One of the joys of pursuing an interest in cocktails beyond building an inventory of ingredients is establishing a repertoire to share with others. As you amass a list of drinks you like to make, it can be hard to recall them all at once when entertaining. From your guest’s point of view, it is equally frustrating to come up with a request when they might not have your experience. They won’t be able to name a cocktail that you can’t remember to suggest, and you may not know their preferences anyway.
Of course, bars and restaurants solve this problem by providing a menu which seems perfectly normal for a business selling items and listing prices, but why would this make sense at home? It may sound a bit over the top or pretentious, but it isn’t. Menus are not just price lists. They help guests make a selection that works for them, but just as important, they limit that choice to items you want to make.
At our house over the years, we have explored many options for sharing a drinks list with guests. The very first version was just a few lines on a piece of cardstock we printed for party one evening. It helped to limit guest choices to just a few options we setup for the event and freed our time as hosts so we did not spend the entire night shaking bespoke recipes. Beverage options can be so much simpler for you and for your guests with just a little bit of guidance. Even just a half-sheet or a hand-written notecard allows you to list the drinks you have been making recently and want to share, or can break down options within the constraints of a limited inventory.
If you have a big booze cabinet to support it, you might think you could just as easily hand a guest your copy of the Savoy cocktail book—but nobody wants to page through an entire book! That is way too many choices. Besides, they would inevitably select something with an obscure ingredient you don’t have, as even well-stocked bars don’t have everything. With a house list of cocktails, you are putting suggestions in front of guests so they don’t have to come up with ideas themselves, while at the same time you are limiting the possible choices to drinks you can make. Guests may be impressed with your creativity, but it also shows them that you are prepared and value their opinions and choices.
Once you are convinced about the virtues of having a house menu, you may be overwhelmed by the creative task. Don’t be. It does not have to be complicated. Something as simple as a list of cocktail names on a piece of paper is plenty adequate to start. Less is more, but it definitely helps to add a few descriptive words under each choice in case the names are not familiar to everyone. We have gone out of our way to to write flowery descriptions in the past but find that simply naming the ingredients is best.
As we mentioned, a house menu can benefit you as the host as much as it serves guests making choices. For big parties, a smaller list is best, but for smaller gatherings, you may be comfortable making anything to order, and this is the sweet spot for us. We affectionately refer to our kitchen as the “Top of the Town” bar, which is a historical reference to an area nearby at the highest elevation in Portland. Visitors would make the ascent by trolley, so we made a drawing for a cover and assembled a list of featured cocktails that we can rotate seasonally if we want. We also have an extensive list on subsequent pages broken down by spirit category. Our guests really appreciate this, as it helps orient them to their particular tastes or mood.
Once our menu grew to a full page, we bought a commercial slip cover from a restaurant supply store. For a couple bucks, it keeps the paper dry, protects the edges, and adds some professional authenticity to something we just printed ourselves. We could easily update the list should we run out of something. As our menu grew in scope and scale to multiple pages, we started using a bi-fold restaurant menu cover. Eventually, we came up with a simplified digital option—an Amazon Kindle!
The Kindle version is just a PDF. The screen on these devices is nice because they use e-ink which is reflective like paper and easier on the eyes than an LCD tablet—although you could use that too. The battery lasts weeks between charges which is good for something that will site idle for long periods. Although the screen is smaller than a letter-sized sheet of paper, plenty of drink menus in real bars are smaller cuts, so this is only an evolutionary compromise from our earlier slip cover design. Text size is definitely a factor with a smaller screen, so we went with 24-point heavy lines for the drink names and slightly smaller for the descriptions. We really like the results and believe this will work especially well in dim lighting (the Kindle does have a light built-in). Let us know in the comments if you plan to make a house menu of your own, or if you are already using one. We have seen at least one example visiting a colleague whose menu was created to suggest after-dinner spirits and liqueurs!