At the world’s best cocktail bars, like Alibi, a bar in the Cordis Hotel in Hong Kong, cocktails are as much about performance as about drinking. Order a gin and tonic, for example, and you may get a glass bubbling with dry ice. Or perhaps one with torched rosemary, the air around it spritzed with essence of perilla leaf to enhance the olfactory experience. Each one packed with carefully choreographed bartender sleight of hand to maximize customer enjoyment.
Closer to home, mixologists are continually developing new skills, as customers look for more than just a drink for their $12 or $15. “The performance art part of the equation is already built into the job,” says Eric Gurry, lead bartender at The Bancroft in Burlington. “It’s a lot of fun when guests come to the bar and are into what we’re trying to do. It allows us to take them on a ride and offer them ingredients they may have never heard of before.”
Indeed, at most bars, if you take the time to ask about unfamiliar liquors, or what the bartender is excited about, you’ll likely learn a lot about cocktails and the hard work that goes into customer experience nearly as much as taste.
“The old adage is you eat or drink with your eyes first,” says Gurry. “We as a team are constantly tinkering …when it comes to the guest experience and cocktails.”
Starting with a simple martini, subtle steps can elevate the visual appeal even of that drink. “Keeping your presentation clean is key,” Gurry says. “Even if you just have one hand-trimmed lemon twist floating on a clear little pond in a perfectly chilled clean martini glass, that’s elevated. ”
For the home mixologist, creating a beautiful drink can be as simple as investing in a tea strainer, Gurry says, to remove ice crystals created from shaking cocktails. “It’s a small base step but goes a long way for presentation, leaving the top of the drink crystal clear so you can feature whatever garnish you chose,” he explains. “When you start with a clean canvas the sky is the limit as far as what you can garnish with.”
Beyond the garnish, many bars are tinkering with interactivity—bringing a cocktail to life with everything from smoke to allowing the customer to personalize their drink.
“Interactivity is usually the finishing touch on a cocktail,” Gurry says. Although in the case of the Cheap Trick, a recent addition to the cocktail list at The Bancroft, interactivity is almost built-in. The drink is made with Empress 1908 Original Indigo Gin, a Canadian liquor infused with butterfly pea blossom—a flower that naturally colors liquid a deep dark indigo, but hides an even more interesting secret. When blended with citrus or quinine, which is found in tonic water, it turns pink.
Gurry serves the drink in two parts—the gin in a rocks glass over a large ice cube, with a small carafe with a blend of the other ingredients on the side, so the customer can create the transformation.
“Butterfly pea blossom is an ingredient I’ve been trying to play with for a long time,” Gurry says. “It’s long been used in teas that boast positive health benefits, but really I just wanted it for the purple to pink color transition.”
The drink as a whole is light and playful, with the floral gin taking center stage, alongside flavors of grapefruit, orange, and lemon. “I was thinking warm weather while concocting it,” Gurry says. “It came out very spring-like.”
At a large bar like The Bancroft, of course, putting on a show has to be balanced with making sure everyone gets served in a timely fashion. “We never forget that it’s possible we’ll be making 50 of one drink in a single service and it needs to be functional every time,” Gurry says. “I’ve flown too close to the sun before and have been burned for it!”
Recipe By Eric Gurry, lead bartender, The Bancroft, Burlington
1.5oz Empress gin (alone in a glass with a single large ice cube)
.75oz Pamplemousse grapefruit liqueur
.25oz Luxardo maraschino liqueur
.75oz Lemon juice
.25oz Grapefruit juice
? Splash of high-quality tonic water
? Lemon twist
1. Shake and double-strain all ingredients except the Empress gin.
2. Pour the shaken cocktail into a glass that contains the Empress gin.
3. Garnish with lemon twist.