Sam Ehrlich handles the beverage program for Blue Ribbon Restaurants.
The Blue Ribbon Federal Grill, located in the Financial District in New York City, has a really creative beverage menu, actually plotted on a graph by strength (“Low Proof,” “Full Proof,” and “Over Proof”) and disposition (ranging from “classic” to “adventurous”). Favorites include the Freddy Krueger (Mezcal, ginger liqueur, fresh lemon & hot sauce), the Lychee Colada (house rum blend, lychee puree, coconut cream & pineapple) and the Don Carlitos (Mezcal, Campari & Italian vermouth).
Here are four things we can learn from Beverage Director Sam Ehrlich:
1. Like most people I know, restaurants and the wine business were not my destination but something of an accident. I started out bussing tables between years of college and became a server after graduation, then slowly fell upward into bartending and management. Having grown up in a family that put a great deal of value of delicious food and good manners, hospitality felt pretty natural and intuitive. Working with wine and spirits followed along as part of it, marked by a series of bottles along the way that have shaped and informed me.
2. Blue Ribbon was created with a single goal: To be a restaurant that can be all things to all people. As a result, the menu is large, the service is exceptionally warm and accommodating … even the late hours lend the feeling that over the course of the evening that Blue Ribbon starts as one restaurant and evolves with the crowd into several others. The beverage program is based on this same idea, meaning that we go out of our way to cast as wide a net as we can. We don’t ignore categories on principle. If a wine or a spirit is a clear and honest representation of a place or a grape or a person, then that is what matters most. That’s not to say that there aren’t categories that we favor. But we’ll never dismiss something out of hand simply because of where it comes from.
3. When creating new drinks, ideas come from a variety of places: A new spirit that excites us, a cocktail that I had at another bar that impressed me or even a dish eaten somewhere that might be translated into liquid form. At least once, I remember starting with nothing but a name for drink. I also prefer to start lean, with as few ingredients as possible, then build a recipe by adding things bit by bit. With the extraordinary strides that have been made in cocktail bartending since I started in this industry and so many remarkable drinks out there, it’s worth reminding oneself that the most perfect drinks out there (the Manhattan and the Daiquiri) each contain just three ingredients.
4. In order to run a successful beverage program, the first thing is to listen to your guests. Being a sommelier is about service first. What you know about a region is for helping a table find what they want, not for showing off. Secondly, learn how to read and build a spreadsheet. As tiresome as it can seem, really understanding what your offerings cost will make it easier to do your job. As Blue Ribbon grew, I had to take a crash course in Excel and both I and the program are better off for it. Lastly: Keep it fresh. Both staff and guests will respond if you are always willing to take a risk on something new. It has never been a better time to have a buying position in the world of wine and spirits and you should take advantage.