THE NITRATE Manhattan at Dandelyan, a London cocktail bar widely considered among the world’s best, is made from Scotch, tequila, rhubarb beer, herbs and sheep’s wool lanolin. The flavors are challenging—smoky and bitter, with a subtle ovine funk—but, then, so is the concept behind them: The drink is intended as a study of symbiotic agricultural systems, exemplified by hops, sheep and rhubarb production in 19th-century Yorkshire.
Dandelyan (20 Upper Ground, London, dandelyanbar.com) is one of several highly regarded bars to have turned its cocktail list into a locus for the sort of thematic exploration more commonly associated with museum curators than bartenders. That Nitrate Manhattan can be found in “The Modern Life of Plants,” a menu that aims to explore the impact of industrialization on plant and animal life. Ryan Chetiyawardana, Dandelyan’s founder, says the menu resulted from a year-long research and development effort that drew in 31 staffers.
At Midnight Rambler(1530 Main St, Dallas, midnightramblerbar.com), a subterranean cocktail lounge, the current menu, “Pagan Rituals,” centers on historical customs for greeting the arrival of spring. Past themes have included “Dark Tropical”—warm-weather drinks filtered through a “post-modern minimalist/essentialist neo-classical house style,” in the bar’s own verbiage—and “Northern Soul,” which took as its inspiration the 1960s British music and dance movement of that name.
At the Reading Room(829 Upshur St. NW, Washington, D.C., petworthcitizen.com), a bookshelf-lined event space at the back of the restaurant and bar Petworth Citizen, each weekend brings a menu themed around a different book, with drinks crafted to embody salient quotes. Little Red Door(60 Rue Charlot, Paris, lrdparis.com) recently introduced a list designed to explore the social psychologist Shalom Schwartz’s Theory of Basic Human Values (Conformity, Benevolence, etc.).
To the casual drinker, the idea of transmuting religion or social science into cocktails may verge on the absurd. But with the craft cocktail movement now well into its second decade, ambitious bartenders are ready to push beyond the classic recipes and seasonally driven menus that initially defined the genre.
“When we opened Dandelyan, the first thing we considered was how the scene was evolving,” Mr. Chetiyawardana said. “I wholeheartedly see the value of the classics, but at this stage, to put a document in front of people that lists a Negroni, a Daiquiri, a Manhattan—it feels condescending.”
When Joaquín Simó opened Pouring Ribbons(225 Avenue B, New York City, pouringribbons.com) in 2012, he set out to serve drinks that were expertly crafted and seasonal, but approachable. “After three years of it, I was bored to tears,” Mr. Simó said. He wondered how he could radically alter his approach without having to redesign the bar, and thought of Next: the restaurant run by chef Grant Achatz in Chicago that reinvents itself several times a year, with menu titles like “Ancient Rome” and “Childhood.” Why not do something similar with cocktails?
Pouring Ribbons’ first theme, “Route 66,” sent staff digging through poetry, music and movies. The bar is now on its sixth menu, which explores Cuba in 1958. One drink, called the Pilar, after Ernest Hemingway’s fishing boat, and inspired by the daiquiri made for him at the restaurant La Floridita, contains gin, grapefruit-lime cordial, Cristal aguardiente, Manzanilla Sherry and Campari. Mr. Simó thinks the new approach has helped keep Pouring Ribbons on the map. “Now you can get a perfect Negroni at a neighborhood bar,” he said. “You can get a great Collins or Daiquiri anywhere. So, what brings you to a place like this?”
Trick Dog (3010 20th St., San Francisco, trickdogbar.com) came by its novel menus rather spontaneously: When the bar was being built, co-owners Josh Harris and Morgan Schick saw Pantone color wheels lying around the site and thought the format would be an interesting one for a cocktail menu. Every six months, the presentation changes. The drinks list has taken the form of a record album, an airplane safety card and, now, a cookbook, in which the offerings represent collaborations with Bay Area chefs such as Dominique Crenn and Angela Pinkerton. For chef Melissa Perello’s drink, the Octavia, “we made a thing that was essentially a daiquiri but with a seasonal infusion on the rum [in collaboration] with a farm she works with,” said Mr. Shick. The drink includes Meyer lemon, Sauvignon Blanc, vodka, sugar, thyme and coriander.
Mr. Harris and Mr. Schick say the best part of reinventing the menu concept biannually is that it keeps the team creatively engaged—but they admit it’s not a bad marketing hook, either. “We’ve found that the main ongoing business benefit is that twice a year people write about us again, and twice a year people will come back,” Mr. Schick said.
Looking over menus from bar to bar, I was struck by how little of the extensive research undertaken is typically noted on them. At Midnight Rambler, for instance, a drink with a rich genealogy involving the maple and birch sugaring traditions of the Ojibwe tribe, is reduced to a list of ingredients: Texas Rye Whiskey, Pippali Birch, Maple, Angostura. I asked the cocktail’s creator, Chad Solomon, about the loss in translation. “I guess it’s the same way an actor would create a character,” he said. “A lot of it goes into the conceptualizing that the guest is never going to see, pulling together a back story to create a drink that’s cohesive.”
‘At this stage, to put a document in front of people that lists a Negroni, a Daiquiri, a Manhattan—it feels condescending.’
Last year, the bartender Remy Savage left Little Red Door and took the helm at Artesian(1C Portland Place, London, artesian-bar.co.uk), a prestigious bar at London’s Langham Hotel that had already become known for its theatrical drinks and highbrow menu concepts. He wanted to continue to work with theme menus but move beyond those that involved obscure topics or biographical influences from the staff. So, he circulated a survey to hundreds of people. What flavors do you associate with falling in love? How about learning to ride a bike? The resulting menu, Artesian Moments, has been developed around the statistical results of that exercise, with the goal of tapping into widely shared emotional responses to certain tastes and aromas.
On a recent Thursday evening, I stopped by to see if I could rewind the clock a few years with “The Moment You Turned 30,” a mixture of aged Scotch, Sauternes, isolated tannins and orange wine over hand-carved ice: smooth and expensive-tasting, a youngster’s idea of grown-up sophistication. Did it remind me of turning 30? No, but it did divert the conversation with my companion away from the day’s minutiae, to reflect on that moment in each of our lives. That counts as a success in my book.