Imbibe's Drinks List of the Year 2018 finalists: The menus with the most

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

20 September 2018

From single sheets to vast tomes and locked boxes to CD cases, our judges have seen it all this year. But finally we can reveal the finalists for Imbibe’s Drinks List of the Year 2018, in association with Edrington-Beam Suntory

What is it that makes an exceptional drinks list? Aside from superlative drinks, that is. It’s a question to which Imbibe’s Drinks List of the Year judges have manifold answers. The sweet spot, however, was lists that had creativity and imagination so they were engaging and stimulating, but that were still easy to follow.

‘I like menus that allow your guest to be 10 minutes late, so you can choose your drink then have something interesting to read,’ said Soulshakers’ Michael Butt, who joined the judging. ‘But what’s most important is its usefulness as a selling tool.’

No surprise, then, that clarity and accuracy are essential – and that typos and sloppy errors are absolute no-nos. Shying away from menus that listed a vast array of drinks, but provided scant detail beyond product and price, our judges instead favoured those that provided clear descriptors and context.

‘Anything that can bring a drink to life for customers and help them understand the flavours or how [the bartender] came up with the cocktail are great,’ said Imbibe editor Chris Losh. ‘These things are just as important as listing the ingredients.’

American Bar's cocktail menu gains inspiration from the snapshots of photographer Terry O'Neill
American Bar's cocktail menu gains inspiration from the snapshots of photographer Terry O'Neill

Iconography showing the style of cocktail glass, whether long or short or served on the rocks, is one tool that allows customers to get a good idea of what to expect at a glance.

Another is compasses, graphs or guides showing where each cocktail sits in terms of sweetness, strength and even the best time of day to drink it.

Shying away from well-worn trends and creating a unique list is crucial to standing out from the crowd, and judges noted a downturn in the mutton-chop count this year, with the ubiquitous Victorian-themed menus of recent years starting to peter out. Perhaps this could be the beginning of the end for exhaustive gin lists too.

Where once cocktail competitions encouraged bartenders to shy away from homemade ingredients lest their creations be unreplicable, stand-out menus this year had them in abundance as bars have started to seek out the botanical, herbaceous and savoury – and often found the answer in their own kitchens and prep rooms.

‘Obviously Dandelyan discusses botany in a way that nobody else does – it’s talking about industrialisation – but then you see places like Mr Fogg’s concentrating on key ingredients or the Waeska bar at the Mandrake focusing on ethnobotanicals,’ said judge and drinks journalist Jane Ryan.

Of course not all trends find their way on to menus, and one area judges were surprised to see under-represented was no/low abv. ‘There tended to be a bit more choice on menus, maybe four or five non-alcoholic cocktails, but I think we’ll see that area develop more strongly in coming years,’ observed Losh.

‘Despite the no/low trend, the low alcohol element seems to have faded a bit,’ added Butt. ‘The cocktail-hour sharpener seems to be coming out of focus, and there were fewer drinks with, say, sherry or vermouth as the main alcoholic ingredient.’

Overall, the judges felt that the standard of drinks list has continued to rise over the three years that the competition has run.

‘We’ve come from a point in the industry of talking about a handful of bars producing truly engaging and impressive menus that did more than simply list drinks – ones that actually contributed to the guests’ experience – to this point where so many venues are pouring their creativity into this valuable tool,’ said Ryan.

With 58 shortlisted establishments, the final round of judging will take place next month with the winners announced at a swanky awards ceremony on 15 October. Follow @imbibeuk on Twitter to find out who gets the gongs on the night!

From menus that gathered inspiration from memories, art, history and the natural world to drinks with novel flavour pairings, rare spirits, custom-made glassware and cutting-edge techniques, this category is all about pushing boundaries. It’s this category probably more than any other that shows why the UK is considered to be at the helm of the global drinks industry – and we mean the whole country, too. Manchester, Cardiff, Sheffield and Sussex all proved their mettle alongside the capital. With so much creativity on offer, this was one of the hardest categories for our judges to whittle down to the final 10.

Camomile Rob Roy, Bassoon Bar
Camomile Rob Roy, Bassoon Bar

Artesian, The Langham, London
Bassoon, Corinthia Hotel, London
Cottonopolis, Manchester
Gravetye Manor, Sussex
Pennyroyal, Cardiff
Public, Sheffield
Scout, London
Sexy Fish, London
St James Bar, Sofitel, London
Waeska Bar, Mandrake, London

A classics list isn’t always a who’s who of Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson, but rather, menus that bring together the best of the drinks world and tie it firmly to the modern palate. These are the menus that are guaranteed to hold firm favourites within their pages and cocktails that have a tried-and-tested structure at their heart – think punches, sours and fizzes – even if they employ ingredients that Craddock in his day wouldn’t have come across.

The allure of a list that promises not to alienate is, in truth, one which many customers prefer and the following bars excelled at it this year.

Cocktail Embassy, London
Connaught Bar, The Connaught, London
The Lost & Found, Leeds Club, Leeds
Park Chinois, London
Paradise Palms, Edinburgh
Punch Room, London
Ruby’s, London

If it’s hard to get one menu right, it’s incrementally harder to do the same for 10, especially if you’re trying to make each one individual and yet tie together a group identity. While it may be tempting for chains to play it safe and create lists that can survive suburbia as well as east London, our judges were impressed by the expansive menus of groups who had the confidence to ignore such temptations and deliver exceptional menus.

From the small groups with three sites to those expanding across the country, these chains manage to have individual personas for each outlet, putting their own creative stamp on the drinks and menus.

London Cocktail Club menu
London Cocktail Club menu

D&D London, UK
JKS Restaurants, London
London Cocktail Club, London
Mr Fogg’s, London
The Pig, UK
The Umbrella Project, London

Hotel bars have to wear two hats. On one hand they must be the bastion of classic drinks and a place of contentment for the weary traveller, and on the other they need to become a destination in order to be busy and pull in the pounds. The ones that do this successfully are, in the drinks industry, barely mentioned in the same breath as the hotel they stand in, and yet are loved by the guests in residence, who’re delighted to find such excellence just off the lobby. It’s a hard line to walk, but the following managed to create a menu that suits both flawlessly.

The American Bar, Savoy, London
Beaufort Bar, Savoy, London
Blue Bar, The Berkeley, London
Ella Canta, Intercontinental, London
Leopard Bar, The Rubens at the Palace, London
Scarfes Bar, Rosewood, London

With imagination at the fore and a concept to tie it all together, this is one of the most interesting categories to judge. Having a theme can be a fantastic way to pull a drinks list together, but it comes with the danger of it being either far too loose a concept or a complete overkill. Carefully curated, these menus managed to think of everything, right down to how each ingredient played into their theme. From childhood stories to explorations into botany, these 10 shortlisted bars brought whole concepts to life with their drinks.

Bartenders Ketchup, Ojo Rojo
Bartenders Ketchup, Ojo Rojo

Aviator at Hush, London
The Blind Pig, London
Dandelyan, Mondrian, London
Doctor Ink’s Curiosities, Exeter
Duddell’s, London
The Florist, Bristol
Hyde & Co, Bristol
Lab 22, Cardiff
Merchant House of Fleet Street, London
Ojo Rojo, Bournemouth

Rather than loading up the back bar with every gin ever made, our judges felt that a good gin list should be concise and focused in its selection, ensuring a range of styles without overwhelming guests. The best will go a step further, segmenting the different styles and explaining their offerings, making sense of the heady world of juniper for their customers. And as for those that make the transition from a list of neat spirits into a cocktail menu, displaying how the styles play into mixed drinks, well those you can see shortlisted below.

33 Durham, Durham
Bottle Bureau, Chelmsford
Fifteen, London
Juniper, Edinburgh
The Resting Room, London
Sloans, Glasgow

Is it finally happening? The oft-spoken-of and much-written-about rum renaissance? Some venues across the UK are firmly on board, but for a lot of entries this year, it seems rum hasn’t yet managed to break onto the cocktail menu in any meaningful way. But never fear, there are plenty of interesting rum brands doing more and more with different finishes and expressions, while the tiki havens of escapism – whether they’re decked in fishing nets, channelling a more bespoke 70s kitsch, or simply going for a relaxed island vibe – aren’t going anywhere. These six shortlisted bars are firmly flying the flag for that most joyful of sunshine spirits.

The Brig, Truro
Coburg Bar, The Connaught, London
Laki Kane, London
The Rummer Hotel, Bristol
Trailer Happiness, London
The Smugglers Cove, Liverpool
The Liars Club, Manchester

Anyone for a dram? Plenty of people evidently are as, this year, we saw a huge increase of competitively strong whisky lists. What impressed the judges the most was the way venues were making the often challenging spirit easy to grasp – from tasting flights to mixed drinks, mizuwari and well thought out categories beyond the usual Speyside or Highland styles. And it wasn’t just Scotch that featured, with whisky from India, Australia and even Germany finding its way onto lists. You may notice this shortlist has a few repeats from last year, proving that continued good work doesn’t go unnoticed.

The Birmingham Whisky Club, Birmingham
Boisdale Canary Wharf, London
The Devil’s Advocate, Edinburgh
Mac & Wild, London
The Malt Room, Inverness
MASH, London
Sexy Fish, London
The Tippling House, Aberdeen

Lick your list into shape
Whether your establishment made it into this year’s final or not, the industry-leading training team at Edrington-Beam Suntory UK is offering free advice, education and training to all venues that entered.

The UK distributor works with operators across the country to raise standards and increase drinks knowledge across the on-trade through its Whisky Specialists team. So if you didn’t make the shortlist, you’ll have access to advice and training that will make sure you’re all set for next year’s competition.

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