There is only so much extravagance a venue can get away with on its food or wine menus, but when it comes to the cocktail list, the room for experimentation, creativity and colour expands.
Cocktail menus have come a long way and the best of them are so much more than just a listing of drinks; they’re a print expression of the soul of a bar, they can be playful or make a statement, celebrate history or revolve around a theme, but certainly, they add excitement to the cocktail experience.
All across Ireland, leading bartenders have incorporated global trends and given them a local twist. Cocktail menus have evolved from a predictable selection of classics, pseudo martinis and gratuitous elderflower into carefully designed and well thought-out balancing acts: you still need the fruity best-seller, but the most daring establishments are happy to gently guide costumers out of their comfort zone to get them to try new and interesting drinks.
Some trends across the board
While some trends such as Sherry-based cocktails and – are still not big in Ireland, others have comfortably made themselves at home. An increased awareness in sustainability and waste reduction, with the banning of plastic straws and the preference for natural and locally produced ingredients, has been felt across the industry in recent years.
Examples of this are Cask bar in Cork, where foraged botanicals are common and all fruits used are Irish; as well as Bonsai Bar in Dublin, where they’ve a very efficient system to make use of fruit peels and unusued fresh ingredients that get turned into oils, tinctures and more, but never waste.
Another element becoming more and more popular in Irish cocktail menus is a dedicated Gin & Tonic section with a focus on Irish craft gins, a variety of premium tonics and suggested garnishes, or a selection of signature Gin & Tonics ready to be sipped.
Angelina’s Game of Thrones inspired Gin & Tonic section includes mixes such as the “Tyrrell Rose” or “King’s Landing”; No 57 Gin Bar features a Gin & Tonic menu where you can mix and match from 25 Irish gins (plus 16 imported) with one in nine tonic waters and choose from an assortment of garnishes (the staff will be happy to suggest ideal serves but feel free to experiment). In Killarney, the Celtic Whiskey Bar and Larder has a staggering selection of 56 different Irish Gin & Tonics and they even offer an Irish Gin & Tonic flight to taste and compare.
A growing number of bars are looking back to Irish history for inspiration, a trend that comes in hand with a growing appreciation and variety of premium local spirits and mixers to work with. The beautifully illustrated cocktail menu at Fade Street Social is titled “My jewel and darling Dublin” and pays homage “to the wild and wonderful characters who graced our streets through the early 1900’s”, pairing them with flavours to suit their stories.
The Liquor Rooms also gives an affectionate nod to Ireland’s past, several of the cocktails on their list are named and inspired by extraordinary women through Irish history such as Máire Rua, Jane Wilde (alias Speranza), Lola Montez and Eliza Lynch. The recently opened poitín-focused Bar 1661 also has a strong link to the past (it’s name references the year in which the spirit was banned) and their cocktails are named and inspired by numerous places of historical value in contemporary Irish history, including a few iconic bars such as Pantibar and Barney Kiernan’s.
Other bars focus on the history behind their own establishments and offer estate-of-the-art mixology with a nostalgic nod to venues with an interesting background. The Vintage Crop Cocktail Bar at the Key Club evokes Kildare’s rich equestrian history and is named after the owner’s gelding that won the 1993 Melbourne Gold Cup and became the first Irish horse to surpass one million pounds in winnings. Other cocktails in the menu are all named after legendary champions of the turf, their histories briefly explained next to the ingredients their drink carries.
In Killarney, J.M. Reidy takes great pride in the bar’s historic building, standing since the 1870s, which was a sweet shop in a past life. Along with more mainstream classics, the bar features a selection of cocktails inspired in different confectionary like “Pink Starburst”, “Afternoon Tea” and “The Bon Bon.”
Leading cocktail experiences
A drink has long transcended the liquid in a glass, it has become an experience that appeals to all senses, including in big measure the visual side of things. This is more than just a trend, it’s a paradigm shift that has reshaped the cocktail scene in Ireland and beyond.
Last April, bartenders from all across the country battled it out for a place in the Best Cocktail Experience competition, which had a very timely theme: “A Taste of Ireland with a Global Twist.” From a total of 47 entries, ten finalists were chosen, not just based on their individual performance but on their cocktail menu and the overall cocktail experience of their establishment.
They will face each other this month at the Irish Restaurant Awards. Their bars offer a summary of modern creations that are in tune with international trends and the tastes and preferences of cocktail lovers in Ireland.
These ten finalists are:
- Adrian McFadden from The Sidecar Bar at The Westbury Hotel, a multi-award winning bar that channels the glamour of the 30’s.
- Darren Geraghty from Candlelight Bar @ Siam Thai Restaurant Dundrum, known for his unique and visually striking creations.
- Skirmantas Lelys from the Tack Room at Adare Manor, where the cocktail list inspired by the history and heraldry of the house itself and uses many ingredients sourced from their own gardens.
- Henrik Benndorf from Café en Seine, a recently renovated favourite that evokes the continental charm of Paris.
- Andrew Ennis from The Blind Pig, a speakeasy style bar where each cocktail tells a story and inspiration ranges from obscure Sardinian words to the Netflix show Black Mirror.
- Steven Hession from 9 Below, deemed as Dublin’s most luxurious bar, with an equally opulent drinks cabinet.
- Daniel Hayes from Bar No.23 (The Merrion Hotel), were you can sip on artufully assembled cocktails with premium craft ingredients while surrounded by works of art from the hotel’s private collection.
- Dave Taylor from The Exchequer Dublin 2, where the menu is named “Evolution of the Cocktail” and the spotlight is set on modern creations and even some molecular experimentation.
- Jamie Heighton from Hyde Bar in Galway, which boasts a gin collection of over 500 different bottles and separates their cocktails into “Jekill” (a twist on familiar choices) and “Hyde” (for the curious and adventurous).
- Simon King from the Twelve Hotel in Barna, where a comprehensive list starts with the bartenders’ signature recipes, followed by unusual creations, and then a variety of more well known flavours.
All these bars go above and beyond to offer a cocktail menu that embodies their brand and that surprises and delights drinks enthusiasts with different levels of expertise.
The spark behind the boom
The exciting evolution of Irish cocktail menus is the happy result of many influential factors. From a growingly diverse and well-travelled community to a very social media savvy population in the search for appealing imagery to share with friends and strangers.
From the bartenders’ perspective, the boom in Irish whiskey, gin and other spirits has been one of the main drivers, but other factors are important too, such as better training opportunities and the possibility to participate in international bartending competitions that help local bartenders experience the cocktail scene in other parts of the world and return with fresh ideas and inspiration.
In an increasingly interconnected world, Ireland’s legendary hospitality gives bartenders a great start but it’s their creativity, curiosity and willingness to research and experiment (and the openness of forward-thinking managers, of course!) that combines with that to make the current wave of cocktail menus so exciting and the future so promising.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.