Most would agree that Pouring Ribbons, one of NYC’s best cocktail bars (and among this writer’s favorites), kicked off the trend. In the autumn of 2015, head bartender Joaquín Simó (who was named American Bartender of the Year in 2012), looking to switch up his bar’s cocktail list and tired of the usual seasonal menu, decided to take a different tack. “Route 66” was the chosen theme, and Simó and his staff created drinks based on towns and sights along the famed scenic highway. “I was really tired of the seasonal format and wanted to branch out,” Simó says. “I wanted something specific and evocative, but also something that would give a lot of latitude, where expression could come in.”
The menu proved enormously popular, and Pouring Ribbons has continued with themed menus, continuing on to “the Silk Road” and “Moody Authors.” The current theme is “Revolutionary Artists,” with all drinks named for famous artists and including witty references to their work. The menu includes the Cai Guo-Qiang, which uses gunpowder green tea-infused scotch and is garnished with a lit sparkler (the artist is known for using gunpowder as an artistic medium), and the Richard Serra, a whiskey-based drink served in a metal vessel to represent the weathered steel works for which the artist is best known. The best thing? The bar doesn’t sacrifice flavor for Instagrammability: The drinks are still among the tastiest in the city.
Two-year-old Brooklyn bar Grand Army is taking the themed cocktail menu route as well. Past themes have included Scandinavian black-metal album titles and the state parks of Oklahoma, from which state head bartender Damon Boelte originally hails; the current menu is based on Gilmore Girls, the TV show. “Gilmore Girls is very inspiring,” Boelte told The New Yorker. “There’s an episode called ‘Cinnamon’s Wake,’ and it’s when they have a wake for the cat, Cinnamon. How can you not make a cocktail based on that? It’s already got an ingredient in the name!” There’s also a gin-based drink called Hep Alien, and a light, refreshing number called The Dragonfly Inn—references should be obvious to anyone who’s watched the show.
And now, Bedford & Co. is the latest to go with a themed cocktail menu. The venture from chef John DeLucie, in the new Renwick Hotel, has recently debuted what it’s dubbed the “Writers’ Collection,” honoring the great literary figures who used to imbibe in the original Bedford Hotel at that location. Featuring drinks named for Gertrude Stein and Zelda Fitzgerald—and even a Thomas Man[n]hattan (get it?)—the drinks are modern interpretations of tipples each writer was known to enjoy.
Of course, this is in addition to the number of bars around NYC whose drinks lists feature more consistent themes, reflecting the bar’s story or location. The menu at BlackTail, another favorite bar of ours, features “upgraded” versions of cocktails you might have encountered in Havana in the 1920s, when wealthy Americans used to fly to Cuba to escape the limitations of Prohibition. Each drink at Mace, named for the nutmeg-like spice, showcases a different herb or spice from around the world, yielding drinks such as the tequila-based Wasabi and the fruity, smoky Chipotle, made with peanut butter fat-washed cognac. Theater-district bar and restaurant Dutch Freds has a Broadway-themed cocktail list—you can order a tart and sassy Kinky Boots (vodka, St. Germain, lemon, raspberries), a candylicious Willy Wonka incorporating chocolate and marshmallow, or an extremely tiki Finding Neverland that will indeed whisk you away in spirit to a fantasy land.
As more bars join in the themed-menu fun, you’re sure to discover one that aligns perfectly with your interests, no matter how niche they may be. It’s almost like sharing an inside joke—which only gets better over a great cocktail.