Words by: Ian Cameron
How do you rewrite a menu that won Tales of the Cocktail's Spirited Award for Best Cocktail Menu back in 2008? That daunting task fell to Nick Reed, bar manager of 1806, Melbourne, who was charged with creating something that was different, but just as good, if not better.
Our previous menu had been in place for four-and-a-half years and I felt I had some big shoes to fill in replacing it. Start to finish, it's probably taken eight months - it's pretty much a book in itself. I was actually given time off to write it and do research, and there was a lot of back and forth with the publisher and the illustrator, so it's a relief that it's over. The dream would obviously be to win the same award that the previous menu won.
Having a well-thought out menu is arguably even more important in the current financial climate, where people want to treat themselves with cocktails even if they are choosing not to spend money on holidays. An impressive menu feels special, gives them an experience, a story and something they can talk about, without costing a fortune.
Previously we had 45 drinks on the menu, but now we're offering 58. Most of the recipes have changed. We probably share only 12 or so directly with the last menu. In fact, we sat down and made every drink again - things have changed in four years, for example we are making our own sous vide versions of Cointreau and Grand Marnier. I guess that we are bucking a trend in that many bars are having shorter and shorter menus, but the fact we had such an extensive menu in the past means if we had cut it back we might have put off a lot of our loyal customers. It's 50 pages long - I think I could have made it 200 or even 300 but of course we needed to keep it accessible.
The previous menu was very historical and I wanted to ensure we kept the historical feel. Something that is very interesting to me is the fact alcohol has had such important influence on world events. Every drink is classic or classically inspired, and there are some pretty obscure drinks in there too - there's a Toreador, from the Café Royal Cocktail Book from 1934, which I don't think had seen the light in a long time; there's the Old Smuggler's Awaken, is a rare genever-based cocktail we uncovered; and the Versailles Club - Dubonnet, housemade Orange Brandy, Hennessy cognac and Peychaud's bitters. I quite like the discussion on how vodka became such a powerful force in the drinks industry in only the last few decades, but if you think about it every vodka brand on your back-bar has probably only been around for 20 years - we carry only eight vodkas and offer only two vodka drinks.
Despite the emphasis on historical drinks, I do feel like I've been able to put my personal stamp on it. It's funny, when people that I know read it they say they could tell I wrote it. I guess it's about the relaxed, dry humour I use to tell a story - it's not a history lesson. I've acknowledged seven books which were really integral to my research - in particular Dave Wondrich's Imbibe and Christine Sismondo's America Walks into a Bar, which was really interesting in terms of the part taverns have played culturally - but I've tried to put my spin on them.
We deliberately planned a big fanfare around the launch. We held a ticketed launch night for 190 people, made up of press, family and friends and with 100 tickets for the public, with four stations, serving the Toreador, Cosmopolitan, Sidecar and Tom Collins. We've had amazingly positive feedback - I was a little bit apprehensive when we launched it that sales would drop off for some reason, but thankfully that's not happened and revenue and footfall has increased. People ask to buy the book - we make clear it is for sale, so they can see it is stealing - though of course some do go missing. I guess that's ultimately a compliment!