Food & Drinks

Miami Beach’s El Salón Introduces a Brand-Free Backbar | PUNCH

What is a bar without a backbar full of familiar spirits labels? While house blends of bitters, vermouths, and aperitifs are an established part of many bars’ handbooks, few have taken the concept to its logical extreme—until now. El Salón, which opened in late November at Miami Beach’s Esmé Hotel, is going all in on house blends, using only its own custom recipes across its menu. No Tito’s, Hendrick’s or Don Julio here.

The brainchild of Chris Hudnall, who spent five years as director of bars for Soho House North America before co-founding the hospitality brand Lost Boy & Co., El Salón has a modest backbar lined with plain-looking bottles, identical in height and shape. Each one holds a proprietary blend of gin, mezcal, rum or Scotch, each with two or three variations classed as Traditional, Versatile or Extraordinary. Concise menu descriptors provide guidance: “burnt sugars, dark berries, oak, spice, pine” for Extraordinary rye; “light bodied, bright, floral, fruit” for Versatile tequila.

“[We’re] not trying to be stuffy and snobby about it, but more educational,” Hudnall says. “Let’s bring back spirits to what they should be identified as, which is flavor.”

Hudnall and his team spent months developing each blend, starting by sampling as many brands as they could within each category and deconstructing the flavor profile of each. “Then we started figuring out which ones would have good relationships and how they would work,” Hudnall explains. He had specific cocktails in mind for many of the blends, crafting the Versatile tequila, for example, to fit the Margarita, though every variation was trialed in a number of cocktails as well as neat. Broadly speaking, the Traditional blends are intended for simple mixed drinks like the Gin & Tonic; Versatile blends are meant for citrus-forward cocktails; and Extraordinary blends are designed for sipping.

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The unusual program has presented a few challenges. Costing out drinks, for example, becomes much more complex when dozens of different ingredients are involved, though Hudnall says it more or less evened out on its own. “Quality of the product was 100 percent priority,” he says. “I knew in the back of my mind that if I was using products that were quality and that weren’t high cost, in theory, it should reflect in the blend. And the theory worked.”

Another wrinkle: Pandemic-related supply chain issues have constrained some of Hudnall’s original recipes—some bottles are now too allocated to use, or simply not available. And sales reps haven’t always been pleased to find a bar that undermines the traditional consumer-brand relationship, though Hudnall says several have returned to El Salón on their own time to explore the menu.

Indeed, exploration is key to how Hudnall and his team present the house blends to guests. The cocktail menu focuses on approachable classics, like the Martini, Cosmopolitan and Mai Tai, whose familiar templates can be customized by the blend choice. “We have had a lot of people order a Negroni with the Traditional gin, and then the next round they order it with the Versatile gin, and then the next one they order with Extraordinary gin, just to taste the difference in flavor,” Hudnall says. “You see the evolution.”

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There will be more house blends in the future, but for now Hudnall is content to keep redirecting the cocktail conversation to spirit flavor over form, with the hope that other bars might follow suit with their own interpretations. He compares it to enjoying a well-prepared dish at a restaurant: No one is asking what brand of flour the chef uses. “You bite into that food or you try that sauce and you’re like, ‘Wow, this chef really knows what they’re doing,’” he says. “I would love for the drinking culture to get to that point.”

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