When Pouring Ribbons opened in New York in 2012, it was the cocktail menu—not the drinks or the wood-paneled room—that was splashed all over Instagram. The menu, which was designed by Jonathan McIlroy, charted the drinks on a matrix that ran from “refreshing” to “spirituous” on one axis, and “adventurous” to “comforting” on the other. Set on a backdrop of green-blue-gold prisms, the menu was as much a work of art as it was functional.
A few months later, San Francisco’s Trick Dog opened with a cocktail menu designed like a Pantone paint wheel, with a fan of cards that each revealed the name of a drink. The menu designer was Morgan Schick, creative director of Bon Vivants, the firm behind Trick Dog. Images of the novelty shot across the Internet, but the bar’s owners quickly moved on, launching themed menus twice a year that have included a map of San Francisco, an astrological wheel, and political campaign buttons. This year the bar went big, commissioning 14 public murals, some the length of buildings, at locations throughout the city. Each features the individual artist’s hallmark style—there is a Sanskrit-like pattern, a cartoon rendition of Bigfoot, and a portrait of Jerry Garcia. The murals were then photographed and turned into a book of drinks—with cocktails named after each artist.
The Dead Rabbit in New York set a new tone in 2014, listing its Irish whiskey drinks alongside the pages of a violent graphic novel illustrated by DRINKSOLOGY Creative, matching both the drinks and the bar’s theme.
These trailblazers have stirred the industry to use both design and wit to elevate the cocktail menu itself. As drinks have become more complex, and bartenders dig deeper into both history and science to invent thought-provoking, story-driven cocktails, the physical menus have become part of the show, their designers paralleling the effort and energy of the bartenders.
To pull off the trend, bars are partnering with designers and artists not only to incorporate high design but to fuse originality with usability. Clearly, these innovations don’t come cheaply. There’s the cost of the design work, plus whatever paper, printing, or artistic materials might be needed. To do this once or even several times a year is a hefty investment—and not necessarily one with a payoff that’s quantifiable in the bar’s bottom line.
Still, for those intent on pushing the industry forward, designing for style and substance is entirely worth the price. From organizing the list of cocktails in clever new ways to designing its appearance—fanciful letterpress pages, coloring books—a menu can now reflect the drinking experience.
“The cocktail menu is a great vehicle for drawing people in—it’s interactive and stirs conversation, and when customers see it, they engage with it,” says Sam Ehrlich, who manages the beverage program for all Blue Ribbon restaurants.
“A menu that details nothing more than an ingredient list can be frustrating, as it gives one little clue of what to expect,” he says. “Is the drink a highball or a martini? Is it fresh and bright, or does it require more serious contemplation or attention? Is it going to knock you out if you have a second, or will you be able to enjoy your meal without becoming light-headed?”
When the group set out to open a new outpost in New York’s Financial District, Blue Ribbon Federal Grille, it made an effort to design a cocktail menu that was as innovative as the drinks it listed.
Both Ehrlich and the restaurant’s general manager, Sean Sant Amour, had been to the New Orleans tiki bar Cane & Table, where the centerpiece of the drinks menu is a compass whose four points represent a distinct cocktail personality; drinks are arranged around the points accordingly. In the direction labeled “heady,” there’s an Ode to Jerry Thomas, a boozy rum milk punch blended with spiced mint tea; somewhere between “refreshing” and “adventurous” sits The Chase Special, a take on the Trinidad Sour, with a dose of Mexican amaro.
Riffing on this idea—and the restaurant’s vicinity to Wall Street—Sant Amour plotted the Federal Grille’s drinks on what resembles a colorful profit-and-loss chart, with each drink mapped by its alcoholic strength and its style, from “classic” to “adventurous.”
The options run from a Blue Ribbon signature, the Hummingbird (Cava, soda water, St-Germain), to the Country Lawyer, a sturdy, barrel-aged concoction of bourbon, Benedictine, sweet vermouth, and rhubarb amaro.
“The strength scale is particularly important,” Ehrlich says. “We are trying to give our guests the option as often as we can to have a complete cocktail experience without feeling too woozy at the end.”
Illustrations and Distractions
“Menus infamously get taken by guests; there is just no way around that,” says Natasha David, cofounder of New York’s Lower East Side speakeasy Nitecap. “We wanted our menu to be a take-away, a sort of souvenir.”
David and her partners enlisted Rotem Raffe, an art director who worked in creative agencies before moving on to help launch the Short Stack Editions cookbook series and to freelance as a designer. Raffe did the artwork for the Nitecap space, including the signage and the owl-themed murals (Nitecap’s mascot is a drowsy owl named Berny). Since the bar opened in 2014, she’s produced eight editions of its seasonal cocktail menu, which are filled with lively fonts and drawings and humorous cartoons and are printed on colorful, lightweight paper. A version that was conceived as a newspaper was actually printed on newsprint, which made it especially cheap to produce and also encouraged doodling by bar guests.
“Nitecap doesn’t take itself too seriously—silliness is encouraged,” Raffe says. Although the cocktails are taken very seriously, the vibe of the bar is meant to be lighthearted and whimsical; the menus help convey that. David comes up with a theme for her drinks—space travel, secret garden, vintage Miami, mermaids—and Raffe runs with it. “She understands our vision—sometimes I feel like she’s inside my brain,” David says. One fall menu, accented with leaf and branch motifs, included two “picture hunt” illustrations of a bar scene that could have been pulled from The New Yorker, while the space-travel menu feels part art deco, part sleek Jetsons’ backdrop. Every menu has a few consistent elements, including a connect-the-dot puzzle, which usually depicts an erotic scene, and some reference to Berny. “The process takes a lot of time and patience,” David adds, noting that the cost of design and printing ranges from $2,000 to $2,500 for each menu; they produce two per year. Raffe needs about two weeks to turn around each four- to six-page version.
“We have guests that have the whole collection of menus at home,” David says.
In a similar vein of pictorial cues, when Ticonderoga Club opened in Atlanta in 2015, its cocktail list was a 28-page journal-menu hybrid, illustrated by one of the founding partners, designer Bart Sasso. (Sasso’s day job is running his design firm, called Gentleman.) In an effort to simplify things behind the bar and for servers, says Sasso, subsequent versions have been slimmed down a bit. Today, the evening drinks list is a fairly traditional stack of cocktail names, but Sasso has kept the initial playful ethos in the brunch menu.
The food menu features cheeky graphics and retro illustrations, like an image of a smiling whole fish flopping between two slices of bread alongside the description of the fish sandwich. The drinks list features mugs of beer with boozy bubbles popping up, and a cartoonish grayscale illustration of the bar’s signature Ticonderoga Cup, complete with crushed ice, sprigs of mint, and palm trees in the distance. All the designs read as amusing and fun, and for Sasso, who has picked up several clients thanks to the restaurant, it’s a mini portfolio that showcases his firm’s talent. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” he says. “Because we’re constantly evolving the brand, it’s like a living case study.”
Coloring Between the Lines
For more than 12 months, Erick Castro, owner of the cocktail bar Polite Provisions in San Diego, and his team tested more than 150 cocktails for their coloring-book menu. To determine which drinks belonged, the team would put five or six drinks on the bar’s menu for a few weeks, see how customers responded, and then decide which to keep and which to cut. The whittled list now features about 80 drinks, all presented in detailed sketches.
Each time a cocktail was approved, Castro passed it along with a written description to illustrator Dane Danner, who sketched each one, down to the proper garnish, glassware, and ice size and shape. A few times Danner delivered his rendering while Castro was still finessing a drink, and occasionally a drawing determined the final version.
This past March, Polite Provisions finally released its 25-page coloring-book menu, which lists drinks in 13 categories. The menu also features a Mad Libs–like word game, a maze, and an intensely challenging crossword puzzle created by Castro. (“I’ve only had a few bartenders and industry people call to tell me they’ve got it,” he says. “I made sure that you couldn’t just Google the answers.”) The bar printed a first run of 300 copies, which are being sold for $15 apiece. At the bar, guests are handed the menu with some crayons so they can color the drawing and fill in the puzzles while they drink. Another run of the books will come out later this year.
This visual list does away with complicated descriptions and details about techniques used behind the bar, such as fat-washing or infusing spirits sous vide. “The main thing is, we want you to relax and have fun,” Castro says. “I don’t think we’re going to make any money on this, but that’s not why we made it. Really, we just did it to give our staff something to get excited about and to have fun, and also to challenge the industry at the same time,” he says. “[The menu] adds a sense of delight, and I feel like so often that’s something that we’re forgetting.”
Erin Byers Murray is a food and drinks writer and author based in Nashville, TN.