Operations

Minimalism Comes to the Cocktail Bar

Why some venues are choosing to offer a limited drinks program

Jaguar Sun interior
Jaguar Sun interior. Photo by Adam DelGiudice.

Many of the best-known bars fit squarely into the “more is more” camp, with their vast collections of spirits and Bible-like cocktail lists. Yet a growing number of operators are embracing a more streamlined approach, with small, curated spirits collections and simplified drink lists that don’t even fill a full page.

Bartenders who are embracing a more minimalist approach to drinks programs talk about mindfully screening out “noise” and “fluff” for guests, but it’s not just a Zen attitude—streamlining operations behind the scenes has benefits for the bottom line too, they say. SevenFifty Daily spoke with bar professionals around the country about their reasons for adopting this approach and how it has benefited their bars.

Maximizing Space

Often, a paired-down drinks program is about making the most out of a small space. “We’re forced into this need to be minimal,” admits Dan Richer, the chef and owner of Razza Pizza Artigianale, a 1,200-square-foot restaurant with 44 seats in Jersey City, New Jersey. In September 2017, the pizzeria received a coveted three-star review from the New York Times—it now has a cult-like following and regular waits of up to two hours for a table. Says Richer, “We’re forced into really carefully selecting every ingredient, every product we make, every bottle we buy.”

A month-long culinary-focused visit to Japan back in 2006 also informed Richer’s approach to both cooking and business. “What rubbed off on me,” he says, “was the intense focus [on] doing just one thing and doing it really well.” At Razza, Richer chose to home in on pizza, stripping away all the “unnecessary noise” related to a vast menu and scaling back the bar. “We put an obscene amount of time and energy into the products that we make,” he says. So for products made by someone else—beer, spirits, wine—Richer prefers to dial down the emphasis.

“Having to manage 12 different vodka selections where I have no ties to the producers—that’s not appealing to me,” he says. “It takes the passion out of it. It becomes a widget, a thing.” His solution is to carry a single brand of each of the major spirits categories, plus a handful of aperitif spirits (such as Campari and Aperol) and liqueurs—a maximum of 15 to 20 bottles overall, plus about 25 wines, 10 beer and cider offerings, and a cocktail list with just 8 drinks.

Dan Richer
Dan Richer. Photo courtesy of Razza.

Communicating a Concept

For others, the minimalist bar serves to telegraph a certain aesthetic or intention to customers. Within The Hoxton, a hotel in Portland, Oregon, bars on the main floor and rooftop are sprawling and luxe. By comparison, the hotel’s 40-seat basement bar is more austere in its design and drink offerings, channeling a speakeasy vibe. You might say that it’s so minimal it doesn’t even have a name—the bar is referred to by its address, 2NW5.

Collin Nicholas, the Hoxton’s bar director, says the atmosphere of 2NW5 allows him to spotlight technique behind the bar; the concise cocktail menu lists six classics. “Simplicity is king here,” Nicholas says. “There’s a cocktail for everyone on that menu without creating too much fluff.” Guiding guests off-menu, he adds, is always an option.

From the bartender’s point of view, the limited menu helps streamline prep. And batching drinks and preparing housemade ingredients ahead of time helps keep expenses down, Nicholas notes. The minimal menu also helps keep the bar itself more organized and keeps ingredients fresh, as they’re less likely to go stale or not be used.

The Hoxton
The Hoxton interior. Photo courtesy of the Hoxton.

Showcasing Ingredients

At Jaguar Sun in Miami, which opened in Fall 2018, partner and bartender Will Thompson says his decision to keep bottle and cocktail choices simple stemmed from his own “frustrations as a consumer.” For example, he says, he finds encyclopedic wine lists frustrating to pore through. He’d rather hear about what the person serving him is interested in. “Tell me [something] you’re super excited about, and I’ll have it,” Thompson says. “Otherwise it’s white noise, and I don’t have confidence in what you’re offering. What am I supposed to [choose] from you? No way it’s 100 things.”

Thompson’s bar has 12 seats, and another 20 in the dining room, and it’s built to spotlight just a few offerings. The spirits list includes 32 bottles, with an emphasis on mezcal and rum, and about 10 wines and 10 beers. “We prefer to focus on those [bottles] we think are exceptional—they have a story we want to tell, or taste so good, or have super-unique production,” he explains, a practice he describes as “quieting the noise.”

With just 12 cocktails on the menu, bartenders often deflect guest requests with “No, we don’t have that, but … ” Still, some requests simply can’t be met. For example, limited refrigeration and storage space means no cranberry juice and not too many specialty bitters. The bar doesn’t carry Coca-Cola products, and though it doesn’t happen often, on occasion Thompson says he’s witnessed “someone’s brain melting in front of you when you tell them you can’t make them a Bacardi and Coke.”

However, Thompson doesn’t set limits on glassware or ice. “We need to put out drinks that are visually appealing—that matters more than having every modifier,” he insists. It may be an arbitrary place to draw the line, he says, but he believes that eye-catching drinks help spark conversations with guests. An added bonus, he points out, is that if the drinks look great, the guests “will be a little less mad at us for not having the stuff they’re used to.”

Streamlining Training and Operations

Minimalist drinks programs are inarguably a boon for staff training—everyone interviewed for this article noted that a smaller selection means that it’s easier for staff to develop deep knowledge about the bottles that do make the list. “It really comes down to quality versus quantity,” says Razza’s Richer.

Fewer bottles can also benefit operations. At Razza, all cocktails are batched for consistency, which Richer says offers a more cost-effective approach. “We weigh everything for inventory; we measure every pour. It’s helped financially doing it that way, because we control the exact amounts, and it’s made us able to service our guests a little bit faster and more consistently.” And there’s another benefit, he says: “The less time I can spend reprinting menus and taking inventory, the more time I can spend doing things that truly inspire me.”

Thompson points out that at Jaguar Sun, having so few bottles means he doesn’t even bother to do inventory. “We sell more stuff than we buy,” he says, “so we’re happy.”

How Minimal Should Minimalism Be?

Is it possible to go too far? Across the board, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. Looking back, Richer acknowledges that when Razza first opened, he erred too far on the side of minimalism, offering a mere three wines, a few beers, and zero cocktails.

“I wouldn’t even have lemons, limes, or oranges at my bar,” he recalls. Eventually, he realized he needed to loosen up … at least a little. “I had to put a lot of my feelings aside,” he says, “and make some compromises—and I’m glad I did. After all, ideology is great, but if your guests aren’t enjoying it, it doesn’t matter.”

Kara Newman reviews spirits for Wine Enthusiast magazine and is the author of Shake. Stir. Sip.Nightcapand Cocktails with a Twist (Chronicle Books).

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