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The Ultimate Guide to Building a Better Cocktail Menu

Table of Contents

How to Create a Great Cocktail Menu 
Partner and Advertise with Brands You Identify With
Engineer Your Menu For Profitability
Create a Flavor Matrix as a Guide for You and Your Guests
Write Clear & Enticing Cocktail Descriptions
Explore Interesting Designs, Packaging and Mediums 
Refresh Your Cocktail Menu as Seasons Change

Industry Insights You'll Savor.   Sip on the latest bev-alc trends and insights, delivered straight to you.

How to Create a Great Cocktail Menu

As simple as they may seem, the best cocktail menus are made with a lot of thought and strategic planning so they can guide guests on a journey to imbibe with confidence and pleasure while still earning the establishment a profit. But what exactly goes into a great cocktail menu? This guide will take you through the process of building a better cocktail menu for your place of business. 

Identify Your Bar Type

Does your beverage program focus on a particular style or service? For example, does your bar lean heavily toward whiskey or Italian aperitif and amaro? The cocktail menu process must first begin with identifying what your bar does best. This ensures the cocktail options listed aren’t bewildering to a guest who came for a whiskey-focused cocktail menu and has few whiskey drink options to choose from. 

Understand Your Audience

What type of crowd does your bar entice? What differentiates your bar from the next? What drives guests through your doors? Your menu should reflect your guest's preferences in coordination with your bar’s focus. This will help define your beverage program and subsequently any future cocktail menus. 

Additionally, ensure your menu has drink options for everyone—including non-alcoholic options. Every great cocktail menu—even if there is a heavy whiskey focus—should include a spectrum of spirits and libations, from vodka cocktails, tequila cocktails, shaken sour cocktails, and boozy, spirit-forward cocktails. Having more options to choose from will satisfy guests and ensure they leave happy. This is where a flavor matrix (see below) can help ensure your menu doesn’t lean too far in one direction or the other.

Find the right products for your seasonal menus   Refresh your cocktail menu for the upcoming season with new products that will get your regulars to wander from their usual order  

Decide How Many Drinks Will Make The Menu

Too many options create confusion and indecision for guests. Too little, and guests may feel underwhelmed with their options. Finding the perfect balance of the number of drink options is essential to creating a successful cocktail menu. For example, a general number to strive for is 10-12 drink options. This gives bartenders ample room to fit in drinks that spread evenly across a flavor matrix and adds padding for classic cocktails, fun, experimental drinks, zero-proof/mocktails, or non-cocktail options such as a beer and shot combo. 


Consider The Role Psychology Plays in Menu Design

Patrons are out to have a good time and your menu should give them plenty of options to choose from, but that doesn't mean you are completely without control when guiding their experience (and their wallet). There have been copious studies on the psychology of menu design and how owners can tailor their menus to improve profits.


The Golden Triangle

If you're familiar with restaurant menus at all, then you've likely heard of the Golden Triangle. The premise is that customers will look at the center of your menu first, before their eye travels to the top right and then over to the top left. These spots are traditionally reserved for high-profit items. Even though cocktail menus are usually rectangular, the Golden Triangle theory can still apply to a vertical design, with the middle, top and bottom items getting traditionally scanned the most. For example, high-profit "standards" can take the center, while seasonal and top-shelf selections can bookend the menu.

The Almighty Dollar Sign

Remove it! It's that simple. By taking away the currency symbol, you're helping the customer disconnect their experience–however slightly–from the cost. It lets them relax and feel better about potentially choosing a pricier or unfamiliar option. Some menu designs will even have the price numbers right justified, far removed from the menu items to add even further distance between the enjoyment and the "cost."

Decoys and Decadence

Related to the dollar sign, decoys work by showing the customer an option that appears too expensive, making the rest of the options look more enticing (and reasonable) in comparison. This way, you can count on patrons opting more often for "middle of the road" cocktail prices instead of going for the cheaper items.

In addition, adding more top-shelf or high-priced items can give your menu a look of decadence, signifying that your establishment uses great quality ingredients in all its concoctions, not just the ones that cost top dollar.

Description, Description, Description

We touch on this in more detail below, but descriptions go a long way in bringing your cocktails to life. Everyone wants to enjoy the finer things in life, so sprucing up your descriptions or naming conventions can breathe life into your selections and give people that little bit of added motivation to order. For example, compare these two items:

Whiskey Sour

Whiskey, lemon juice and simple syrup

The Weekender

A whiskey sour to salute weekends past, present and future: Canadian rye whiskey, fresh lemon juice, handcrafted simple syrup

Partner and Advertise Brands You Identify With

Most brands in the industry have an ethos attached to them that can help boost sales and drive product inspiration and evolution for years to come. There are exquisite Scotches, historic whiskeys, gins that portray elegance and beers that portray a party. For every category, you can find a brand that has its own ethos and customer base. Do you want to be known as a high society establishment? A place to unwind and let loose? Perhaps a place that caters to white and blue-collar alike? The types of brands you stock in your establishment and list on your menu can help you build your own ethos!

Engineer Your Menu for Profitability

First, create a menu engineering matrix. This will help decide which cocktails to feature based on their profitability and popularity. The matrix is divided into four quadrants: Stars, Plow Horses, Puzzles, and Dogs. 


STARS: High Profitability, High Popularity

Stars are menu items that are most popular with guests and the most profitable for your business. Stars are cocktail menu items that should always be promoted.

PLOW HORSES: Low Profitability, High Popularity

Plow Horses are solid-performing cocktails that are beloved by guests but have higher ingredient costs. Plow Horses should be evaluated for overall cost and may require a higher menu price or adjustment to the portion size.

PUZZLES: High Profitability, Low Popularity

Puzzles are perplexing, indeed. These are cocktails with high profitability if only guests would order them more often. The challenge with Puzzles is finding ways to increase their popularity without increasing the cost of making them.

DOGS: Low Profitability, Low Popularity

Dogs are neither profitable nor popular. Evaluate whether these cocktails should remain or even be added to a menu in the first place. 

In a perfect world, every cocktail on a menu would be a Star, highly popular and profitable for your business. However, determining what works best for your bar program, clientele, and overall business goals will help in the pursuit of a well-rounded—and better—cocktail menu.

Second, "ingredients cost” your menu. This will determine how much it costs to create each cocktail offered, excluding labor costs. Like creating a new dish, the ingredients in a cocktail must be heavily considered not just for their flavor but their costs. 

Wines and spirits contain a plethora of different price points, rarities, and attributes that factor in the cocktail-making process. The ¾ of an ounce of Green Chartreuse that goes in a “Last Word” cocktail may not bankrupt the bar, but creating a cocktail that has two ounces in every pour might. Even more, by understanding cost, bars can see their profits jump. That’s why cost is so important in the menu-building process. 

The equation is simple: subtract this cost from the menu items' sales price to arrive at the contribution margin or gross profit.

Contribution Margin or Gross Profit

Profit for a single menu item after the cost of ingredients has been subtracted.

Contribution Margin/Gross Profit = Selling Price – Cost of Ingredients

Example: Martini ($10) - Cost of Ingredients ($2) = Gross Profit ($8)

Create a Flavor Matrix as a Guide for You and Your Guests

When creating a new cocktail menu, a flavor matrix is a bartender’s best friend. They can even be designed and added to a cocktail menu to guide curious guests in the right direction. As you can see, the matrix is divided into four quadrants: Light & Refreshing, Adventurous, Strong & Aromatic, and Comforting. 


Apart from helping guide guests to their drink of choice, a flavor matrix can help bar managers visually understand and identify gaps when developing a cocktail menu. Too many drinks in a specific quadrant leave a menu off-balance. Each quadrant must have an even weight so that a cocktail menu has something for everyone to enjoy. 

Light & Refreshing: Cocktails that are quaffable, bubbly, citrusy, fruity and often less spirit-forward. 

Adventurous: These are cocktails that challenge the taste buds. They are complex in flavor, and go against the grain of what would be considered “normal.” Adventurous cocktails are always a great addition to a cocktail menu for those looking to go on a flavor journey. 

Strong & Aromatic: Things that come to mind are herbaceous, sumptuous aromas and strong flavor profiles. This category is typically very boozy and spirit-forward.

Comforting: This category contains all the flavors of a cozy evening. Think rich baking spices and warm woody notes. 

Write Clear & Enticing Cocktail Descriptions

Apart from clever naming, cocktail descriptions are the most important part of menu engineering and can make or break whether a cocktail becomes popular or not. Descriptions highlight a cocktail’s ingredients and believe it or not, there is a right and wrong way to execute them. 

It’s all about the hierarchy of ingredients. It starts with the most important, most essential ingredient first. More often than not, this is always going to be the base spirit used in the drink, e.g. gin, rye whiskey, or apple brandy. Following that should be a modifier or ingredient that shapes the identity or flavor of the cocktail, e.g. vermouth, ginger syrup, or muddled strawberries. From there, additional modifiers such as citrus juices or bitters can round out the description. 


The Provi Martini

Gin, Dry Vermouth, Orange Bitters

The Provi Whiskey Sour

Rye Whiskey, Lemon, Simple Syrup, Egg White

However, descriptions can be as simple or ornate as you’d like. Often, the more detailed the drink is, the more enticing it can be, especially if the right language is used. Just remember, it shouldn’t be as long as War and Peace. 


The Provi Martini Deluxe

Lavender-infused Gin, French Dry Vermouth, Cocchi Americano, House Orange Bitters, Lemon Twist

The Provi Deluxe Whiskey Sour

Apple-infused Rye Whiskey, Lemon, Demerara, Angostura Bitters, Egg White, Apple Garnish

Explore Interesting Designs, Packaging and Mediums

At this point, you’ve developed a set of cocktails that have gone through a menu engineering analysis and are ready to be put to print. But first, you must design the menu before sending it off to the printers. This is where design, menu psychology, and cocktail descriptions come together to create an enticing and helpful menu. Some things to consider when designing your menu: 

  • If your budget allows, hire a professional graphic designer or agency who understands hospitality and menu best practices. This will ensure that the final product is top-notch and tailored to your brand. 

  • Design for both print and digital. Consumers look online to view menus before ever stepping through your doors. Ensure your menu translates well across both print and digital mediums.

  • QR codes offer a helping hand in our digital-first world. Add them to print menus to guide guests who may have a hard time reading in low light to a digital version of the menu. 

  • Get creative with it. Apart from tailoring menus to your brand with fun typography and design elements, consider different formats (a single sheet of paper, tri-fold, covered booklet, etc.). This is your chance to set the tone for new guests who are looking for an experience. 

Refresh Your Cocktail Menu as Seasons Change

You now have all the information needed to create a diverse, exciting (and profitable) cocktail menu! But don’t just set it and forget it. Just like life, variety is the best spice when it comes to cocktails, so make sure to set quarterly reminders to update your cocktail menu as the seasons change. The bev-alc industry is constantly evolving, with brands always releasing new products to tempt and sate diverse palates. Your cocktail menu should attempt to be solid and familiar to your patrons, but have the flexibility to blend into each new season, offering up feature cocktails that fit the vibe.

  • Winter is for warmth. It’s generally a time to serve up heavy stouts (partner with local breweries!) or pepper cocktails to warm your belly.

  • Spring is for fresh takes. The cold is receding but summer’s not yet in reach, which means Spring is all about light flavors for those sun-through-the-clouds days, and comfort drinks for the dreary, rainy days. Think honey margaritas for summer sun previews or lavender-infused gin for the flowers about to bloom.

  • Summer is for bold flavors. Whether it’s ordering apps on the patio or sitting poolside, summer is the perfect time for flavorful drinks. Classics like pina coladas, strawberry daiquiris and pitchers full of sangria fit right at home, alongside all the seasonal IPAs on draft (again, local breweries shine here!) and wine spritzers.

  • Fall is for spice. Not necessarily hot spice, but all the typical scents you smell when fall is in the air work wonders in cocktails. Hard apple ciders run amok while nutmeg and cinnamon spruce up whiskey and bourbon cocktails alongside the ever-present pumpkin beers.

Fill out the form below to download the PDF version to building a better cocktail menu

Corey Hines

Career bartender turned Content Marketing Manager at Provi, covering all things beer, wine and spirits.


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