I wish I could drink more. That may sound like a cry for help, but I’m not saying I want to be regularly sloshed, with a dying liver. I’m saying that physically, I wish I could have more than about three cocktails over the course of an evening before I yank on my spouse’s sleeve and say, “We need to go home right now.”
I like cocktails, the same way I like food. It’s interesting to see what a professional can mix up to show a glimpse of their perspective and talent, so rather than order the same familiar drink all night, I prefer tasting the full variety of what’s on offer. The problem is, what’s on offer is often quite large. Margaritas are typically five ounces. Glasses of wine can be six. By the time I’m finished with a couple, my palate is willing to go on, but my body is calling it quits.
Thankfully, the mini-cocktail has arrived. Typically consisting of just a few ounces, the mini-cocktail has a history in the “Snaquiri,” a diminutive version of a classic Daiquiri often served as a bartender handshake, or to favored guests. But recently, more and more bartenders have been offering half-size or otherwise miniature versions of menu mainstays.
Keeping a handle on intoxication is certainly one impetus for the growing trend. Bar One Lounge in Charlotte, North Carolina, recently introduced a menu of four mini-cocktails, all smaller takes on classics, including an Old-Fashioned and a Manhattan. Steven Jensen, a partner at Bar One, says the idea came out of demand from the lunch crowd, many of whom work in the banking and insurance industries and were asking for half-size glasses of wine with their midday pizzas. “I mean, who can have a full Old-Fashioned the way we make it, in the middle of the day, and go back to work loaded?” he says. Bar One’s full-size cocktails use around two ounces of base liquor, and Jensen says it took some experimenting to make them smaller—the smaller glasses are not exactly 50 percent of the regular size, so bar staff tweaked the recipes to make sure the cocktails both tasted right and looked right in their miniature vessels. And they’ve been a hit. “It’s just enough alcohol where they could have a lunch and walk out and not feel completely without their bearings.”
For Natasha Mesa, keeping ABV in check has been part of developing the entire cocktail menu at New York’s Milady’s, the reimagining of the classic SoHo dive bar that’s slated to open this October. As such, the menu will include a section of “snack-sized” offerings, which also allow guests to enjoy cocktails at a lower price point. “Consumers nowadays are a little more conscious about spending, and therefore they’re less willing to be adventurous with their drink choices,” says Mesa. It’s hard to order a $15 cocktail if there’s a chance you won’t like it. By offering smaller cocktails at more affordable prices, someone who would otherwise stick with a cheap beer might be more willing to try something new. “It’s about fun and building the atmosphere of everyone feeling welcome.”
Mostly, however, Mesa says the snack-sized menu gives guests “the opportunity to try more of the different offerings in the same sitting without getting them to overdrink,” an experience bartenders have perhaps never been more attuned to. At Farmacia in Boston, Phil Rolfe is creating a “progressive cocktail experience,” almost like a tasting menu for guests, tailored to their preferences and curiosities. Top of mind is how to serve someone multiple cocktails in a night in a way that, by the last one, guests will still be cognizant enough to enjoy what’s in their glass. “It’s really not about trying to be more health-conscious,” he says, and estimates that each cocktail he serves is around two-thirds the size of a “standard” serving. “That enables people to probably try one and a half, two more things without feeling a burden to finish just an irresponsible amount of alcohol.”
Jeffrey Morgenthaler, bartender and co-owner of Pacific Standard in Portland, Oregon, says the bar’s fun-sized Gimlet, made with his signature lime cordial, is a quick and easy way to get something into guests’ hands while they take in the rest of the menu. It’s a riff on his own punch program at the now-closed Clyde Common, where guests could order small glasses of a rotating punch. “One of the great things about punch was, six people could come in and you could pour them six glasses of punch very quickly while they decided what else they wanted to drink,” Morgenthaler recalls. Mini-cocktails serve the same purpose—an “amuse-bouche” for the rest of the night.
Most bartenders agreed that aside from batched cocktails, stirred, spirit-forward drinks with few ingredients—like Martinis, Manhattans and Old-Fashioneds—work best for mini-cocktails, in part because that’s how many classic cocktails used to be served. “The mini-cocktail thing really goes back to the fact that in a lot of the modern cocktail culture, these drinks are too big,” says Noble Harris, co-owner of Manhattan’s Bongos.
“Proper cocktails are supposed to be short and snappy and cold to the last sip,” says Harris, who offers half-size Espresso Martinis as a pre-dessert drink. And rather than having bargoers force themselves to chug their drinks just so they don’t go lukewarm, or bartenders turning everything into a low-ABV spritz, smaller cocktails allow for complete enjoyment, just on a limited scale. “I’d much rather have something with a hundred percent full flavor and less of it than some kind of weird, diluted, watery thing,” says Rolfe. In fact, it’s how cocktails were always meant to be.