Making great menus with Monica Berg

“If people ask me to put together a drinks list for tomorrow – in a day – I’ll give them a funny look,” says World Class winner for Norway Monica Berg. “It takes me six months to create a new collection of cocktails. I like to change it twice a year, and as soon as I have the new list live, I move onto the next one”.

“Our bar menu can either help us or break us.”

For Monica, who recently moved to the role of bar manager at Pollen Street Social in London from Aqua Vitae in Norway, menu design is a vital, drawn-out process that involves time and careful consideration. “If you just put the same old drinks on there that everyone uses – just slap them on the page – then why should the customer bother? If you can’t be bothered, then why should they?” she adds.

“Sure menus are tricky, because everyone has different opinions, but I always try to work ‘in concept’,” says Monica. “Meaning I always start with making mood boards and pinning my inspiration for the menu, before I start on the cocktails. Once I know in which direction I want to go, I start working on my flavours, and from there the names kind of fall into place.”

Creating something beautiful

Back in Norway Monica worked closely with a graphic designer to get a look that was as important as the drinks themselves. “She helped me develop the drinks through what she was drawing. When you work with someone for a while and really hit it off, it’s fantastic, because you just have to explain a little of what you want and they go away and make something beautiful. Sometimes it’s not exactly as you envisaged it, but that’s okay because it can be even better!”

That much is clear with the Fairy Tale bar menu concept, the last before she left for London. Monica always starts with a page that has no drinks – just some design that gives a feel for what the menu is about. On this menu there’s an old-fashioned engraving that sets the tone – she wants the guest to feel a kind of wonder and expectation, to enter a world of quirky but delightful serves.

“But not for too long. I would stick to no more than 10 pages – you can’t have a huge book like some places,” says Monica. God, how can you socialise? When you first come into a bar you want to talk to the people you’re with, not be stuck reading something for ages!

The menu can make or break us

“The way I see it, our menu is one of the most important tools of communication with our guests, and they can either help us or break us. Menus should be read and understood fairly fast, because after all most of our guests go out to enjoy, not to study,” she adds.

“I like to have no more than five cocktails on a page. That means you’re not overwhelming people. And three is the magic number, right? It’s common to group things in threes when people list things, and it also helps bring people to a decision.”

On the ‘Fairy Tales and Cocktails’ list there’s a selection of three ‘Bottled Potions’, with ‘Unusual Suspects’, ‘Boulevardier’ and ‘Velvet Underground’ offering variations on unusual bitters such as Dolin Rouge and Mozart Chocolate-flavoured, dark spirits such as Bulleit Bourbon, and Amontillado sherry or Aperol: a veritable mix of enticing, quirky flavours.

A list for guests, not other bartenders

“Above all,” says Monica, “Guests need to have enough information to explain what each drink is about. The menu is like an extra worker at the bar. If I’m busy, then guests have a chance to work out what the drinks are like, without me having to talk them through everything. Of course I love to explain things and talk, but often there isn’t the time to do that,” she adds.

“I don’t want to create a list for other bartenders. Because other bartenders aren’t coming in seven days a week to drink my drinks. I make it as accessible as possible, using illustrations and design features, rather than long, historical essays. I’m not into loads of research about drinks from the past. Why make something that was done a long time ago? I’m more about looking to the future,” Monica insists.

That much is clear from another Aqua Vitae menu that Monica produced with a modern-retro look. Bottled cocktails such as ‘Haywire’ – Hayman’s 1850, Dandelion liqueur, Bitter Truth and celery bitters – are presented with a mock-gothic font, and a gaming-style image. So new trends in bartending are matched by current design fashion.

Adventurous choices

“I try to include something for everyone – although it might not be what they normally would have chosen. It means offering people routes to trying new things.”

There used to be a flavour wheel at the end of her Aqua Vitae drinks list to give guests an idea of how her cocktails taste. “If I have bitters and bergamot how are people going to know what that’s going to taste like? If I group it with a well-known cocktail, or if it’s alongside a drink that they like, then that’s their reference point. Guests are then more likely to be adventurous. It’s great when people try something different that they wouldn’t normally go for.”

Currently her Pollen Street menu serves up plays on popular culture – ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Quince’ is a combination of 10-year-old Somerset brandy, quince liqueur, homemade blackberry and apple compote, lemon, yoghurt powder, egg white and spice. But there are also twists on the julep, rum punch, the Vesper and Breakfast Martini for guests who don’t want to push it too far.

“My menus are all different – both in design, drinks and themes. They represent different periods in the life of the bar and of myself and that’s what I love about them.”

Do you put together your drinks list like Monica? What do you like to forefront or add?