagura, which opened in midtown shortly after Decibel, with an even more extensive sake list—now up to 250 selections—for those who might not vibe the punk thing. “The midtown salaryman, Japanese office workers, they didn’t want to come downtown,” recalls Yagi. (A second location of Sakagura recently opened across the street from Decibel.)
If Yagi’s empire has become relatively corporate, that hardly seems to have dented Decibel’s rebel yell. Music was always at the bar’s core—the “ON AIR” sign was quite intentional—and that remains as such. The current manager, Ken Arii, who started working there 12 years ago, still sports a Mohawk and plays in an electronic noise band called Coput. Each night’s bartender selects a playlist from a selection of around 10,000 songs, with a tacit understanding about standards. “I got really angry one time because I went into Decibel and Top 40 was playing,” says Sakura Yagi, Bon Yagi’s daughter and the restaurant group’s COO. “And I said, ‘This is not Decibel.’” (On a recent visit, the soundtrack veered from Beta Librae’s “Skyla” to Nelly Furtado’s “Afraid,” indicating the pop-hating may have relaxed of late.)
That culture was designed to be self-sustaining. The staff still evaluates each new hire, less for hospitality than to ensure they’re appropriately offbeat. If today’s servers trend a bit more skate-kid and emo than overtly punk, they haven’t lost the attitude—including a certain apathy toward the Gen X gaijin who’s seated before them—their predecessors espoused two decades ago. Now, as then, they’re likely to be artists or musicians who came to New York for that expat life. In a way it reminds me of how David Schomer, whose Vivace Espresso in Seattle pioneered latte art in this country, sought out artists to be his baristas, proposing that it was a job where they could “make a living without being degraded.”
And if the staff aren’t really trained in the nuances of sake, that’s actually more feature than bug. Courtney Kaplan, who now co-owns the Los Angeles izakaya Tsubaki, built a career around the sake knowledge she learned at Decibel. But she was first drawn there as a student at Columbia in the late 1990s, when she was spending time in the East Village, going to hardcore shows. Primarily interested in a job where she could maintain the Japanese she’d learned while studying abroad, she called the bar, was told to come in and spent the evening over cups of sake, being peppered with questions about her taste in music. (The manager at the time was partial to Todd Rundgren.) As she discovered, it was the sense of belonging, rather than any expertise, that catalyzed the staff. “The bar closed at 4, and then somebody would..
Applebee’s has had a rough few years. As it strains towards its 40th birthday in 2020, the “Neighborhood Grill + Bar” chain closed more than 100 locations in 2016 and 2017, with plans announced in February of last year to close even more. But in the year since, it’s turned things around. It has the Dollarita to thank.
“We set a goal to become the most improved restaurant brand in America in 2018,” said Applebee’s president John Cywinski during the company’s most recent earnings call, “and we absolutely delivered on that goal.” Indeed, for the third quarter of 2018, its same-store sales grew 7.7 percent over the previous year, more than six times the industry average.
Driving a lot of that success is its too-good-to-be-true $1 Margarita—aka the “Dollarita”—which launched chain-wide in late 2017. Since then, Applebee’s has introduced a total of 16 different “Neighborhood Drinks,” a rotating set of $1 and $2 cocktails and beers available at nearly all of Applebee’s more than 1,800 outlets across all 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico and 13 foreign countries—all while turning a profit.
How, exactly? Patrick Kirk, vice president of beverage innovation for the brand, wondered the same thing. “A franchise in Texas started doing $1 Margaritas. We started to ask ourselves, ‘Is this even possible as a brand to do this nationwide?,’” he says, adding, “A drink special can’t easily be promoted in just one state or one market; word spreads really quickly online.”
Consisting of an ounce and a quarter of tequila and nearly four ounces of Applebee’s house Margarita mix (the company uses an undisclosed proprietary formula), there’s nothing terribly unusual about the Dollarita—other than its price tag.
The particular brand of tequila that each Applebee’s uses can vary, though. “For the Dollarita, we use well tequila,” says Kirk. “We work with seven or eight liquor distributors around the country to identify the best option for our franchisees.” A few phone calls yielded varying answers as to the well tequila of choice: in San Francisco it was Tequila 1800; in Chicago either El Toro or Montezuma; and in Queens, New York, one location cited Conquistador. What doesn’t change from location to location is that Applebee’s makes money on every Dollarita it sells.
While none of these tequilas are very expensive, it’s tough to run the Dollarita’s numbers without one single brand to point at. However, we can at least get some insight by looking at Applebee’s featured Neighborhood Drink for March, the Absolut Rainbow Punch, a $2 St. Patrick’s Day special that combines Absolut vodka with “green apple, ginger and lemon flavors” and is topped with a rainbow gummy garnish.
Let’s do some math: The best wholesale price you can get on Absolut from its New York distributor, Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, is $15.99 for a 1-liter bottle. That’s if you buy at least 15 cases—180 bottles, or just short of 45 gallons—at a time. (Which, let’s be honest, should be pretty easy to do if you’re selling $2 drinks.) With a generous allotment for spillage, each of those bottles will pour twenty five 1 1/4-ounce shots, at a cost of 64 cents each. (This doesn’t even take into account the possibility that Applebee’s has negotiated an even better price—or even a kickback scheme—with Absolut itself, something that’s illegal but still widespread in the bar business.)
In California, where Southern Glazer’s also distributes Absolut, the best price is quite a bit higher: $16.43 for a 750mL bottle (if you buy at least 26 cases), for a per-drink cost of 91 cents. Either price leaves at least some room to cover the other ingredients—not to mention the labor—needed to make the $2 drink while still turning a profit. And considering there are plenty of tequilas that sell at retail for less than 10 bucks a bottle, a profitable $1 Margarita really doesn’t seem all that out there.
But Applebee’s isn’t making money hand over fist on the drink itself. Cywinski, in a story reported for CNBC, explained that “because [customers] are getting a great value on the beverage side, they tend to be ordering desserts and appetizers.” Kirk echoes the assertion that the drinks program gets people in the door, and has even expanded the restaurant’s demographic. “Our bars are more crowded than they were 18 months ago, and we’ve attracted a younger crowd with our Neighborhood Drinks program.”
The patchwork of liquor laws in the U.S. does throw a bit of a wrench into the Applebee’s plan for Dollarita domination, though not as much as you might think. “It’s a big country with lots of laws, and we want to make sure we’re compliant,” says Kirk. “We work with many of the state liquor authorities to make sure this is the right thing to do.” In New York, for example, customers are limited to three drinks, and in New Mexico, Applebee’s cannot sell $1 drinks (though it can sell $2 ones). Despite this, Kirk says, “nearly 100 percent” of the locations do offer Dollaritas.
“You see posts all the time that we’re using a half an ounce of tequila or doing something shady,” says Kirk. “I’m here to say there’s no smoke and mirrors.”