‘Is it time for bars to do away with menus altogether?’

As cocktail bars in England re-open, Alice Lascelles considers just what makes a great drinks list, and looks at trends in physical menus in bars the world over – from pop-up books to Gummy Bears

Words by Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles
"More and more these days, I find myself skipping the menu," says Alice Lascelles

What is the purpose of a cocktail menu? To tell you what drinks are available at the bar, and how much they cost, of course. But some cocktail menus have rather grander ambitions than that.

The drinks list at Harrods’ ritzy Baccarat Bar, new to the luxury department store last summer, seems to think it’s closer to a conceptual artwork. Inspired by light refracted through crystal, it starts with white, then arranges drinks by the colours of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. By way of light waves, flavour diagrams and works commissioned from students at the Royal College of Art, it plumbs the emotional and philosophical depths of each colour, vessel and taste: the ‘calming’ effect of bananas; the ‘cleansing’ potential of crimson red crystal flutes. There are gnomic pronouncements on the emotional independence of chanterelle mushrooms and the indomitable spirit of Japanese knotweed. Scattered among the drinks are quotes from Einstein and references to Monty Python and Yeoman Warders. It’s ridiculously OTT. But then again, we are talking about Harrods here.

Cocktail at the Baccarat Bar in Harrods
Mixologist at the Baccarat Bar in Harrods
Drinks at the Baccarat Bar on the lower-ground level of Harrods, where the menu is "ridiculously OTT"

The Baccarat Bar is not the first to explore taste in a visual medium. Paris bar Little Red Door famously commissioned 11 artists to interpret a drink each from the list and then collated the results into a bound menu. No other information was available to the guest (unless they pulled back a tab) – they just chose their drink on the basis of the pictures. The aim was to encourage people to bypass their bibulous prejudices: to get the tequila hater to try an añejo or the whisky lover to experiment with gin. And it worked very well.

Trick Dog in San Francisco commissioned 14 artists to create murals all over the city, inspired by the drinks on its list. Dead Rabbit in New York turned one of its menus into a fully-fledged graphic novel. One list I’m sorry I never got to try was the Gummy Bear cocktail menu at Singapore’s Tippling Club, which saw guests issued with a bag of 12 colourful Gummy Bears, each of which corresponded in flavour to one of the cocktails on the list. If you liked the taste of the sweetie, then you ordered the full-size drink.

cocktail at Little Red Door in Paris
Illustration on the cocktail menu at Little Red Door bar in Paris
Illustrations are used in favour of descriptions on the cocktail menu at Little Red Door in Paris

I like a bit of playfulness – but sometimes creativity can get out of control. There was definitely a time in the late noughties when menus got unbearably pretentious, full of long-winded accounts of the gin craze, copperplate illustrations and recipes so obscure they actually necessitated a glossary. You have to wonder whether these menus were designed for the benefit of the guest or the aggrandisement of the bartender’s ego. Anyone who managed to wade through one of these must have been on a seriously bad date.

I don’t like menus that are wordy – they’re real conversation-killers

I don’t like menus that are wordy – they’re real conversation-killers. But I do love a menu with a map that tells me something about where the wine or whisky or cocktail came from. That, to me, is interesting. And it’s the kind of information you can absorb without interrupting the conversational flow.

At Lyaness on London’s South Bank, award-winning drink-smith Ryan Chetiyawardana plots all his cocktails on a set of axes – rich/light, day/night – so you can see at a glance what style of drink you’re in for. This might not be necessary for the average cocktail bar, but when the ingredients include tomato seed, wheat levain and ‘infinite banana’, it can come in handy.

cocktails at lyaness bar
While the ingredients used at Lyaness in London can be hard to comprehend, a "handy" menu plots cocktails on a set of axes

The Baccarat Bar may favour the purple approach, but I think the trend more generally is for cocktail lists on the simple side – one-page inventories that read like a menu rather than a copy of War and Peace. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised in this new age of social distancing if we see a growing number of bars do away with sticky-fingerprinty shareable physical menus altogether.

At the tiny Gen Yamamoto cocktail bar in Tokyo, they’ve done it this way all along – guests just surrender, omakase-style, to whatever cocktail tasting menu has been created by bartender Gen that day. (Omakase roughly translates as ‘up to you’.) That sounds like heaven to me, because more and more these days, I find myself skipping the menu, turning to the bartender and simply saying, ‘You created this list – what do you recommend? In which case, I’ll have one of those.’

Club Oenologique Issue 7

Alice Lascelles is one of our regular magazine columnists and spirits experts. Subscribe to Club Oenologique to read more from her.