2016 recap: Designing the Cocktail Plan for Mabel's BBQ

The great retro signage for Mabel's BBQ in Cleveland

The great retro signage for Mabel's BBQ in Cleveland

Well, the summertime has arrived and that means back to the blog! But just because I haven't been visible here doesn't mean that I haven't been up to my elbows in things book and booze related. Therefore,  I thought I'd give a quick update on what Bookleggers and Boozehounds has been up to -- especially in the cocktail world, as well as give an idea of how I approach designing a cocktail program, specifically that of Mike Symon's Mabel's BBQ in Cleveland.  

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The Opening Cocktail List for Mabel's BBQ

When I first started this blog, on my 2015-2016 Sabbatical from the University of West Florida, my plan was to publish research for a book on the history of Cocktail Books -- from Illuminated manuscripts through Butler Guides and Distiller's Manuals to Cocktail Books and ephemera. While doing this, and to subvent my professor's meager half-pay, I returned to my old gig behind the stick at Mike Symon's restaurant Lolita, slowly revising the existing menu. After eight years away, it felt great to sling hooch again. Unfortunately, the restaurant caught fire in December 2015 and was pretty much gutted. Luckily, Symon's new BBQ joint, Mabel's, was already well under way with me designing the cocktail plan and extensive whiskey profile. 

The Bar at Mabel's BBQ

I'm not quite sure any of us were prepared for how crazy Mabel's opening in April of 2016 was. There were hundreds of people waiting in line every morning for "Cleveland-style" BBQ, which was Mike's take on traditional slow-smoked BBQ, but with a heavy presence of Eastern European flavors and ingredients (i.e. spicy kielbasa, sour kraut) and a sauce based on Cleveland's ballpark mustard. The restaurant itself had a fantastic retro and industrial feel; for example, the bar was patterned after a 1950s-style Coleman Cooler -- a feeling that I absolutely wanted to capture in the personality of the cocktail plan. While designing, I even came up with a "Style Sheet" for the program. 

The "Style Sheet" for Mabel's Cocktail Plan

Three factors really played into the design of the cocktail plan: a) obviously, pairing well with BBQ; b) complimenting Mike Symon's personality and that of the restaurant; c) the need for fast cocktail builds due to the pressures of high-speed and high-volume service (while still keeping the spirit of craft cocktails). Given that we were doing 1200 covers from day one, and that it takes all of 8 minutes from ordering to food on the table, speed and simplicity of builds were going to be the greatest challenge. 

The obvious paring for BBQ is whiskey, and Mabel's was opening right at the height of the bourbon craze -- so much so that getting our hands on high demand labels proved difficult. We were still able to put together a very impressive, hand-picked bourbon and other American whiskey list, and one that was representative of the major flavor profiles, distilleries, mash bills, and price points. But there are plenty of BBQ with great whiskey lists and I wanted Mabel's to be set apart so, considering the great retro atmosphere of the restaurant, I decided to go low-end rather than top-shelf and profile all those great, timeless "old man" bourbons that have been around for ever. 

I think that bourbon is one of the last great "democratic" alcohols in that there are fantastic bourbons that are affordable -- often under $15 -- and great mixers. Before the bourbon boom, it was my practice to always grab a low-end bourbon whenever I went to the liquor store (this was when Dickel was still $12, not $20, and when Ancient Ancient Age was still available), and I was consistently surprised by how good bottom shelf bourbons often were. Also, I have always been enamored with old-school whiskey marketing. So when designing cocktails, I used old-school favorites such as Old Crow and Mellow Corn. Not only were these a great price point, but they captured the retro feel of the bar. 

Obviously, whiskey drinks were the most prominent on the cocktail list -- over half. And along the same lines as the whiskey list relying on old-school bourbons, I wanted the cocktail list to riff on mid-century cocktails -- high-balls, Manhattans, old-timey sodas, etc. -- as well as play off of low-country food. Drinks like the Hi-Octane Cherry Coke (Old Crow, Berentzen Sour Cherry Liquor, Ameretto, and Coke) captured the feeling of 1950s back yard BBQ, but elevated it enough with our "Mabel's BBQ" swizzle sticks and brandied cherries. The Sazarac Sno-Cone (Old Overholt, Jaggery, Absinthe, Peychaud) is another example of a fun riff on a classic -- and striking enough to get mention in Vanity Fair and Thrillist. I used a syrup made from East Indian Jaggery Sugar, with its salty and smoke undertones, to set it apart. 

The Sazarac Sno-Cone at Mabel's BBQ in Cleveland

I offered two variations on the Manhattan: one traditional and one non-traditional (really a Manhattan in name only). Mabel's Fancy Manhattan is Rye based (Bulleit) and cuts the Vermouth (Noilly Pratt) 50/50 with Cynar. I also added a dash of Marschino and Woodford Cherry Bitters. The result is a very well-balanced, slightly dry and spicy Manhattan. The French Toast Manhattan, on the other hand, is on the sweet side, but balanced as well, and really captures the spirit of French Toast. I made a simple syrup with dark Ohio grade B maple syrup, and added a dash of Fratello hazelnut liqueur and walnut bitters. Since this is on the sweeter side, I opted for Ezra Brooks, a hotter bourbon that would cut through the sugar. This may be my favorite of the cocktails; it really is delicious. 

The low-country elements of the cocktail list were evident an a number of drinks, most obviously in the Kentucky Old Fashion (Old Forester, Sorghum Syrup, Angostura), which used Sorghum Syrup for richness. I originally wanted to use JTS Brown Bonded for this one since the Mashbill works perfectly with the sourness of the sorghum, but it unfortunately isn't available in Ohio. The Peach Melba Daiquiri (Diplomatico Exclusivo, Peach Puree, Messenez Creme de Framboise, Lime Juice) and Strawberry Rhubarb Shrub (Tim Smith Climax Moonshine, Zucca, and a shrub of Strawberry Puree and Rice Wine Vinegar) also riffed off of Southern cuisine. The Shrub was eventually replaced with a Watermelon Cooler (Tim Smith, watermelon and mint simple syrup, lime), the recipe for which was featured on Eater.com

Most of the cocktails were easily "batchable," which was very important given how fast BBQ comes out of the kitchen and how busy the restaurant promised to be. And whereas this meant a lot of prep for the bartenders on the front end, it resulted in very fast service. Stabilizing the jaggery and other syrups was also important and batching helped this as well. All in all, the cocktail program added an integral element to the overall restaurant plan, and much of that was due to its cohesive design and how it matched the overall personality of the restaurant. 

Bottle-Aged Cocktails at Mike Symon's Mabel's BBQ in Cleveland

Bottle-Aged Cocktails at Mike Symon's Mabel's BBQ in Cleveland

Perhaps the most original contribution to the cocktail plan -- and the one that took the most research and planning in its design and execution -- was the "bottle-aged cocktail" program -- premixed and batched cocktails designed for larger parties and aged with a wood element in the bottle (which got a nice mention in USA Today.) These included a Manhattan with a charred oak dowel, a Negroni with chips from a Watershed bourbon barrels, and The Cleveland Hunt Club, a scotch based original cocktail with toasted oak. This aspect of the program warrants a post all its own -- and it will get it in the next few weeks.  

So, if you were wondering why the posts on Boozehounds and Bookleggers slacked off last year... well, this is why. Since then, I've also designed the cocktail program for Mike Symon's newly opened (May 2017) Angeline in the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City (scroll down here to see the cocktail menu). But now that classes are over and Angeline is open, I can finally get back to some research and blog posts on pulps, cocktails and cocktail books, and designing bar plans.