The region prides itself on a strong commitment to traditions at the table, in the market, and elsewhere. It also expresses each of the four seasons with picturesque variety, allowing for a varied procession of seasonal ingredients. These two considerations go hand in hand resulting in products that are borne from generations passed and champion the different flavors of the seasons.
It’s easy to see all of this on our plates. Seasonal offerings find us eating fresh herbs and greens in the spring, wild berries in the summer, apples and cranberries in the fall, hearty root vegetables in the winter. In our glasses, however, an emphasis on seasonality and local tradition is not always as apparent. There might be margaritas in July and spiked hot chocolate in December, but these, despite being delicious, don’t appeal to the New England sensibility in the same way that a lobster roll bespeaks summer in Maine or cranberry sauce unavoidably recalls images of Thanksgiving dinner.
Seasonal drink offerings are all the more appealing when they are tied to the place where they are produced. New England produces amazing apple cider in the fall, pumpkin beers (love them or hate them) invade bar and liquor stores in late September, an array of stouts warm us through the winter. There’s a large customer base for all of these items, thus it’s somewhat of a necessity to feature them on every bar menu in town. But, as the food world has shown us, perhaps there are more ways to play with tradition and seasonal items within a bar program. New England, with its fortune as both a land of tradition and variety, is a great place to explore those possibilities in the hopes of adding new and exciting beers, cocktails, and other drinks to your menu.
One easy approach might be to start with a seasonal ingredient that is native to the area. This fall at The Hawthorne, a cozy and secretive (don’t try looking for a sign on their door) Boston venue with enthusiastic craft cocktail drinkers in mind, featured the “Orchard Smash”. Subtitled “how do you like them apples” to further identify the drink within Bostonian tradition, it’s made with Laird’s applejack as a base. The addition of cinnamon infused triple sec, while not an homage to locality, makes this drink reminiscent of home-baked apple pie, a staple of the region. The final product, in this case, is an original cocktail with hometown resonance.
If your bar tends to focus more on its beer program, you may look for options crafted with the same approach. Some of the more popular seasonal brews may a bit much for the customer who is still looking for that beer taste. You may want to carry something alongside (or other than) the intensely sweet ales that, for some, overstate an icon of the season. Consider Slumbrew of Somerville, MA, who always adds subtle and palatable limited-time beers to an already diverse lineup. This winter, they are again brewing a twist on a Belgian quad called the “Yankee Swap.” Brewed with maple syrup and fermented in oak rum barrels, this 12% ABV nod to the holiday packs a wallop but is jolly at heart.
Another approach to crafting a seasonal menu might be to riff on traditional seasonal drinks that are already tried and true. Take a classic winter warmer like the hot toddy. Despite its Scottish origins, there’s plenty you can do to make it speak New England. This is the approach they take at The Grill Room and Bar in Portland, ME, where they bolster their gluttonous upscale steakhouse menu with equally hard-hitting drinks. There you’ll find the Pimm’s Hot Toddy which uses combines Pimm’s (in lieu of whisky) with angostura, a clove-studded orange, cinnamon, and Vermont maple liqueur giving the winter favorite a distinctly New England air.
You might even take things one step further by using both locally sourced ingredients and locally distilled spirits. At Scales, which was recently added to chef-owner Dana Street’s locally renowned restaurant group as the newest hit in the Portland culinary scene, they’ve concocted a misleadingly-named cocktail called the “Bud Light.” Using barrel-aged maple syrup and Eight Bells Rum from nearby New England Distilling Co., the heavy bodied warmer is part of an entire menu that plays equally on seasonality and locality.
Ringing in a new season with your bar menus doesn’t require that you reinvent the wheel. In fact, in perfect New England fashion, it might be as easy as relying on tradition. That said, for a region so steeped in that tradition, local industry professionals—be they brewers, distillers, or bartenders—have proven to be successfully experimental and inventive.
Customers will surely celebrate the changes you make to reflect the change in season. For folks traveling to the area this season, these menu items serve as a sample of local flavor. For those who frequent your establishment, they can offer an exciting change and a bit of warm comfort in advance of cold months. As we progress into the holiday season, now’s as good a time as ever to push your bar’s emphasis on seasonal offerings with drinks inspired by home.