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Starting from Scratch

Prepared mixes or do it from scratch?

Each night you brace yourself for that moment of the evening when the pace of activity behind the bar shifts from a comfortable cruise-control to pedal-to-the- metal overdrive. In anticipation, you’ve prepped during the shift’s quiet time so you can deliver your best-selling cocktail with ease. But what quality of drink will you be serving?

 

If a major component of the specialty drink of the house is a mélange of ingredients best prepared in advance, do you opt for premade mixes or travel the more time consuming, labor-intensive route, preparing your mixes from scratch? Many of the good premade mixes on the market offer convenience, consistency, and value. But most professional mixologists argue that the from-scratch approach is the only way to go.


Ready-made vs. The Real Thing
The leading arguments for from-scratch drinks are flavor accuracy and superiority. Regarding premade mixes, beverage consultant and educator Doug Frost, MS, MW, comments, “Not a single one . . . tastes like the real thing. A sour mix doesn’t taste even remotely like lime juice.” Master mixologist and spirits educator Dale DeGroff adds, “The sour mixes are too sweet and often make no distinction between the flavor differences, of lemon and lime juices. . . . These juices taste different and so should the drinks.” For DeGroff, another key advantage of from-scratch over premixed preparations is a “freshness impossible to achieve with commercial mixes—imagine salsa made with ketchup and canned vegetables!” Frost concludes, “It is amazing to me that the vast majority of bar managers are unwilling to take a step to make their drinks taste better, even if it costs [only] a few pennies more.”
Ready-made mixes are more consistent than natural preparations, but adroit bartenders can adjust every finished drink and deliver flavor-filled, balanced cocktails to their customers. Elizabeth Takeuchi-Krist, wine director at 
El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen, remarks, “Since the proportions of fruit and sweeteners can’t be exact due to the variance in yields, relative sweetness or tartness of the fruit, and other factors, the bartender must truly use skill in creating the best possible drink each time. Tasting the drinks with a quick straw dip helps immensely.” What bar patrons wouldn’t prefer a drink made—and adjusted—just for them?


A from-scratch approach requires more bartending skills, extra training and prep time, and in some cases, more expensive raw ingredients—all factors that contribute to higher pouring costs. But there are offsetting rewards. Professional pride is one. Chris Coon, Division Wine Manager at Young's Market Co, sums up a sentiment among bar professionals that transcends considerations of expedience: “Being able to make a very popular cocktail better than everybody else is what makes the effort well worth it.” Increased sales is another. “It is possible to break even or to save money with fresh-squeezed juices as opposed to mixes. Management of the fresh juice is critical,” Frost argues. “But when drinks taste better—and they will with fresh juice—you sell more drinks.” If you are compromising quality using ready-made mixes, maybe it’s time to begin building your drinks from scratch. 

 

When a bar specializes in an organic approach to mixers, juices, and popular spirits infusions, it demonstrates a commitment to using the freshest ingredients available. Such a program demands a higher level of bar skills, and it also requires attentive individuals with a passion and creativity for this liquid culinary art.


Startup
To enact an ambitious from-scratch program, the bar manager should take the lead, meeting with the executive chef and the general manager to establish the program’s parameters. The manager would then meet with the bar staff to discuss the proposals, review their expanded duties, and solicit their ideas and suggestions. Cooperation with the chef and kitchen staff is vital to the program’s success. Arrange to use the kitchen’s galley at designated slow periods of the day or evening for the purposes of pan-heating special syrup preparations such as simple sugar, berry, maple, orgeat, rock candy, grenadine, chocolate, fruits, and even falernum. The kitchen and bar product inventories are vastly different. To determine which fresh goods are available and in season, the bar manager should examine the chef’s ordering sheets and talk with produce distributors. The availability of in-season products will dictate to a degree the change and/or rotation of drink menu selections. Customers’ taste preferences will also guide drink menu decisions.

 

Stocking Up
Fresh ingredients should be on hand every day, but what you stock will depend on your drink selections and the season. Your list will include fruits and berries of all types, leaves, seeds and spices, peppers and other vegetables, and roots. The wide variety of organic juices available in the marketplace (more than 30 different flavors to choose from), along with an ever-widening array of organic fruit purees, are excellent substitutes, help cut labor time, and make affordable creative drinks fashioned from these products. Furthermore, they are filled with nutrients, and the natural flavors are more robust.


Advance Prep
Depending on your from-scratch drink selection and your clientele’s desires, you may have to prepare some or all of the following ingredients:


Juices/Purees Squeezers, juicers, and blenders make the task of processing fresh fruit and vegetable juices easy. Prepare early to last the whole day. This can be accomplished during the slow period of the morning shift.

 

Syrups

Prepare various flavors by pan-heating fruit, raw sugar, and water. The bar manager or executive chef can teach the bar staff the correct method and temperature for preparation and storage.

 

Sours

Preparing fresh lemon juice, lime juice, and sweet-and-sour takes squeeze and dissolve time, so get this done as early as possible. For some drinks, fresh lemon and lime are squeezed on the spot.

 

Infusions

Depending on the degree of complexity and the ingredients involved, putting together an infusion in a jar is a 30- to 90-minute process. The infusing time will vary depending on the desired texture and concentration, but allow the concoction to infuse for at least 36 hours. Firmer ingredients last longer but usually take more time to infuse. Softer selections such as fruits and leaves need to be more closely monitored as the flavor will have a tendency to infuse more quickly; before all the liquid in the jar has been consumed, it may be necessary to discard these ingredients so they don’t turn to mush. Use a sizable drain ladle for ingredient extraction. Room temperature infusions are usually best for harder ingredients. A cooler temperature infusion normally benefits softer ingredients and helps the fruit to last longer in the jar before extraction. The longer the infusion time, the more flavor the spirit will acquire. Some recipes call for an infusion time of up to a week. If you find the infusion overflavored, add more of the base spirit to correct the imbalance. An infusion can stay in the jar for up to three weeks if consumed semi-regularly and up to six weeks if left in a cooler—after the selected remains have been extracted from the liquid and discarded.

 

Seeds

Some are ground, some are grated, and others are left alone. These require minimal advance time; many can be prepared on the spot.

 

Leaves

Whether they are dried, fresh, chopped, muddled, or infused, minimal labor time is required.

 

Vegetables

Whether these are diced, sliced, pressed, juiced, or infused, prep them as needed. Most are very perishable and cannot be stored for any length of time.

 

Bar Organization
Although the kitchen may already possess tools necessary for from-scratch drink preparations, the bar should have its own set, and these tools and drink ingredients should be stored in the bar if at all possible. Wash as many tools in the bar as you can. If you need to use the kitchen washer, remain through the cycle and return the tools to the bar to dry and store. If there is a product cooler in the back of the bar, designate a shelf for perishable goods and adjust the temperature to increase the products’ shelf lives. Any new dry stock can be kept in safe compartments.

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