We asked top-ranked cocktail spots to spill some insider secrets. Read on to find out how they create the perfect cocktail list and find exciting ingredients. And, since spring is finally here, we also found out about some seasonal cocktails!

From Tanta, #2 in cocktails in Chicago: "Floral and slightly effervescent, La Guapa mixes locally distilled CH lavender-infused gin with lemon, rhubarb and sparkling rose for a light, food-friendly spring cocktail." Source: Tanta. 

From Tanta, #2 in cocktails in Chicago: "Floral and slightly effervescent, La Guapa mixes locally distilled CH lavender-infused gin with lemon, rhubarb and sparkling rose for a light, food-friendly spring cocktail." Source: Tanta. 

On Crafting The Perfect Cocktail List:

“A great cocktail list starts with knowing where you shine. We are known for elevating the classic and familiar flavors of Mexico’s regional cuisines and spirits by adding a ‘Topolo Twist.’ Our guests know their palate will be challenged, delighted, and satisfied by our cocktail program.”
--Jeff Walters, Beverage Director, Topolobampo (#1 in cocktails in Chicago)

“Having a selection of well balanced cocktails that appeal to both serious cocktail drinkers and cocktail newbies is key.  Also, I think the availability of thought out, interesting non-alcoholic cocktails are the sign of a great cocktail list.”
--Kyle Pepperell, GM, Boka (#5 in cocktails in Chicago)

"The key to a great cocktail list is a respect for fresh ingredients. One must experiment and brainstorm, but also make sure to let the individual parts shine. Simplicity over extravagance.”
--Leo Schneeman, GM, Upholstery Store: Food and Wine (#12 in cocktails in New York)

“The highest goal I set for menus is uniqueness. For example you can get a Manhattan riff anywhere- whiskey-and-amaro cocktails abound. I prefer to shy away from that and other ubiquitous styles of cocktail and try to represent something exciting that the guest can only get at my bar.”
--Patrick Brennan, Bartender, Spiaggia (#3 in cocktails in Chicago)

“We balance out shaken, stirred, brown spirits, clear spirits, citrusy, spicy, etc.  Just as in the food, it’s all about the flavor first.  The list is serious, but it has a playful feel to it and we want guests to have fun with it.  Our goal is for everyone to be happy with what they are drinking.”
--Michelle Biscieglia, Beverage Director, Blue Hill (#9 in cocktails in New York)

“I do a slow roll-over change to our cocktail menu rather than one sweeping menu change per season. Right now my method is to replace each cocktail as soon as we come up with something much more exciting!”
--Patrick Brennan, Bartender, Spiaggia (#3 in cocktails in Chicago)

 

On Seasonality:

“Seasonal changes absolutely drive interest in our cocktail program.  Regulars come in again and again knowing that the list will be different, or they can get a sneak peek at what the bartenders are working on.”
--Kyle Pepperell, GM, Boka (#5 in cocktails in Chicago)

“We strive for change when we sense it's time and when we have concocted the right cocktail, regardless of the season. In this sense, newness is the drive. On the other hand, with each season change, we certainly aim to capture the "feeling" in the glass.”
--Leo Schneeman, GM, Upholstery Store: Food and Wine (#12 in cocktails in New York)

“We try to match the mood and feel of each season in our cocktails.  In the winter, we featured darker cocktails that are boozier and fuller.  Our spring menu is leaning more towards lighter cocktails that are aromatic and refreshing.”
--Kyle Pepperell, GM, Boka (#5 in cocktails in Chicago)

“Spring always brings some of my favorite flavors. Rhubarb starts the season and plays quite well with agave spirits. Strawberries at their peak are my all-time favorite fruit. The fresh herbs and flowers are great for syrups, garnishes, and tinctures.”
--Jeff Walters, Beverage Director, Topolobampo (#1 in cocktails in Chicago)

“It’s generally about the mood of the season… until something runs out.  This is probably our biggest issue.  We test and try a new cocktail, and then the ingredient that we loved too much isn’t available any longer.  When this happens, we have to look to what’s coming next.  All seasons have phases. Spring onions, ramps, asparagus and rhubarb all come in over a couple of weeks.  We lighten it up in the spring and then have richer cocktails on in the winter.  We make our own sweet vermouth seasonally as well so that when we add it into cocktails, it also aligns.  Ultimately, it’s always a waiting game to see what mother nature brings us, and when!”
--Michelle Biscieglia, Beverage Director, Blue Hill (#9 in cocktails in New York)

“This spring I'm trying to incorporate lots of flowers and herbs. Chicago had a long and rainy winter so I think we all need some color.”
--Patrick Brennan, Bartender, Spiaggia (#3 in cocktails in Chicago)

“Spring is the most exciting time for me. I’m itching for it already.  We always first look to the kitchen and the green market.  Everything at the market will turn to 300 shades of green so quickly.  We have a forager at Stone Barns who frequents the market, but also brings us some unique and interesting ingredients from Stone Barns.  As roots, veggies, herbs and fruits start to trickle in,  we will already have several ideas in mind.  We’re still waiting for that first pop of green this year, and then it’s full speed ahead!”
--Michelle Biscieglia, Beverage Director, Blue Hill (#9 in cocktails in New York)

 

On Finding Unique Ingredients:

“New and interesting ingredients are all around us. I find inspiration in pulling out flavors I find to be particularly unique and interesting from both sweet and savory dishes. Isolating those particular notes that you find intriguing in food can then be translated into any number of cocktails, syrups, infusions, tinctures, etc.”
--Jeff Walters, Beverage Director, Topolobampo (#1 in cocktails in Chicago)

“I always keep an eye out for new and interesting ingredients. I tend to pick up new spices from ethnic markets, seek out ingredients that I read about in books (for example, I'm reading one about perfume right now—ever had a frankincense cocktail?), and, of course, liberally borrow ideas from other bars. Last fall I had a cocktail with activated charcoal at Cindy's in Chicago. For the next month I was feverishly shaking charcoal into all sorts of concoctions!”
--Patrick Brennan, Bartender, Spiaggia (#3 in cocktails in Chicag0)

“An ingredient often captures our attention at the Union Square Greenmarket. Then, we play around to find the perfect companions of liquor, bitters, and other components.”
--Leo Schneeman, GM, Upholstery Store: Food and Wine (#12 in cocktails in New York)

“The ingredients on our cocktail list must be written in a way that sells the drink. It must seem novel, exciting, enticing and a little mysterious, while at the same time remaining accessible to the uneducated drinker by not relying on arcane brand names. When I read a menu I want to be excited to try all of the cocktails!”
--Patrick Brennan, Bartender, Spiaggia (#3 in cocktails in Chicago)

“We all do what every restaurant professional does: We spend all of our money on food and drinks on our days off.  We get inspired by other restaurants. We go to the greenmarket in Union Square and see ingredients that may be new to us.  We travel and get excited by other cultures.  Every time one of us tastes something new, we bring back an idea to the restaurant and try to figure out how to incorporate it someway into a component of a cocktail.  We experiment by making infusions and syrups. We test and taste and usually 3-4 new cocktails will emerge.  Even if the cocktail doesn’t make it on the list,  then we have something different and exciting off-list to play around with for guests.”
--Michelle Biscieglia, Beverage Director, Blue Hill (#9 in cocktails in New York)