The Making of a Menu: The Franklin
When the guys at The Franklin — the classic cocktail lounge that’s become the most cutting-edge bar in town — decide it’s time to change things up, they don’t just make a few tweaks. They create an entirely new menu, sometimes unveiling as many as 34 new drinks. For the past month, they’ve been focused on getting the spring menu, the bar’s third, up and running. And as I discovered at a recent tasting session, in some ways this is the one the staff — a handful of passionate, cooperative, proud bartenders —is most proud of, because this menu is entirely theirs.
I’ll explain. Before The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company opened last year, they contracted Alex Day, cocktail-maker extraordinaire from NYC’s trailblazing Death + Company, as a consultant. Day helped the crew at The Franklin define what they were going to be: A low-key bar dedicated to the art of the pre-Prohibition (a.k.a. classic) cocktail and modern iterations of it. It would come to be known as the bar that doesn’t serve vodka (a spirit that didn’t make the cut since it came into popularity in the States only in the 1950s), the bar where you’ll have a drink like you’ve never had before, and the bar that banned Arthur Kade.
Day collaborated heavily on the bar’s first two menus, but for this third one, the bartenders — notebooks in hand — experimented with different spirits, herbs, syrups, bitters, and juices to create their own drinks. This kind of work at The Franklin isn’t extra credit — it’s expected. In fact, managing partner Michael Welsh explains that the bar has an R&D budget: “When inspiration hits, I want them to act on it,” he says. The payoff? New drinks that inspire the crew, please their customers, and maybe even break some national cocktail ground.
During the two-day final menu tasting to decide which of the new concoctions would make the cut, Day joined Welsh and the crew to offer feedback and guidance. Hearing this group talk drinks — the day I sat in, head bartender Al Sotack and colleagues Colin Shearn, Kate Linck, and Nick Jarret were among those in attendance — is like listening to NASA engineers land a spaceship. I had no idea what they were saying — atomizer quantities, chilling vermouth, ice size, double straining? Someone is reading a text book called Sensory Evolution Techniques. They do what any experts in their fields do — they keep up on national and international trends, they take notes, they work with ingredients and collaborate on ideas. They talk about drink ingredients as if it was details of the healthcare reform: very seriously. “Really, we’re all just geeks,” says Shearn.
After some housekeeping, they take to the bar and start to mix up what they’ve been working on for weeks. (To illustrate how obsessive these guys are about their libations, they hand-chip ice made from spring water and delivered from Malvern every day.) Shearn whips up an elegant pink number with Gewürztraminer, gin, St. Germain, and dry vermouth, which thanks to Peychaud bitters has a hint of rose. Maybe too floral? He tries another version. This one, A Dangerous Woman, made the new menu cut.
Some drinks everyone agrees are perfect as is — no-brainers. Others need a tweak here or there. One was good, but the feedback is that maybe it’s out of season, maybe not right for spring and summer. Out of season? A drink? In a subterranean vortex of a bar where it could be noon or midnight, February or July, and one would never know?
“It’s very much a culinary approach to cocktails,” says Welsh. “There’s balance, simplicity, meshing of flavors and ingredients. I don’t mean to take away anything from chefs, but that’s how we look at it.” And once you read the menu or taste the drinks, the care and thought is obvious. The new Blues Explosion is a perfect example: Tennessee Whiskey, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, maple syrup, and a more than healthy dose of Angostura bitters creates a fresh, deep, and not overly saccharine drink that will henceforth be my drink of the summer.
There’s another change for this menu: It’s reorganized. Before, the drinks were arranged by spirit — think Gin Lane, Bubbles, and Scotch Rampant. But this time, the bartenders wanted the drinks listed by genre. While they excel at matching a drink to a customer, sometimes, on a busy weekend night, they can’t spend the time going through the menu with each person like they would hope. So, organizing the menu by tastes will make the process a little easier for the customer. Now imbibers can choose from Sweet & Vicious (sweeter drinks), The Flowing Bowl (punches), and Booze in a Glass (hardly any mixers). “We wanted to make it more user friendly,” says Welsh. “Forty or 45 drinks might be too much for a customer to take in in one sitting.”
It’s something only a bartender on the front lines would know. But Day reminds them: “When you write a menu, it’s got to be more than a sum of its parts; categories need to fit within the whole thing. Your target demographic is pretty educated.” They take cocktails this serious for a reason: “It’s our best interest to keep people guessing, to help evolve our cocktail culture and to educate there customer,” says Welsh. “There are some people who constantly want to be challenged.” We’ll take that challenge, Mike.
The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company, 112 18th Street, 267-467-3277; thefranklinbar.com.