How to Create a Cocktail Menu That’s Unforgettable

Drinks and cocktails
Are you fed up with trying to balance a cocktail menu that’s as individualized as it is fun? Do you find yourself wanting to create your own unique concoctions, but struggling to know exactly how and when to add them in the right context? Have no fear – as an experienced team of experts in the industry and bartender of over a decade myself, we are here!
From planning out your entire operation down to presentation details like garnish decoration, this guide will have even the newest bartenders feeling like seasoned professionals by the time they’re done. Let’s get mixing!
Ah yes, the mysteries of the cocktail menu creation world. Such an art form! Sure… it takes skill and finesse to craft drinks just right – for those exacting preferences like “extra limey” or “add more Gin”.
But beyond the structural components of creating a well-crafted menu, there is also an element of charm – which, let’s face it, could make your establishment stand out from its competitors even more than those succulent margaritas would already do!
So here we have it, the checklist you want to have in your pocket when you’re creating a cocktail menu that is well-balanced and loved by all your guests.

But first, the team at Local Bartending School wanted me, an experienced bartender, to first share a story about my buddy named Will.

Will the Bartender had been working at The Salty Sailor for months, but he still hadn’t been able to come up with a good cocktail menu. He was trying hard to impress his boss and make some money in tips, but it seemed like no matter what he did, nothing worked.
One day, after yet another failed attempt at creating a new drink that would draw customers in, Will decided to take matters into his own hands and learn the basics of bartending. He spent hours on end studying recipes and techniques online until finally, he felt ready to start experimenting again.
With newfound confidence in hand, Will went back behind the bar determined to create something special this time around. After testing out several different combinations of ingredients and flavors, he ended up concocting an amazing creation—the perfectly balanced cocktail menu! It quickly became one of the most popular drink menus created by a bartender, as customers kept coming back for more.
Will’s boss was so impressed with his work that they created a small section of their menu specifically dedicated to Will’s creations!
His signature cocktails were soon generating more revenue than any other item on the menu, plus generous tips from happy customers. In just a few months’ time Will had gone from a struggling bartender unable to come up with anything worthwhile, to becoming the star mixologist everyone wanted to try out!

Recreating History in Every Cocktail

Did you know that in early 19th-century definitions, cocktails were said to have only four elements?
That’s right, all you need to create a delicious cocktail is spirits, sugar, water, and bitters. So go ahead, experiment with different spirits and mixers, add a splash of sweetness, and don’t forget the bitters to balance it all out.

Your customers will be raising their perfectly picked glassware and opening their wallets to your newfound bartending skills in no time.

What does it mean to balance a cocktail?

Being a new bartender is one of the most exciting times, but also one of the most intimidating. As you dive into the world of mixology, you’ll quickly learn that balancing a drink menu is key to being a high-performing bartender and revenue-generating bar owner.
So what does it mean to create a “balanced” cocktail menu?
Well, it’s all about creating perfect harmony between the various ingredients. You want every element to shine through without one overpowering the others. Think of it like a dance party—you want everyone to have their moment in the spotlight without any one person hogging the dance floor. So, let your taste buds (And even your bar buds! They make a great team of tasters.) be your guide and aim for that perfect balance with every drink and cocktail menu you make.
1. Don’t forget the basics. Start with the classics, like whiskey sours and martinis then work your way up from there.
2. Mix it up a bit. Sure, you want fruity drinks, like margaritas or mojitos. But for variety and balance, your cocktail menu needs to have all flavor profiles, like salty, sweet, sour, savory, etc.
3. Consider cultural cocktails. Think about how adding certain liqueurs or spices could give your guests an enriched experience.

4. Make sure you know what you’re doing. Take a bartending class to learn all the tips and tricks of the trade before you start with a huge feat like creating a cocktail menu. Many people try—few succeed.


5. Start by gathering basic bar supplies and bar tools such as shakers, strainers, and jiggers , dehydrators for garnishes, torches, stoves, etc. This is all crucial to being able to fully experiment with and create unique flavor combinations that your guests crave.

6. Choose a selection of spirits that cater to your customers’ tastes. Think about spirits that are popular around you; like, vodka , whiskey , tequila , gin ,etc. Have a local special like bourbon? Tailor to that, 100%.

7. Learn all of the mixology basics. You also want to totally nail down how to make an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan so you can include a few familiars, but with a special twist.

8. Don’t forget about non-alcoholic drinks for everyone who isn’t drinking alcohol. You might also want to consider those non-alcoholic, low ABV, and mocktails for those looking to have a more mellow evening.

9. Balance out the menu with affordable cocktails and expensive cocktails so that there’s something for everyone.

10. Never forget to add a few signature cocktails that make your bar stand out from the rest!

11. Understand your customer base. Determine who your typical customers are and what they like to drink. Think about an Italian restaurant compared to a Mexican. Typically the drinks are different, just as much as the food, because of their clientele and what they come in looking for.

12. Stock up on the basics. Plan ahead by stocking up on all the necessary ingredients for your most popular drinks

13. Explore different flavor combinations. Experiment with new flavors and ingredients to come up with interesting combinations

14. Find exciting ways to present drinks. Make sure to provide a visual presentation that will attract customers. Don’t be scared to experiment with presentation. Burn your cinnamon and expel oils from citrus to invite the nose to the sensory party. Garnish your drinks with edible flowers or ice cubes with herbs in them to make them more appealing for all of the senses.

15. Don’t forget about up gaming garnishes! This is one of the easiest things to do, but most common mistake I see. Give guests something extra special by adding a garnish they don’t typically see. Like a dehydrated lime, candy for a rim, or Twizzlers as a straw. Go crazy! [GIF] This is really where you can let your creative side of out its cage.

Famous Cocktail Menus

1. Atlas in Singapore. It’s safe to say that Jesse Vida, the head bartender at Atlas, has found balanced bliss. With his guidance, the venue’s newest drink menu is a tribute to the glory days of Art Deco. Divided into five chapters, each named after an event or milestone from the era, the menu takes you on a journey through the glamour, culture, and fashion of the time. It’s no easy feat to balance the old with the new, but Vida has done so with ease.


2. Raised by Wolves in San Diego. With the recent opening of Raised by Wolves, San Diego’s cocktail scene has officially leveled up. But what sets this new bar apart isn’t just its hidden location behind a secret door in a fine spirits shop. No, what really makes Raised by Wolves stand out is its dynamic duo of owners, Erick Castro and Chris Patino. Both accomplished bartenders in their own right, they’ve now combined forces to create a cocktail menu that always keeps patrons guessing. From the fruity and fun Island Old Fashioned to the spicy and refreshing Sonora Señora, there’s a drink for every taste at Raised by Wolves. Looks like San Diego just got a new contender for best bar in town!

3. Acadia in Chicago, Illinois. Sure, it may be a restaurant first and foremost, but let’s not overlook the fact that their cocktail game is on another level. Their wine lists alone could easily take up a good chunk of your evening (we’re talking as much as 41 pages, folks), but it’s their cocktail offerings that really steal the show. They’re unique AF.

Aspire to Be Awarded: Best Cocktail Menus around the Globe

Creating Cocktail Menus That Slay: 5 Fundamentals Facts that Keep You from Failing

1. The Ingredients that Make up the DNA of Any Cocktail

Once you understand the role each ingredient plays, you’ll be able to create cocktails and cocktail menus that are balanced and tantalizing.

Every cocktail is made up of several vital ingredients that can be categorized as:

  • Base. The base ingredient is typically the spirit that forms the foundation of the cocktail,
  • Modifier. The modifier ingredient balances out the flavors and adds texture.
  • Flavoring agents. Flavoring agents are added to enhance the drink’s overall taste and aroma, that is, garnishes and bitters.
  • cocktail-creation-basics

    2. Learn Drink Families

    To craft a great menu, it’s important to understand the different drink families and their respective cocktails. There are six categories: spirit-forward, sours, fizzes, smashes, highballs, and flips. Spirit-forward cocktails such as Manhattans and Negronis predominantly feature the base spirit. Sours, on the other hand, have a sour element added, like lemon juice. To make a fizz, add soda water to a sour. Smashes are made by muddling herbs and fruit before adding the other ingredients. Highballs are tall drinks made with a base spirit and mixer, while flips are decadent drinks made with egg yolk and fortified wine.

    3.Create a Workable Mise En Place

    Mise en place is a critical step in any bartender’s workflow and honestly one of the biggest mistakes of bar owners who aren’t familiar with the industry.

    This refers to preparing everything beforehand, such as slicing fruits, pre-batching syrups, and juices, and prepping garnishes.

    This is a key step that helps bartenders work more efficiently, reduce prep time, and serve drinks faster. Bartenders should have all the needed tools within reach to stay efficient, such as ice scoops, strainers, Hawthorne strainers, and so much more.

    4.Source New Drinks and Rotating Out Old Ones

    It’s essential to keep your menu fresh and exciting by regularly rotating in drinks and retiring those that aren’t selling as well. Before adding something new to the menu, consider whether you have the necessary ingredients in stock, whether you can handle the prep workload, and, more importantly, whether it is profitable. To maximize the return on investment, analyze the revenue generated from each cocktail and eliminate those that aren’t selling well.

    5.Break Down Costs and Maximizing Profitability or Else… Your Bar Might Fail

    Cocktail prices range widely, and it’s essential to have a basic understanding of the cost of goods sold (COGS) and how it affects profit margins. COGS includes the cost of all ingredients used to make a cocktail, including the base spirit, modifier, and flavorings. Ensure that the price of your cocktail covers the COGS for an acceptable profit margin and any overheads.

    If I haven’t said it enough, COGS matter. I can’t tell you how many times COGS come up in bar and restaurant management/ownership. So if you aren’t talking COGS, you’re doing something wrong.

    Create a Balanced Cocktail Menu, and Bar Career, with Local Bartending School

    With this guide now firmly in hand, you’re well on your way to becoming a master of mixology! From incorporating inspiration from classic drinks to utilizing some more daring concoctions and garnishes, the proof is in the pudding – with just a few extra touches in presentation and quality ingredients, you can quickly make your menu an inspiring one.

    But all that knowledge comes with its own practice too; at Local Bartending School, they’ll teach you everything from cocktail menu creation to flair bartending. So don’t feel like you have to go it alone – grab your jiggers, we’ll grab ours, and let’s get to creating bomb cocktails, shall we?

    Carrie Jean Lipe

    Carrie Lipe has been writing creatively since childhood but jump-started her professional writing after college. She's an Indiana native, Ball State Hospitality graduate, and a bartender with over 10+ years in the industry. You can find her making basil Moscow mules when she's not writing. Follow her professional journey on Instagram! @contentbycarriejean