Today's cocktail culture continues to prompt foodservice operators from all industry segments to emphasize their bar areas. Doing so has a variety of implications on design, equipment selection and more.
With classic cocktails, craft beer and better wine in full "swig," the bar is a much different place than years ago. In many cases, the exhibition platform that transformed kitchen design has had a similar effect in the beverage area, as beverage sales have gone on to rival or dramatically surpass food sales. Today's mixology is all about showmanship and craftsmanship — from the use of fresh-squeezed juices and herbs, to the perfect pour, the perfect shake, the perfect ice and the perfect glass. This has had a powerful impact on bar design and operations, and foodservice designers continue to take note. In fact, they may have seen their roles expand as a result.
"The whole design of the bar has changing enormously," says Kyle McHugh, a bar consultant and Master of Whiskey for Diageo, a U.K.-based beverage firm. "In many cases, bars and restaurants that have been operating for a long time are still using a footprint from the '80s and '90s so the modern advances in cocktail culture we've seen in the last half of the decade are lost — things like keeping vermouth chilled, making sure you have freshly squeezed juices available for service, and using different types of ice and glassware."
Renovating a bar area might include building an additional one or two wells to assist bartenders making more cocktails by hand. "One well might have worked 15 years ago, but as soon as you're three people deep and someone drops a glass in that one well, the entire bar shuts down," McHugh says.
With bartenders juicing lemons, limes and other fruits for their own cocktail mix-ins, bars need to allow room for this prep work and the area's equipment package now needs to include juicers and high-powered blenders. McHugh also recommends expanded under-counter refrigeration to hold these extra fruits and ingredients. The fresh-squeezed phenomenon also impacts operations. Too often McHugh sees bars using their own, high-paid bartenders for hours-long prep work when they could easily designate a kitchen prep cook to fill in earlier. Kitchen operations also need to account for the inventory for the extra fruits and bar ingredients, he says.
And then there's the question of basic ergonomics. "With bar design these days as the trend moves toward more labor-intensive drinks you want to make sure things are situated closer together," says Dan Bendall, FCSI, principal of FoodStrategy, Inc., who works with many hotel and restaurant clients redesigning their bar spaces. "Now that cocktail making has gone beyond a scotch and soda to become a multi-step process, you want to make the workspace as efficient as possible with everything in arm's reach to cut down on time." Sinks, refrigeration and glassware all need to be easily accessible, especially in high production bars.
Modern mixology also impacts displays, Bendall says. "There is usually some show with bartending now — a muddling of mint and putting different ingredients together," he says. As a result, the front bar might showcase herbs and other fresh ingredients while more bar backs and refrigeration units feature glass doors to display premium spirits, craft beer bottles, fine glassware and other merchandising.
Ice and the quality of water has become increasingly important in today's craft cocktail culture. "When it comes to premium spirits, the larger the cube the better because they don't melt as fast, which can dilute the drink," says Steve O'Connor, principal, L2M Foodservice Design Group in Glen Burnie, Md. Instead of traditional cubes, operators are investing in specialty ice-makers for larger-size, 1-inch rocks cubes as well as special molds for even larger cubes and spheres about 2 inches in diameter. McHugh points out that many highly specialized cocktail bars use larger blocks of ice and train their bartenders to chip away at those for larger pieces.
As a result of these changes in ice needs, bars must make more room in the back of the house for extra ice machines and consider filtration. In many cases, bars will use separate ice bins for different size ice pieces, says O'Connor. Many will install an under-counter freezer if using the sphere and block molds.
"There are many different types of specialty glassware now for different types of cocktails as well as for craft beers and wines, but you have to think about where the space for that glass storage is going to be," says Bendall.
From traditional pint glasses to goblets and pilsner glasses, operators now serve craft beers in matching vessels, as is the case with wines. Red wines "breathe" better in larger, wider-brimmed glasses, for instance.
As the craft beer trend intensifies, more bars are increasing their draft offerings, which necessitates more space on the bar for taps and additional space in back for kegs. Typically, bars serving 20 to 24 beers on tap will designate a separate walk-in cooler for the kegs, says Bendall. Switching to smaller kegs switched out more frequently also helps save space.
Craft beers are generally served at about 44 degrees F — slightly warmer than big batch brews — to bring out more robust flavors. As a result, some bars are forgoing glass coolers for rinsing applications that splash the inside of a beer glass with cold water to remove residual cleaning chemicals while gently chilling the glass, says O'Connor.
Kegged cocktails like margaritas as well as kegged wines are also growing in popularity, particularly as brands and vintners look to expand their volume and sales, says O'Connor. "As premium wines have grown in popularity an equipment item that has evolved nicely is the back bar refrigerator," he says "One manufacturer offers units that store wine bottles both horizontally and vertically." Other specialty units will refrigerate and pump open wine bottles with gas to preserve their shelf life. These units are most suitable for restaurants and bars with more premium wine bottle selections that they want to offer by the glass, O'Conner says.