Too many egg whites. Not enough bourbon. Overly ornate. An excessive use of adjectives. One quick scan of a restaurant’s drink list may lead you to judge the entire establishment based the character, capacity, and creativity of its cocktails. So you turn up your nose and order an Old Fashioned without ever giving a thought to the intention behind the menu. For shame.
But there’s more to creating a cocktail menu than filling it full of personal favorites or outlandish innovations. Take it from bar manager Matthew Campbell, Star Chef Award-winner and cocktail king of Berkeley’s Comal and its sister restaurant, The Advocate. Having just finished his first year as booze-master of both bars, Campbell knows a thing or two about putting together a cocktail list.
“Both programs are set up the same way,” said Campbell. Each offers a total of 10 drinks, six of which are perennial and four of which are seasonal. “We don’t do a whole menu drop at once,” said Campbell, who opts to go with smaller shifts, sometimes changing just one drink at a time.
While Campbell’s seasonal drinks tend to be fruit-forward and fresh — featuring one-off ingredients, like a massive batch of quince or fresh Santa Rosa plums from the tree of a family friend — the regulars require what Campbell refers to as “seasonal durability.” The Advocate, a gin-based aperitif that serves as the restaurant’s signature drink, is one.
When Campbell set out to build this namesake, he wanted something that would reflect the ethos of the restaurant without being too beholden to the calendar. This was a bit of challenge, considering that the kitchen at The Advocate focuses heavily on the use of seasonal ingredients. Campbell also wanted to create a drink that would appeal to a general audience and complement the dining menu. His solution? A light, bright aperitif that would be delicate enough to lead patrons into a meal, but interesting enough to enjoy on its own.
Selecting the four-part build for the drink was simple, a standard 2:1:1 ratio (two parts liquor, one part tart, and one part sweet). Deciding on the specific liquor and vermouth was more of a challenge. (Who knew there were so many varieties of vermouth?) Campbell settled on gin, Luxardo apertivo, and Cocchi Rossa vermouth, and finished with lemon and grapefruit zest. The drink bridges seasons with hints of orange peel and rhubarb nodding toward winter, while notes of melon and citrus keep summer close at hand.
It’s completely different from anything you’d see at the owners’ flagship restaurant, Comal, an upscale Mexican joint.
“The patio at Comal allows for big, tiki-style drinks served on crushed ice,” Campbell says, which distinguishes it from the contemporary feel of its little sister. Though Comal and The Advocate share a bar manager, design team, and some batch ingredients, the menus are more of a contrast than they are complementary.
The Advocate’s menu is trendier, boozier, and more spirit-forward. “Elmwood is a whisky-and-gin kind of neighborhood,” said Campbell. “It calls for classic drinks.”
In his early days at The Advocate, Campbell experimented with a vodka-based drink that garnered minimal attention — or, at least, minimal orders. A concoction of St. George’s green chile-infused vodka, Green Chartreuse, absinthe, pineapple gum, and lime, the Interstate had a vegetal appearance and read a little too funky to get much traction. Campbell blames it on the pineapple gum (though he maintains it’s quite quaffable, and may bring it back).
You win some, you lose some, and you learn along the way. Having recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, The Advocate is starting to see some seasonal returns to its late-summer menu. Back by popular demand is the Cool Runnings, a rum-based daiquiri featuring charred coconut, lime, and fresh strawberries, along with the Hey Jude, a rye-based whiskey sour made with egg white, lemon or lime, fresh nectarine, and bitters.
In his inaugural year in Elmwood, Campbell has learned to keep it clean and simple, low on sugar, and light on garnish. Though the concept for a cocktail may totally change during research and development — a phase that Campbell calls its mad-scientist stage — ultimately the goal is always the same, something drinkable and balanced,
“Delicious, not precious,” as Campbell likes to say.
The Advocate 2635 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-370-2200 or theadvocateberkeley.com