Tyler Rothenberg, beverage director of Handcraft Kitchen & Cocktails’ Golden Rule in developing a successful cocktail program? “Focus on the storytelling.”
When Tyler Rothenberg was put in charge of creating and developing the beverage program for Handcraft Kitchen & Cocktails Mount Pleasant (the second Southern sister to successful Manhattan-based Handcraft Kitchen & Cocktails), he had to consider not only the vastly different demographics of Manhattan and Mount Pleasant but also the different demographics of Charleston’s bustling downtown peninsula versus more suburban Mount Pleasant. In doing so, Rothenberg clung to one idea: a good cocktail unlocks emotional capacity and incites emotion while telling a silent story. Menu development, he says, should be a tool to help facilitate this thought.
Rothenberg offers some insight on how to develop a successful beverage program by using storytelling as a tool.
- Identify the story you’re trying to tell: “Your menu should enhance the environment that you wish to create,” says Rothenberg. “In order to do this, you must first identify the story you’re trying to tell.” This could be anything from a particular nation (America, Japan, France), to a specific person (politician, explorer, musician), or even a fantasy (wizards, outer space). Handcraft’s menu, he notes, is written to tell the story of the American cocktail through time and history.
- Once you have your story, create your chapters: By focusing on the storytelling aspect, Rothenberg notes, you can then create categories and subcategories that allow you to reach a wide audience through an abundance of different flavor profiles and spirit bases. “At Handcraft, to expound on the story of the cocktail and to ensure that we have a diverse menu that caters to all demographics, we broke our menu down to four chapters or categories: 19th Century Classics, 20th Century Cocktails of Yesteryear, 21st Century Highballs, and The Future.”
- Choose and develop the cocktails that you feel explain each chapter best: For example, at Handcraft, our categories are as follows: The 19th Century: tells the story of cocktails created between 1862-1920 while focusing in on spirit-forward, bold, and boozy profiles. At Handcraft, these include classics like the Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. The 20th Century: tells the story of drinks created around the 1950’s to the 1990’s and focuses on softer, more approachable cocktails that are more appealing to the masses. At Handcraft these include a Tequila Sunrise and Cosmopolitan. The 21st Century: tells the story of the most popular style of cocktail in modern-day America, the Highball. “It utilizes only spirit and soda combinations to create bright and refreshing beverages,” Rothenberg says. Last, definitely not least, The Future: This section at Handcraft, Rothenberg says, “focuses in on pushing the boundaries of the cocktail as we know it while throwing away the rules and rewriting the story of the cocktail through modern techniques, interesting flavor combinations, and personalized storytelling.” These drinks will be for the adventurous drinker looking to try something unique and different.
- Research and Find Your Niche: According to Rothenberg, “People visit your bar for your ideas, perspective, insight, and creativity. People choose to go to one bar over another because that one bar has something that the other bars do not. Research your market and determine what will set you apart, but do not focus so much on being different, as you should focus on being you.”
What makes you tick? What have you experienced that you think others should also experience? What is unique to you? Simply trying to be different isn’t enough. Your guests need to feel how genuine your ideas are and how they represent you.
“Travel as much as possible. Read as much as possible. Eat and drink as much as possible. Figure out what you like and don’t like,” advises Rothenberg. “Creating a concept should come naturally. It should not feel forced or fake, and this comes from experiencing the storytelling of others through shared perspectives.”
“With that being said, understand your local demographic. If a market is new to the cocktail scene, consideration that, and allow your guest to grow with your program. Be 100% you, but also know that it is ok to hold back as well. For me, what can be accomplished in NYC is much different than what can be accomplished in Mount Pleasant. Give yourself room to grow into your concept and invite the community to grow with you.”