When it comes to the modern cocktail movement, Manila is steadily catching up to Asian neighbors Hong Kong and Singapore. The city is coming into its own, its drinking scene making up for lost time and covering the gamut from gritty streetside dive bars and gastropubs in Poblacion and Escolta to luxury hotel rooftops and hidden whiskey retreats in Makati’s Legaspi and Salcedo Villages.
What’s driving the movement? Two things, points out Lee Watson.
The beverage consultant and co-owner of fine-drinking watering holes ABV, Mandalay, and The Spirits Library says, “The growing middle class in the country means people are becoming a little more sophisticated with what they drink. While majority would still order buckets of San Miguel when they go out, people are becoming more adventurous when it comes to their drink options, i.e., instead of the usual Johnny Black, they’ll try American bourbon.”
Watson says this is a natural effect of the country’s dining scene, which is becoming increasingly sophisticated. “It’s a similar trend you see in more progressive markets—when the food scene is growing, the bar scene is very close on its heels,” he says.
“There are a lot of trends and excitement going on around Manila’s drinking scene, but it’s one thing to jump on what’s trendy and another thing entirely to sustain an F&B business,” says Daniel Ganser, director of F&B for Grand Hyatt Manila. “Incorporating trends is important in the sense that you don’t want to fall behind in making cocktails. But when doing so, don’t compromise on the quality of your product. For any bar program to work, you need to be consistent when it comes to quality.”
While there’s been a growing number of innovative branded concepts coming out in Manila, there’s still plenty of room for improvement before the city’s cocktail culture matches Hong Kong and Singapore. Quantity does not necessarily mean quality—how, then, do bar owners and restaurateurs ensure they fall under the latter instead of the former?
Cocktail concepts trump trends
There’s no shortage of bars dishing out cheekily named cocktails like “Midnight Butterfly,” “Widow’s Kiss,” or “Death in the Afternoon.” Like clickbait, these drinks may initially attract customers to try your establishment but not necessarily convert them into regulars.
When it comes to “narrative menus,” Ganser—whose experience includes working at New York Grill & Bar in Park Hyatt Tokyo, made famous by the Sofia Coppola movie “Lost in Translation”—says that while he’s not necessarily a fan of such fancy-named creations, “it’s important that customers understand what they drink and order. Always list the components of the drink, and when doing ‘creations,’ it should be all about the story. When I worked at New York Bar in Tokyo, we created drinks inspired by places in the city like Carnegie Hall, High Line, and Radio City, and these creations never changed. All are institutions or signature drinks of the bar to this day.”
“It’s important that customers understand what they drink and order. Always list the components of the drink, and when doing ‘creations,’ it should be all about the story,” says Daniel Ganser.
A trend Watson is seeing these days is bars playing with culinary techniques, including sous vide bags, creating infusions to make certain syrups the way a chef would reduce their sauces. “Now you have people playing with savory ingredients once thought exclusive to the kitchen. Like adding salt and pepper to a cocktail that’s not a margarita.”
Kitchen and bar integration is currently being practiced at The Cellar, one of Grand Hyatt Manila’s dining concepts. “Usually in restaurants, the bar and the kitchen have separate identities, but at The Cellar we incorporated the bar program with our show kitchen. You see the chef working on the hot plate, and you see the bartenders mix the drinks—it’s a showcase of craftsmanship,” he says.
Be creative but pragmatic
Watson, who’s worked with many of Manila’s leading bars, says he likes creating a cocktail menu that represents the bar or restaurant.
For restaurants, the first thing he advises is to look at the kind of food they want to push. “Even when the style of food is not well-defined, and some restaurants are like that, look at the ingredients and see which ones you can ‘borrow’ and use in your drinks. Borrowing ingredients means your drinks will naturally match the food,” says Watson.
An added advantage of this practice is that you’re not requesting items to be used only for a single drink. “A dragonfruit cocktail may seem pretty interesting, but if your kitchen is not using the ingredient, then what happens is you’re stocking one item for a single drink in the menu—and if that drink doesn’t move, you’re just throwing away spoiled dragonfruit every week,” he says.
For a standalone bar where you’re not necessarily trying to match the drinks with the food, look at the concept and what the bar wants to achieve. “Clubs that do big volume do not necessarily attract people who want a perfectly well-crafted drink, so look at things that make sense operationally for these,” advises Watson, who had worked with both Solaire and Okada.
“Clubs want something that’s kind of sexy and fun and playful so focus on presentation and keep the construction of the drink simple and straightforward. Do three- to four-ingredient cocktails with an interesting garnish or put it in an interesting glass,” he says.
“Clubs want something that’s kind of sexy and fun and playful so focus on presentation and keep the construction of the drink simple and straightforward. Do three- to four-ingredient cocktails with an interesting garnish or put it in an interesting glass,” says Lee Watson.
As for the brands used, Watson says to filter by price point. “What you do is look at the place, check out the price range for drinks, do your costings, and work backward from your target menu price,” he says, adding that for every category of product, there are at least several brands available at certain price points.
“There are at least six gins within the P1,000 per bottle price point, for example, so working within a budget won’t really limit your creativity too much. You just really have to know what’s out there.”
Put a spin on classic cocktails
The classics are classics for a reason: The marketability of these drinks are tried and tested. But there are ways for a bar to give these drinks a refresh. To do this, Watson looks to the classic formula for drinks. “It’s a triangle—the base being your base spirit, and the other two sides your souring and sweetening agents. It’s the simplest of concepts—balance within the drink,” says Watson.
The three-ingredient formula covers majority of the classics, from the whisky sour and margarita to daiquiris, mojitos, and caipirinhas. To put a unique spin on these drinks, Watson suggests replacing certain ingredients. A more “modern” whisky sour, for example, would use homemade Earl Grey or burnt orange and thyme syrup as its sweetener, and for its souring agent use, instead of the typical lemon or lime, other things that lend acidity.
“You can play with different local citrus or even vinegar. A little teaspoon of vinegar in a drink adds a nice flavor, or you can experiment with different acidifying natural extracts. So just based on that formula alone, you can take a whisky sour to a hundred different directions,” says Watson.