January saw the overhauling of the food offer at the Cube & Star in London's Hoxton Square, after Arnaud Stevens took over the kitchen. Now, it's the turn of the cocktail menu to have a makeover, so enter freelance bartender and enthusiast Dan Warner to do some shaking, muddling and stirring.
"Cocktails are very popular in London and there's still a place for them," he says. "In the past 10 years there has been a real upward surge in the standard and popularity of cocktails."
Warner was bars manager at the Hospital in the capital's Covent Garden for a year-and-a-half, and prior to that worked for Bank Restaurant Group, first at Aldwych then at Zander. Having recently returned from a spell in Australia, he has come on board for six weeks to shorten and simplify the cocktail menu, and has been working on the project four days a week, planning the new list, working back-of-house on ordering, and tending bar on Fridays and Saturdays.
It was agreed by Warner and Cube & Star owner Mark Turner that the existing list of 40 cocktails needed to be more concise, while Turner also wanted to reduce the holding stock. "It was a great cocktail list with some very good drinks on there," Warner says. "But it was too big, and some of the drinks were too involved, which can be daunting for some people. It needed to be more accessible."
Consequently, the list has been reduced to 25 cocktails - some being classic recipes or variations and some being brand-new drinks, such as the Bajan Rum Punch that Warner created for the 2003 Theme magazine Bartender of the Year competition, which he won.
"Nothing too off the wall and scary," Warner says. He has mostly chosen drinks that can be made in a couple of minutes, although there are one or two that take a bit longer. "It's a small bar and we don't want to keep customers waiting," he adds, "so the drinks are simple and easy to execute, but not at the expense of flavour."
Warner likens creating cocktails to a chef creating dishes. "A good cocktail is about good ingredients and balance," he says. "It's about working with the flavours in the bottle and creating new flavours by mixing ingredients. Through practice, you get to know which flavours work well together."
Even though it's only March, the new list was concocted with summer in mind. "It takes a while for a cocktail list to bed in," Warner explains. It was important to produce a list that would fit in with the venue and the area. "We could do a massive list with grappa," he says, "but it wouldn't sell here, whereas rum works well because of the clientele in the big music scene in the area."
He explains: "There's pretty much nothing you can't do with rums. They vary so much, with different ones displaying notes of vanilla, apricot, chocolate, caramel and even tobacco. The bar has a fantastic selection of about 30 rums, including some you don't find that often - such as Doorly's XO Oloroso, a Bajan rum aged in sherry casks."
So the bulk of the list consists of rum-based drinks, to fit in with the venue's Cuban theme.
There's a section entitled Long and Rum, many of which use the house rum, Matusalem. These include two versions of the bar's signature mojito, the classic rum with lime, mint and soda, but with mango purée added, and the Cuban-style mojito - which is more rum-heavy, with more mint, the limes aren't crushed, and it uses cubed ice instead of crushed.
Then there's the Short and Rum section, featuring drinks such as the Mai Tai, which contains Appleton VX mixed with Orange Curacao, Orgeat syrup and lime juice. There's also a rum version (it's usually made with bourbon) of an Old Fashioned with sugar, Angostura Bitters and ice.
For non-rum drinkers, there's the Not Rum section, featuring gin, vodka, bourbon, Scotch whisky and tequila. "Tequila is the spirit of the moment," says Warner, "and there's been a resurgence in the popularity of the margarita. It's the number one best-selling cocktail."
Prosecco is the main ingredient in the Bubbles section, which includes various bellinis and the Cube & Star Classico - Matusalem Classico rum, calvados, apple juice and Prosecco. "Prosecco works better in cocktails than Champagne and it keeps the price down," Warner says.
Warner has been trying out cocktails on staff and customers, and they have been well received. Once the new list is introduced, he will oversee the cocktail making and tweak the list if necessary, although he does expect all of the drinks on the list to sell. They are priced at about £6.50, which Warner says is about average in London - although, he says, considering the standard of the ingredients used, they are keenly priced. The aim is for a GP above 70%.
The bar staff, who include three full-time bartenders, have undergone training sessions to learn how to make the drinks. Turner, a former cocktail bartender, plans to get back behind the bar himself and is due a training session with Warner some time soon.
Meanwhile, he has been given a set of recipes to swot up on.
Cube & Star
Address: 39A Hoxton Square, London N1
Owner: Mark Turner
Opened: May 2005
Number of bar staff: three full-time; one bar back
Average cost of cocktail: £6.50