Change It Up: Seasonal Drink Menus Made Easy

seasonal drink menu bar cocktails
Seasonal drink menu bar cocktails

Just about everyone has heard the old adage “April showers bring May flowers. But ask them what May flowers bring, and you’ll get a plethora of answers from June bugs to the dad joke favorite answer Pilgrims (Get it? Mayflowers bring Pilgrims. Oh, never mind).

One thing seems to be consistent at bars this time of year, and that is that they are rolling out, or planning the roll out of a new seasonal drink menu.

With that change to the menu myriad things come into play; inventory, product availability, training, profitability, and, most of all, inspiration.

Whether it is a relatively new restaurant like Dalida which is located inside the Presidio in San Francisco, or Carver Road Hospitality’s maiden foray into Boston with the Seamark at the Encore Hotel which opened in April 2024, or a more established bar like H. Ehrmann’s Elixir in San Francisco which has been serving drinks since 1858, operators are keen on getting their menu right so it delights guests and doesn’t cause any undue stress for the bartenders.

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The process at Gigino in New York City is pretty low key, and that’s worked beautifully for the 30 years the restaurant has been open.

Rafael Orozco, the restaurant’s Bar Manager, has been there at their bar for the last 15 years and he attributes their quarterly seasonal drink menu update process to one of collaboration with the kitchen, as well as local farmers.

With a dinner menu that doesn’t change much aside from specials, the bar menu follows suit and uses the bounty of the nearby farmer’s market for inspiration.

Orozco explains, “The process is just to see what’s coming up and going to be ripe for the whole season. I actually work together with the head bartender, and we share our thoughts and experiences, to end up making something really good. Teamwork is really good, especially in a restaurant. You don’t want to do it yourself.”

At Elixir Ehrmann opens up the process to the whole team, seeing it as both a learning opportunity and a reward.

He shares, “The educational need is very fundamental right now. It is hard to hire people and they need a lot of training. We are all trying to bring up a whole new generation of bartenders who have the capacity and interest to develop the next wave of elixir drinks. So, at Elixir, we challenge everyone to create drinks.”

“I’ve always had a solid education program and focus on education internally. Prior to the pandemic we had 2–3-hour staff trainings twice a month. Now we’re back to one a month. We have a lab in the back so I’m always sending in new ingredients, we’re picking up things and using new tools – we’re all allowed to taste anything. They are all encouraged to experiment. But, while everyone is encouraged to and educated to contribute to new menus my lead bartender and I realize not everyone has the compulsion or the skill. So, there’s no requirement to participate. It’s more an opportunity.”

The opportunity to build new seasonal drink menus comes at least two times a year at Conrad New York Downtown, according to Norman Achong, the hotel’s Director of Food and Beverage.

He oversees the menus at the hotel’s bars, as well as the beverage menus for the banquets held on property and finds that consistency and planning is essential.

He explains, “We follow a consistent schedule for our menu updates. At ATRIO Wine Bar & Restaurant, our bar menus undergo revisions at least twice a year. We also have specialty holiday cocktails, such as those for Mother’s Day or Fourth of July. Culinary menus at ATRIO are refreshed every season, equating to updates once a quarter. At Loopy Doopy Rooftop Bar, we maintain a fixed bar menu throughout the season, supplemented by specialty holiday cocktails for occasions like Pride Month and Fourth of July.”

At the hotel Achong’s seasonal drink menu process begins much as the one at Gigino does, by identifying seasonal ingredients that they wish to incorporate.

It all is done in tandem with the entire food and beverage team as he explains, “On the F&B side, our chef, who is highly attuned to seasonality and trends, selects key ingredients and constructs a menu around them. He is also highly conscious of popular dishes from previous menus. On the mixology side, we collaborate with the Hilton Food and Beverage team, as well our on-property mixology team, who utilize trends, fresh ingredients, and innovation to develop the menu.”

A big, coordinated role out like this requires smart structures in place to maintain quality standards. Achong is as committed to making it smooth for his bartenders as he is creating delicious new cocktails. For him, education equals success.

He notes, “After the cocktails are crafted, we develop a step-by-step guide, which serves as printed material for our mixology team to learn the new cocktail recipes. Additionally, we utilize technology to establish a pricing structure.”

He continues, “Once a seasonal drink menu is finalized, we roll it out internally, providing our mixology team with approximately one week of training and education. During this time, they practice crafting the drinks, familiarizing themselves with the ingredients, and striving for perfection in the creations.”

In his role as VP of Beverage of Beverage Operation and Hospitality Culture at Carver Road Hospitality, Francesco Lafranconi is committed to striving for hospitality delivered perfectly at all times, but especially with menu changes.

For some of that he relies on technology that has come a long way in the past five to ten years. He relies on Jolt, a program where you store SOPs and also can offer snap videos about how drinks are made, mise en place is set and more.

He says, “Technology is now helping. The Jolt framework provides a systematic approach. Learning tools, training plans, objectives – all are in there, it is something we just started to explore. So, I am working to develop a structured training plan that works for menu changes across Carver Road’s bars. It is a plan that needs to be tailored to each of our concepts. At each one of them the speed of service is different.”

What remains the same for Lafranconi is his commitment to seriously good drinks at every outlet.

He comments, “Accountability is important for standards of execution. Yes, you can have fun. But this is serious work. We change the menu 2 x a year – spring/summer and fall/winter – it’s an elaborate intense machine. We have to bring in new products, rotate the glassware. We create an internal offering to bartenders who want to partake in the development with a deadline to submit recipes. Then I approve and tweak as needed because they don’t always think about pour costs or our national operations. This way a bartender still takes pride in standing by providing the drink they have created. Ultimately, my pillars are primarily training and education – you need to provide that because the more a bartender knows the more they sell. Knowledge is power.”

Having a bar veteran like Evan Williams, Bar Director at Dalida, is an intangible asset when making a seasonal drink menu change. Especially at a new restaurant like his.

While upcoming menu changes have become a collaborative process launching a new restaurant and brand-new staff meant initial drink menus came from him.

But Williams sees great benefit to your menu’s popularity when you include bartenders, and other staff, in the creation process. He remarks, “Your staff is more engaged when they have something on the menu, and you want your staff engaged.”

That engagement helps to drive excitement about a seasonal drink menu that works for the restaurant’s bottom line.

Williams recognizes his role as he says, “Where I really come in on this is I work out the feasibility of something being on the menu. You have to think about how do we produce this on a larger scale? Can we make this process streamlined for what we need to do and the volume we need to do it? I have had to leave great tasting things on the shelf for now.”

He continues, “Another thing to think about is this ingredient something we can be getting for more than a week. Go through the whole process make sure it’s not going to be a flash in the pan. You don’t want a drink that is fantastic, and garnering a lot of social media attention and then guests can’t order it because the ingredients are out of season. So, if it’s hyper seasonal but it’s within a larger flavor family we see if it is something we can swap it out. We do a lot of plug & play, especially since here we also have to take volume into consideration. All of our processes need to be scalable. When you’re in a smaller volume you don’t need to work on your scalability. Scaling can be one of the harder processes in bar development; it is not the sexiest part of the job to produce day in and day out in volume we need.”

After making sure drinks can be produced at the volume required (i.e. guests’ needs are satisfied) it’s time to concentrate on making it work for the bartenders too.

Williams concludes, “I like to do a slow roll out. We do two drinks at a time. The first thing I’m doing once we figure out what we want is I send everyone the specs, notify a change is occurring and provide a timeline. They have to do their own studying. When you do a complete menu change it’s like starting an entirely new program and to me that takes weeks of training on a menu. To handle the volume, we’re doing you have to have muscle memory. For us rolling out 17 drinks at once you won’t have muscle memory of where syrups are, where batch is, etc., so a slow rollout avoids a stutter in service, and avoids people running around with hair on fire trying to figure out where products are. New drinks every 3 days or so gives everyone enough time to wrap head around it. That said, all staff is different, need to be able to read the room.”

Williams concludes with some advice for your own seasonal menu changes, “Plan for your volume to be as much as your most popular drink. Plan for success. You can always tone it back down.”


seasonal drink menu bar cocktails Barcelo Imperial Mizunara Cask
Seasonal drink menu bar cocktails Barcelo Imperial Mizunara Cask

SIPS TO SAVOR

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Francine Cohen
Francine Cohen is an award-winning journalist covering the business of the f&b/hospitality industry, and a proud native Washingtonian (DC). In addition to her work as a journalist she keeps busy fundraising for Citymeals on Wheels, Les Dames d’Escoffier, NY Women’s Culinary Alliance, and the USBG Foundation and serves as chief storyteller and brand steward for clients in the food and beverage sector by providing them with strategic marketing and business growth guidance. She has never met a cheese or beverage she does not like, and lives with her husband in New York; leaving him behind to visit New Orleans every summer. (Except 2020. Darn pandemic.) You can reach her at francinecohen@mindspring.com
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