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With summer on the wane, restaurant and bar operators are brainstorming cocktails and alcohol-free beverages for the fall, holidays and winter.
However, the move to cool-season libations will not be rushed in one establishment. “I’m not ready to make the flip just yet,” says Jess Sandberg, head bartender of Proxi in Chicago. The contemporary American restaurant is known for its globally inspired street food menu and inventive bar program.
After all, Chicago temperatures were still reaching well into the 80s more than a week after Labor Day. Proxi patrons were holding tight to summer, sipping light, refreshing elixirs like Japanese gin with cilantro-infused blanc vermouth.
Nevertheless, Sandberg is scheming the flavors and ingredients that will debut when autumn arrives in earnest. “In switching from summer to fall, I’m thinking about using more aged spirits, apple brandies, cognac and aged gin,” says Sandberg. “There will also be more herbal infusions, baking spices and, of course, Proxi twists.”
Sandberg cites some fall favorites:
- Apples: “Apples are a great fall and winter ingredient,” he says. At Proxi they take the form of cider, hard cider and apple brandies. The latter include French Calvados and a unique mezcal-style brandy distilled from smoked apples.
- Pears: “I like pear brandies and eau-de-vie,” Sandberg says. “But pears are difficult to work with fresh. When making syrups out of them, they can be grainy, which is the nature of a pear.”
- Beets: “I really like using beets in cocktails, but they can be a polarizing ingredient because of how earthy they are. I like to lean into the earthiness and combine them with Suze (a bitter French gentian root liqueur) or the smokiness of mezcal to balance that out.”
- Mexican-style hot chocolate: Laced with cinnamon, nutmeg and chilies, it is bracing and comforting in cooler weather.
One trick of the season is modifying an ostensibly summertime drink for fall and winter duty. An example is the tweaking of Proxi’s popular Spanish-style gin and tonics. “In winter, I pick gins that have a little less citrus and are little warmer,” says Sandberg. These drinks may be garnished with pomegranates, rosemary or thyme, more apropos of the season than the pineapple and cilantro that may festoon a summery Spanish-style G&T.
Keeping it streamlined
Across the restaurant industry, the recovery-era imperative to optimize labor and product costs is being felt at the bar as well as the kitchen. “I've definitely become more of an overall restaurant manager as well as bar director,” says Sandberg. “Everywhere in this industry, we're all short staffed.”
To cope, some bar professionals are streamlining recipes to produce high-quality results with fewer ingredients and preparation steps, just as chefs are traveling simpler and more efficient paths to fine cuisine.
“There are definitely a lot of multi-use ingredients now,” says Sandberg. “For example, I’ll integrate a syrup we make for cocktails into a non-alcoholic drink.” And there is a concerted effort to optimize the use of costly fresh produce and avoid waste.
“One of the great things about working in this restaurant is being able to explore cool new produce and ingredients with the chef and get more ideas,” says Sandberg, referring to the helpful suggestions of Proxi chef-partner Andrew Zimmerman.
Although buying high-quality prepared syrups, purees, concentrates and other bar goods may help a bar handle the labor crunch, Proxi is committed to its in-house processes. “There are definitely a lot of good products out there,” says Sandberg. “But we have the time and the team to make our stuff here.”
On the market today is a growing array of flavorings for special seasonal and holiday effects, such as candy corn, caramel apple butter, pumpkin spice, maple spice, peppermint, cinnamon, gingerbread and tiramisu. In addition to specialty cocktails, such flavorings can also be useful for making low- and no-alcohol drinks and sugar-free beverages that appeal to the consumers who maintain healthful habits even during festive times.
Seen in the field
- Common Bond is a refreshing mixture of bourbon, pressed apple, chai spice and lemon on offer at Phoenix-based True Food Kitchen.
- Maple Cinnamon Matcha Latte is a medley of maple syrup and earthy matcha tea, balanced with the kick of cinnamon, at Fairgrounds Coffee and Tea in Chicago.
- Buzzed Over Latte is the brainchild of San Diego-based Breakfast Republic, featuring chocolate vodka, hazelnut liqueur, espresso and steamed milk topped with almond brittle.
In times like these, building and sustaining traffic and sales is crucial for operators. Promoting a well-conceived selection of seasonal and holiday beverages is a proven way to catch the attention of guests and keep them coming back.