Why exceptional cocktails are about more than just mixing drinks

‘Exceptional cocktails’. It’s a phrase that pops up in the reviews of the world’s best bars, but what does ‘exceptional’ actually mean? It’s a word that’s applied to drinks that aren’t only well prepared and taste great, but also challenge existing notions of what a drink can be, and push the limits of the cocktail bar experience; good drinks that become great through attention to detail and careful curation of context.

The first step to earning this title is to understand that the liquid in the glass is just a small fraction of the experience. Sure, it’s important, but there are plenty of other things to consider, such as ambiance, garnishes, music, coasters and other things that appeal to our senses. Oh, and let’s not forget the glass itself.

As Diageo Global Cocktailian Lauren Mote explains, bartenders looking to serve exceptional drinks shouldn’t be afraid to throw the rulebook out of the window when it comes to glassware. ‘With cocktails, as long as you can explain why you’ve used a particular glass, and your argument makes sense and is well articulated, you can serve pretty much any mixed drink in any glass you like.’

Another thing to note is that glassware doesn’t have to be glassware at all. When she won the 2015 World Class Bartender of the Year National Final in Canada, Lauren prepared a drink called the Loup-Garou (‘werewolf’ in French), which she served in a rustic clay pot, with frozen silver bullets in place of ice cubes. More on this truly exceptional cocktail later.

Crafting exceptional cocktails is all about building a layered, multi-sensory package, and, given that we’re arguably driven by what we see more than anything else, making sure this package looks the part is absolutely crucial. ‘It’s critical to engage with visual stimulus,’ says Lauren. ‘Whether or not the drink comes on a coaster, the colour of the menu, even the fingernails of the bartender serving the drink – these are all things to consider.’ Think beyond the basic bar environment, too – create something unique your guests will engage with and tell their friends about. Lauren served her Loup-Garou with a comic strip that depicted a man transforming into a werewolf, creating a focal point and establishing a theme that applied to other senses too.

If that sounds a little too quirky for your bar, don’t worry – exceptional cocktails don’t  have to be about novelty. At Bobby Heugel’s bars in Houston, simple touches take the experience from good to great. Drop in for a drink at downtown bar Tongue-Cut Sparrow, for example, and you can expect it to come with everything from a refreshing hot towel to a complimentary bar snack. ‘How does that not make you feel like a VIP?’ says Lauren. ‘Think of how YOU would want to be treated in those exceptional VIP moments – make that accessible and available to your guests.’

(On the right: A recreation of the Loup-Garou at 529 Wellington Steakhouse.)

Subtlety can be key, then, but then again, so can the opposite. If yours is the sort of place that suits it, and your guests are likely to appreciate it, don’t be afraid to pull out all the stops. That’s exactly what Lauren did with her Loup-Garou. ‘For aroma, the cocktail was a combination of Johnnie Walker Black Label and Lagavulin 16 Year Old Scotch whisky, so a piece of peat bog from the Islay landscape was lit on fire, and the smoke was able to fill the noses of the judges. For sound, I hired a French horn trio to play the theme from “Peter & The Wolf”. For touch, I had a vintage lunchbox that was filled with soil and mushrooms from the forest that the judges were able to engage with.’ Hmm, perhaps a bit over the top? ‘No way,’ says Lauren. ‘I won.’