A Sip of Sophistication: Cocktail menus reflect dining trends across the country

Across the country, style spills into martini glasses in the form of hip mixed drinks. St. Louis bartenders keep up by keeping tabs on bars and clubs in fashion-forward cities across the country. They do their research online, in print or – perhaps the best way to “work” – in person.

Prior to the opening of the new Asian-themed Mandarin in the Central West End, general manager Jennifer “JC” Krajicek, along with the bar’s owners, Buddy Coy and Pete Ferretti, visited New York City. The trio sampled drinks at Buddha Bar and Tao Bar, noting exceptional drinks and prominent Asian ingredients. Back in St. Louis, Krajicek took her research to a local Asian market to find of-the-moment ingredients such as lychee, green tea and ginger.

Busch’s Grove owner Lester Miller also bar-hopped in New York, noting drink options before reopening the shuttered Ladue landmark last year. In New York, he saw smoking martinis, which bar manager John Griesedieck Jr. adapted for the Busch’s Grove menu. “Our customers want to go out and have fun,” he said. “We thought adding dry ice to the martinis would be fun.”

Ted Kilgore, advanced mixologist at Monarch Restaurant & Wine Bar in Maplewood, travels to events around the country, such as the Tales of Cocktail in New Orleans, to confer with other
cocktail connoisseurs.

When traveling is impossible, other research methods are available. Kilgore turns to a traditional teacher: books. “I own over 100 books on cocktails, and I’m always reading three at a time,” he said. Kilgore also searches the Web to find out what’s happening in hot spots on the coasts. West coast bars, he’s learned, often rely on fresh ingredients such as avocado and fig. In New York, updating classic cocktails is in; this trend inspired his Cherry 75, a modern take on a 1920s gin and champagne cocktail.

Griesedieck visits Web sites for popular Miami and Los Angeles bars. “I’m interested in what they’re serving and what I can do differently,” he said. He uses fresh garnishes, such as exotic fruits, to set himself apart. At the Side Bar, a new addition to Washington Avenue, bartender Meggan Christie also turns to the Internet for inspiration. “I check out other restaurants online when I create my menu and tweak their recipes.”

Diligent research also includes keeping up with the media. “The Food Network is a big influence,” Kilgore said. “People are more educated about foods now. Innovative cocktails blur the line between cuisine and cocktails.”

Fictional Carrie Bradshaw and her friends have also swayed drink requests. “I’ve heard many people come in and say ‘I need to get a cosmopolitan because that’s what they drink on ‘Sex and the City,’ ” Christie said.

Another popular fictional character, James Bond, drank a mojito in the 2002 film “Die Another Day.” “Mojitos have been popular for five years,” Kilgore said, “and there’s no end in sight.” Krajicek capitalizes on mojito mania by serving them in sampler form (all of the lounge’s specialty cocktails are available as samplers). The Liquid Tapas is served in a wrought iron tree, another trend she observed in New York. “People can sit and share the sample of the mojitos with their friends,” she said. They can taste mandarin, strawberry-basil and papaya mojitos. The Side Bar also features several mojitos, including a ginger-basil version that Christie created based on one she drank in Spain.

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey recently proclaimed the pomegranate martini one of her favorite drinks. “I saw the pomegranate martini on ‘Oprah’ and added it to the menu. It has just jumped,” Griesedieck said. “People perceive pomegranate as healthy and it tastes good,” Christie explained.

Krajicek has also turned to Synergy St. Louis, a promotion company, for the latest drink trends. “We wanted to try something different,” Krajieck said. Taking a cue from Las Vegas nightclubs, Amit Dhawan from Synergy suggested a high-end martini, including flecks of 23-karat gold. The price tag is $50. Said Mandarin bartender Kellie Ray, “Instead of spending money on gourmet food, people will spend the money on drinks.”

A trend, by definition, is ever-changing, so cocktail menus change often. Kilgore updates his menu seasonally, based on fresh products. Krajicek held three drink tastings lasting five hours each to determine her initial menu, but will be changing the drink offerings every three to six months.

Despite changing seasons and changing styles, one trend remains: Bartenders enjoy satisfied customers. Kilgore admitted, “As long as people enjoy their cocktails, I’ll make them.” Echoed Griesedieck, “Creating drinks is half the fun. The other half is when the customers love them.”