With the supply of bar staples still faltering, Mike Baxter says there’s an opportunity to reshape tastes
Recently we’ve all likely faced the ire of a customer looking over a wine list without a Marlborough Savvy B in sight. We’ve faced down a returning army of Zombie Karens without the Passoã and prosecco to fizz their heads into capitulation. In fact, nearly all the Basic B Booze has been harder to find than a sense of self-respect in a Wetherspoon. It seems, writing this, there’s no end in sight to the supply crisis. Through this battle there have been cries and complaints within the bartending community. How can we continue to operate? How can we possibly open the doors without the very drinks we’ve spent the past decade complaining about? Dear god, what if we run out of pink gin?
The very idea of this got me thinking: that we’re currently parked not in a world of logistical pain, but instead privilege. The bartending community has long lamented the fact that our clientele simply cannot drink the right damned stuff. Call it snobbery, call it bravado, call it what you will. We’ve all been there and likely still are, quietly judging the order that comes across the bar. There’s never been a better opportunity for venues to remake the drinking world in their own ideal image. So put down your shaker and pick up your sword, your time is now. Your drinks list isn’t dead, it’s come back from the grave very much alive and kicking.
The living list
What in god’s name is a living list? I’m suggesting we change our lists almost daily, in sync with availability. We’re going to run out of more stock, it’s unavoidable. Covid broke our system and we’re a good 18 months from normal (If you’re reading this outside the UK be very thankful you haven’t seen your world Brexited into a logistical black hole.) However, perhaps the most interesting idea is that we work within the post-apocalypse booze ecosystem and we have to adapt.
What does adapting mean? It’s an easy word to toss around, but in reality requires mental agility and more often than not a willingness to be less traditional with serves. But if we’re not riffing classics, we’re creatively stuck anyway. For next week I’ve contacted a local supplier to host myself and my team on a foraging adventure for ingredients to add to the menu. I’m on all the sustainability forums and learning to use anything to make everything. No orgeat in the country? Grab some almond milk and orange blossom and make a gomme or, even better, boil the pits from avocados and make a syrup with that. Shops out of limes? Supasawa awaits your call and you can always get the citric or malic acid out and make your own. Sure, a lot of bars experienced a crisis when we ran out of Passoã, but there were a million alternatives with passion fruit flavours, from juices to sorbets, that you could toss in the shaker to get you over the line. If you find you can’t recreate an ingredient, lean into your ‘pantry’. Many of us have dead stock from menus of old. I’ve taken that old stock as a blessing and gone heavy into the Tiki Punch world, mixing multiple old bottles into delicious party starters. If in doubt, fight the booze-pocalypse on its own turf with Zombies.
I’ve also separated my menu, so pages can be chopped and changed with ease. As a result, new drinks and verbal specials are being sold over the bar on the regular. My customers are exploring new flavours, trying amaro and they’re finally treating Chartreuse as an ingredient instead of a punishment. If you get customers used to the change they can embrace the excitement of a menu that evolves daily.
This probably isn’t the plan for those who like structure and planning, but for those of you who woke up with a hangover to an 86 list the size of your arm, it may save the day. I’m not saying any of this is here to stay. It’s not a new trend. I’m too old and fat to be a trendsetter and I’m not here to save the day. I’m just a guy who talks too loud, drinks too much and writes like I’m trying to combine the two. Truth is we’re still going to run out of stuff. The good news is one of those things is Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc, the bad news is another one of those things is agave spirits. For any and all advice I’ve given above, the real reason I’m writing this is to distract you while I’m panic-buying Margarita ingredients like the new toilet paper.
The real truth is, if you read Class, you don’t need anyone to tell you how to run your venues. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t already know your onions. Put what you want on your menu, but know you have an opportunity to guide your customer in any direction you want. Good luck out there, and if it goes to hell I’ll be hiding in a bunker with all the mezcal.