Welcome to The Process, Scout’s look at the nitty-gritty of designing. From menu development to building killer brands and decking out dope restaurants, we detail how it all comes together, step-by-step. Today, we’re pulling back the curtain on the process of locking in a cocktail list at one of Vancouver’s best bars: The Keefer.
Capitalizing on the abundance of exotic spices, herbs, roots, and flowers found in traditional apothecaries of their Chinatown neighbourhood,The Keefer easily produces one of the city’s most inventive, eccentric and consistently tasty drink menus.
Though they have an undeniably solid handle on the classics (of which I am a fan), it is the ‘Seasonal Prescriptions’ on the “Remedies and Cures” menu that I consistently gravitate toward whenever I pay The Keefer a visit. The roughly eight drinks on this menu rotate each season and are united by a singular theme, which translates to drinks with big personalities, curious ingredients and a backstory that often references mythology, medicinal wisdom or pop culture in a way that enhances the experience without being gimmicky.
The depth of thought and collective talent that goes into building a menu like this is impressive. I am endlessly interested in the layers of the creative process and I’ve always wanted to be a fly on the wall when the menu is being hammered out.
That wish became reality when I was invited to crash a menu development meeting to see how it all came together. Here is what I found out (check the photo gallery at the bottom of this post for visuals):
STEP 1: THEME + BRAINSTORMING
The process begins with a theme. Lead bartender Amber Bruce confirms a theme with her staff, and they brainstorm a range of ways to interpret it. Bruce explains: “Themes started as a way to inspire bartenders to think outside the box and were mainly used behind the scenes, but more recently, we have started to integrate the theme more into the menu to enhance the guest experience. Beyond that, the only other requirements are that they need to utilize an ingredient sourced from Chinatown apothecaries or local markets, then they let their imaginations run wild.” The theme for the summer 2023 menu is “Otherworldly” – of, relating to, or resembling that of a world other than the actual world.
Step 2: PITCH
After a few weeks of experimenting, the first round of pitches comes to the table. Bruce explains: “I usually ask my team to bring forward 2-3 ideas which will then be narrowed down to a cumulative eight or so core cocktails”. The group will discuss their ideas, cut obvious redundancies and leave this part of the process with a shortlist of contenders. “Everyone who wants to participate is welcome!” says Bruce, “We work together on everything from ideation to finishing touches, so often a drink goes through several iterations before it is menu ready. I find it helpful if everyone is aware of what the others are working on because it’s very common for the hive mind of the bartenders to have similar ideas or flavours for a drink. This way, we limit the ingredient cross-over, and the menu stays diverse. After a couple of months of workshopping, it’s very rare for a drink not to make the cut.”
Step 3: EDIT
The team reconvenes to officially presents their drink, complete with name, backstory, ice and garnish. This was the step underway when I was observing. As I listened to the backstory of each creation, I found that the points of inspiration were diverse: some people started from a concept (a myth, a TV show, a character) and worked backwards, while others started from an ingredient (a particular liqueur or a tiny pickled pepper). One person started with a personal challenge, explaining that he wanted to work with an ingredient he didn’t naturally reach for, to create a drink he loved. Sitting around the bar, the team listens to their peers explain the drink they are presenting before tasting the cocktail and providing their feedback. No one is harsh. No one is offended. It’s a room full of people speaking the same language, looking to create the best version of a cocktail menu that they can.
Step 4: FINAL REVISION
Drinks are reworked, re-poured and re-visited one last time. Not much is changed at this stage; this is more of an opportunity for confirmation that the list is tight, and a final moment of pause to scan for any overlooked detail that could be improved upon before the menu launches. In many ways, building a drink menu at The Keefer – particularly this stage of the exercise – reminded me of the writing process: in a magazine or newsroom, pitches are deliberated upon, gauging the potential impact, relevance, and newsworthiness. Similarly, bartenders taste, critique, and enhance their drinks. The shared goal is a compelling product – a good story or a memorable drink (and, in the case of The Keefer – it’s often both).
Step 5: MENU DROP
The Summer Prescription Cocktail List kicks off at The Keefer today and will be available until Autumn (when the next round of drinks will have completed the process and will be ready to debut). At the time of writing, the full Summer Prescriptions menu had yet to be revealed (hit the Keefer for the complete list here), but I did have a three-drink preview (pictures below), and things are looking good… Welcome to the world, Brightside Negroni, Midnight Gospel, and Asteroid City!
Thank you to Keenan Hood, Amber Bruce, and the whole team at The Keefer (particularly Virginia, Juan, Asia, and Riley) for making room to let me sit in on your workday, and for always showing up with creativity and genuine hospitality behind the bar.