Can the Manhattan Go Suburban?

Chain restaurants embrace the high-end cocktail.

Over the past decade, a small army of bartenders and their followers—armed with bottles of artisanal spirits, ice cubes sized for a catapult, flaming citrus peels, and shillelagh-like muddlers—have staged a quiet cocktail revolution across America. Scarcely a week passes without the introduction of some exotic new cocktail bitters (Amargo Chuncho Peruvian bitters), the opening of a neo-speakeasy in yet another midsize city (Green Russell in Denver), or the production of some novel handcrafted spirit (according to the American Distilling Institute, some 302 craft distilleries are now operating in the United States and Canada). Finding an excellent cocktail is easier now than at any time in the past century.

Yet there remains one fortress the revolution has yet to breach: the “upscale casual” restaurant chain—think Ruby Tuesday, Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s—where beverage managers have long crouched on the battlements, ready to pour upon the invaders vats of treacly, electric-blue sugar syrup. Lately, however, there have been signs of a cease-fire.

Early this year, I spent two days at the Cheers Beverage Conference, a trade event that attracts hundreds of beverage managers from large chains, and I found many attendees notably curious about the cocktail insurgency. During one panel, an executive who oversees nearly 200 restaurants recounted a recent visit to a prominent craft-cocktail bar. “What was that stuff they used?” he asked with utter bewilderment. “Oh, yeah, tinc-tures.”

Consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated about what makes a balanced cocktail, and the chains don’t want to be caught flat-footed, the way the major beer labels were when regional microbrews arose. “They can’t keep doing cocktails the way they have been doing them,” Adam Seger, a Chicago-based mixologist for Hum Spirits and an industry consultant who works with several chains, told me. “There’s been a mass change in the American palate.”

The challenge of upgrading a cocktail list is formidable. Craft-cocktail bars can afford to be fueled by quirky passions. The chains, by contrast, run on spreadsheets that calculate to several decimal places such factors as mass taste, low input costs, and efficiently replicated service.

In one session at the conference, I explored a touch-screen video program used to educate chain bartenders. I was pleasantly surprised to see an excellent but long-forgotten cocktail called the Ward Eight in the lesson plan. I was less pleasantly surprised to see that the recipe called for sour mix.

Still, it is possible to construct a better cocktail on a mass scale, as I learned when I met Kent Bearden, until recently the master mixologist at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. The MGM is, in effect, a self-contained city, employing about 300 bartenders at 29 venues, each with its own cocktail menu. Four years ago, the hotel switched over to all fresh juice and higher-quality ingredients. Manhattans at the MGM are now made with an eight-year-old bourbon, West Indian orange bitters, and brandied cherries. The margaritas get a lime squeezed fresh into the glass, not a slug of sour mix. And Bearden says the numbers work for them: upgrading from mix to fresh lime juice added only eight cents per drink, but allowed the MGM to bump up the price of a margarita considerably without customers’ complaining.

Can Bearden’s experiment be replicated by the chains? The jury’s still out. The other day I ordered an Asian Pear Mojito at a P.F. Chang’s. And while I’ve never eaten an Asian pear, I have strong doubts that one came within a time zone of my drink, which was more reminiscent of a Jolly Rancher candy than of anything grown on a tree.

Yet when I spoke with Mary Melton, the director of beverages at P.F. Chang’s, she noted that customers’ tastes are becoming more educated. “They want to know where their rum is from,” she said. “They get it that rum is made on different islands … and has different qualities.” As a result, the chain has begun testing new cocktails in a few markets, among them one featuring a house-made ginger beer, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, and cane sugar. It’s not quite a white flag. But it’s a signal that negotiations are under way.