It is not new that restaurants are not measuring efforts to improve their beverage programs, seeking to serve a higher “liquid experience” and match the expectations they already have regarding the food.
According to an April 2018 Mintel report, 55% of Americans say they prefer drinking at home. It explains how the effort to create unique concoctions and heightened experiences has become a concern for the restaurant industry. "Bars and restaurants must work harder than ever to provide customers with a unique drinking experience," says Mintel.
Many of the best restaurants in the world have understood that.
At Noma, Head Sommelier Mads Kleppe is doing a remarkable job not only by selecting all the bottles that pair well with the dishes that come from the ingenious mind of chef Rene Redzepi but also by creating innovative non-alcoholic beverages for the restaurant’s juice pairing, from cucumber and marigold extracts, apple and pine shots, from nasturtium to kombuchas - he works closely with Noma's ferment guru David Zilber for that.
But there are some restaurants that are taking the "beverage exclusiveness" to a higher level, teaming up with small winemakers and distillers to create some labels and drinks one can only find in their venues.
Leo Robitschek, Bar Director of Make it Nice Group, is one of the pioneers to turn the beverage programs into high-end experiences - most notably at Eleven Madison Park and later at The NoMad, restaurants run by the restaurateur Will Guidara and chef Daniel Humm. Eleven Madison Park did set a trend by starting serving cocktails years ago. Now he and his team are teaming up with America's best producers to offer particular samples for the visitors who book a table at EMP. "St. George' Spirits from California does an unaged apple Eau de Vie with NY apples just for us. We have also created a Riesling from the Finger Lakes called Empire Estate in homage to NYC. Its a collaboration with our wine director Thomas Pastuzak and Kelby James Russell from Red Newt Cellars ”, he says.
A higher level
Mugaritz, from acclaimed chef Andoni Luis Aduriz, has been following the same path. In 2018, the restaurant served bottles of Malus Mama, a private cider that takes more than ten years to get “ready” to be served. Iñaki Otegi, the producer, who is a chemist and winemaker, picks apples at night, in the coldest time of the year, because the outside of the apples is frozen, which means that, when pressed, the water stays up and the cider that comes out of the process is sweeter, more concentrated, retaining all the acidity.
It is maybe the most unique cider in the world, and it is made in Astigarraga – near Mugaritz, and in the heart of the Basque Country – with a mixture of native apples, mainly the Txalaka variety. At the beginning of 2018, Head Sommelier Guillermo Cruz Mugaritz led Mugaritz’ R&D team, in the selection of bottles of each vintage and created with Iñaki a unique 'blend' of Malus Mama. Iñaki bottled only 250 bottles that they served during the Mugaritz’s 2018 season for the patrons paired with an overripe apple of Txalaka variety.
“As for the development of the beverage service, I think we are living a revolution. It is another way of doing creativity, creating a future where gastronomy will be much more complete”, says Cruz. According to him, the sommelier becomes an accomplice, to create intangible experiences for the guests.
“We started working in this line in 2015 visiting producers to be able to understand the stories behind each bottle (the landscapes, methods, people) and translate them into our menu. It has been three years of learning, breaking barriers and understanding that solid and liquid can be merged in the same discourse. For us, both parts are equally important and the same resources are dedicated to one and the other”, he adds.
So much so that he and Aduriz have been touring through Greece and Tenerife since last December to work in creative processes together with wine producers to advance in new creations for the Mugaritz experience of 2019.
The local choice
In Bogotá, chef Leonor Espinosa – crowned Latin America's Best Female Chef 2017 – and her daughter, the sommelier Laura Hernández Espinosa, are also working closely with local distillers and suppliers to create unique liquors and beverages. Their aim is to offer a higher authentic Colombian experience for those who are willing to taste their menu at awarded Leo in Colombia’s capital.
"We have always had the philosophy of working with local products, to highlight all the diversity of Colombian gastronomy, which is part of our heritage, African, indigenous and others. We have a wide variety of fruits and herbs that we wanted to show even more deeply in our menu”, explains Laura, who is also executive director of FunLeo.
Pairings at Leo include fermented beverages, from guava and jumbalin, a fruit indigenous to Colombia's small islands, and a unique coca leaf liqueur, which is distilled by an Afro-Colombian ethnic group. "The Inga community who lives between Putumayo and Nariño regions have been making this for decades" she says.
“Despite being one of the most important products of our culture, coca has unfortunately been seen in a negative way, but this is something that is changing, and so we have decided to serve it, to help in this demystification”, she adds. Hernández was also involved with a project to create an artisanal Colombian soft drink made from aguapanela, a traditional fermented Colombian beverage made from sugar cane and consumed all over the country, that now can be found in restaurants in Bogotá, Medellin, among other cities. “I think the use of local products is an increasingly strong trend in gastronomy, and it's also more and more present at the bar – not only in the kitchen”, she points out.
Serving a French Burgundy wine is something that any restaurant in the world can do, she says. But a coca leaves liquor, a fermented juice of Danish pines or a cider made from a specific variety of apple from the Basque Country, that is definitely something to a few selected ones.