Bartenders turn to fresh-squeezed juice to take their cocktails to the next levelThe term ‘juice head’ made its way into the popular lexicon this fall, thanks to the unlikely, but meteoric rise of MTV’s hit show The Jersey Shore. However, it may soon be a term restaurant and bar patrons use less-disparagingly to describe their favourite barkeep, as today’s top cocktail slingers put down the pre-packaged juice mix and bar lime and turn to fresh-squeezed product and muddling their own fruit and citrus juice creations.
“The bar has undoubtedly been raised across the industry on the food side of the business over the past few years, and that same idea has been transferred to many bar programs as well,” says Rob Mont-gomery, who works behind the wood at The Miller Tavern in Toronto. “People realize that in order to be competitive, they have to have a fresh, innovative cocktail program, and that all starts with quality ingredients.”
For years, the quality of a cocktail would be largely measured by the type of booze requested by the patron. A classic mojito made with first-shelf rum was one thing, but make it with aged Havana Club (albeit with the same bar lime out of a hose) and you’ve got yourself a premium product. However, Montgomery, a veteran of the Toronto cocktail scene, says the key to achieving that higher quality is not just in the spirit, but in the various juices and mixes as well. “I can make two identical cocktails, one with pre-packaged mix, and the other with fresh-squeezed juice, and a guest will prefer the fresh one every time,” he says.
Bar owners accustomed to quick-pouring and inexpensive pre-mix might be reticent at first to make a significant commitment to a fresh-juice-based bar program, but Montgomery believes the time and investment are worth it. Using a margarita as an example, he says, traditionally, with cheap pre-packaged mix, a bar would be looking at a cost of around 25 cents per drink for the mix itself, whereas he now makes his own version of the Mexican classic with fresh lime juice sweetened with organic agave nectar, for a juice-only cost of around 40 cents per drink. But Montgomery says he can justifiably charge more for his rendition, given the truly premium nature of the product.
Finally, he adds that there’s a hidden benefit to a fresh-juice or muddling-focused cocktail program — the “sizzling plate effect.” A Tom Collins made with hose-dispensed pre-mix has no real story, but when a proper bartender makes one with citrus presses and other fragrant accoutrements, all of a sudden it becomes a show. “It’s all part of the cocktail experience,” says Montgomery. “If a guy wanders up to the bar all set to order a Coors Light, and he looks over and the bartender is creating a classic mojito using fresh-squeezed lime juice, muddled mint and agave nectar, he might just change his mind and order one of those instead. When that happens, it’s better for the bartender, the restaurant and the customer. Everyone wins.”