Bartending Sober – Day 21

For my pumpkin spice cocktails I needed some extra help. Nothing like a few volunteers to help me learn about a guest’s palate.

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Whenever I can I like to invent a new cocktail to keep the Instagram account fresh. This is usually a seasonal inspiration – new flavours with the changing weather. For fall I definitely wanted to play with the nonsense that is pumpkin spice season.

Lots of drinkers love it, and lots of drinkers find it tacky. Every year new products hit the shelves to take advantage of this specific ‘millennial’ craving. Let me break it to you: people have loved pumpkin and the baking spices that go with it for decades. It’s only recently, with Starbucks’ genius capitalist hack into the niche, that we’ve come to love/hate it on a pop culture level. If you love pumpkin pie around the holidays then PSL, and all of its big brand affiliates, are for you.

There are a few reasons that pumpkin flavours, and their affiliated spices, work well from mid-September through to December. It’s fall, the changing leaves, the crisp cool air, and the ability to wear a sweater does away with all the citrus-forward, basil-smashed, and minty-fresh cocktails. Instead of getting refreshed with our beverages we want to get warmed up. These include spices like cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger. So many of these go into pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and ginger snap cookies. It brings to mind food and drink items that bring warmth and comfort to guests.

So I thought, why not try to jump on the bandwagon and tap into the niche. New PSL-inspired items appear on the LCBO shelves every year. I rolled through the liquor store to grab pumpkin ale, of course, and Bailey’s Pumpkin Spice Irish Cream. I was particularly interested in the Bailey’s, because it’s a new edition to the brand’s lineup. Irish Cream and pumpkin spice sound like a no-brainer pairing.

Now here are some issues I had to address right away with Sober October. I can’t fully test these cocktails on my own. To improve a cocktail while in development the cocktail itself should be fully experienced. That means taking more than just the sip or two that I would allow myself. The Bailey’s concept posed a particular problem, because I have a dairy sensitivity. Here I need a couple of stand-ins, people I trust to give me constructive criticism. Over the course of a few weeks I enlisted to help of about five people. These included everyday people like roommates, my partner, and an old podcasting buddy and his girlfriend.

liquorice and cream
Liquorice and Cream: a Bailey’s-inspired pumpkin spice cocktail.

Getting feedback from different people is rather helpful, but specifically non-hospitality, non-cocktail people can help me a lot. This is because these are the people I’m gearing these drinks towards. I want people who don’t necessarily have the tasting note vocabulary I’m used to hearing from my counterparts behind the bar. Everyone in this pool of tasting volunteers also have different palates. One person might be more geared towards the creamy drinks, or another might prefer the the more savoury aspects of a beer cocktail. Either way I want these drinks to be approachable, and appealing to the basic bitches who love pumpkin spice. For example my buddy Zach loves all things bourbon, and I made my second cocktail with his palate preferences in mind. On the other hand, his girlfriend Jessica prefered the first cocktail making her palate leaning more towards the sweet and creamy.

For my personal Pumpkin Spice Cocktail Challenge, planned in time for Halloween, I decided to utilize two products. The Bailey’s Pumpkin Spice that I mentioned above, and Lake of Bays Pumpkin Ale. Both of these products are new this year to their respective brands. Each posed an opportunity to create entirely different cocktails.

For the Bailey’s I decided to make a martini, served up, chilled, and in a coupe. The Irish Cream is shaken together with Ontario vodka, and demerara syrup. To accent some of the sweetness I added a toasted star anise sugar rimmer. At one of my previous jobs the bar team made their own flavoured sugars. This is super easy to replicate, and gives a lot of opportunity to get creative. My partner, who loves sweet things, absolutely loved this cocktail. I ended up ‘donating’ the rest of the pumpkin spice Bailey’s to him.

bourbon and spice v2
Bourbon and Spice: a pumpkin spice highball for beer lovers.

For the pumpkin ale I went in the opposite direction with a highball over ice and no garnish. This means something more savoury, easy drinking, and slightly carbonated. Beer cocktails sound like a summer-only beverage, but I promise that’s not true. Guests like darker, maltier, and higher-ABV beers in the cold months. This is what makes the Lake of Bays pumpkin ale perfect for this project, as it’s a dark amber beer with notes of  baking spice. For this cocktail I built in a highball over ice some with bourbon, unfiltered apple juice/cider, a couple dashes of angostura bitters, and topped it with the beer. This drink had great responses from those who’s palates favour the more savoury (like Zach!)

I think with cocktail development, it’s important to know who you’re clientele is. Most of us bartenders like to think a good cocktail is greater than the sum of its parts. Of course, it’s important remember that one of the parts might outright offend a guest. This could be anything from a dietary restriction such as vegan, or rejection of strong flavours like bitter Campari.

A lot of the principles of cocktail development stem back to the relationship between the bartender and the guest. The bartender should know how to adapt to the guest’s flavour preferences. This is especially true if those preferences don’t mirror the palate of the bartender. Any reason to try out a new ingredient for me as a bartender means looking to make that ingredient more interesting, more accessible, and more balanced.

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