Chain restaurants and the bar = Glossy menus and confusion. Gazing over the glitz and the poetry and prices and the consequences to your reputation... what do you choose? This is the first in a series of articles where we go try everything that looks interesting on a chain cocktail to help you Navigate the Cocktail Menu. Call it "better smarter drink orders!"
The nice thing about TGIF's cocktail menu (at least as it appeared in summer of 2014) is it's nice and manageable: it's a mere two pages and 18 drinks. This is nice because sometimes the cocktail menu is long enough to make you feel like you’re preparing for the SAT exams all over again. So looking over the menu, a couple of things sing out:
- There are some nice spirits here: Henrick's gin, St Germain Elderflower, Chambord liqueur... the "handcrafted cocktail" cocktail menu at least makes a general nod in the direction of decent liquor. That’s nice.
- There are some fresh ingredients here! Blackberries, mint, basil, clover honey, and cucumber.
- Then again here are some other things going on: Jack Daniel's, Sauza Gold, Sprite, Coke, sweet and sour mix (yuck!)... not to get too snotty about this but these are hardly designer ingredients.
- Two drinks on the menu: the Peach Sangria and the Hendrick's Cooler are virtually identical the one trading out peach for the others basil and Sprite. Get an imagination!
- Theres an abundance of fruit: peach, strawberries, and blackberries leading the way. But no spices. From that standpoint, it's very mainstream looking with little adventure.
Then we stopped looking at the menu and tried some drinks.
Jackberry Smash: Jack Daniel’s, peach schnapps, blackberries, fresh mint, fresh squeezed lemon, Sprite. $7.39
Okay, this looks a little scary: we're not in love with JD and the schnapps marrying the Sprite makes it look overly sweet in concept. But we like the idea of a softening with the citrus and berry... it's kind of a Tennessee berry mojito. It's erved with crushed ice with obvious bits of berry and mint floating in there. Win for natural bits but fail for crushed ice, which is very clumsy in a cocktail. Drinking, it's sweet... it's not aggressively sweet as we feared but it is still really, really sweet. Very much appealing to a kind of hipster, syrupy soda crowd. Hard to imagine drinking a bunch of them. Maybe one. Happy even to drink one. But not two. Wouldn’t have the faintest clue that there’s whiskey in there if the menu hadn’t promised it.
The Good: presentation, fresh ingredients, the peach/mint/lemon/blackberry is a nice combination and would be pleasant if it wasn’t so damned sweet.
The Bad: Potentially too sweet... we’re not kids after all, we’re in a bar! The crushed ice is a pain. It makes you drink out of a straw or else use your teeth to filter out the ice. And that's before your drink is diluted. The nice flavors are ruined with the sugar and the dilution.
Would we Order Again? Unlikely; unless we’re dating during amateur hour. More likely if you took out the sprite or traded out the peach schnapps for peach bitters. Just make it a grown-up cocktail somehow.
Hendrick’s Cooler: Hendrick’s gin, sour apple schnapps, muddle cucumber, lime juice, lemon juice, sugar, Sprite. $7.99
What did these people do to the poor defenseless Hendrick's?! This fine gin is now competing with some kind of green sour apple, sugar, and Sprite! We’re scared. In presentation, there are clearly bits of cucumber floating inside. It’s served in a big tall pint glass... maybe the TGIF focus group suggested the TGIF target market thinks this is a better deal if it comes in a big glass. The cocktail nerd in us wishes it were served up in a martini glass. It tastes like a war in the mouth. Lime and sugar and cucumber should go together but they’re mismatched here. We think the sour apple schnapps is the problem... you want to like the cucumber and then your face is screwing up from the sour like the sour patch kids had a birthday party batting a pinata swinging from your tonsils. Not sexy.
The Good: they used fresh cucumber and we believe fresh citrus juice. If you want a big glass... you have that going for you. You can tell we’re stretching.
The Bad: The taste. The sour is a bad flavor combination. The Hendrick's gone.... go ahead and use vodka if you’re going to drink this. This trend of sugar AND Sprite AND schnapps is painful.
Would we Order Again? Not just no but hell no. Don't know what kind of focus group this thing went through for TGIF but we have to assume the participants were mortally ill or betrayed masochistic tendencies. It's the one drink that we sent back.
Bonus Waitress Opinion: "I mean it's okay... maybe... on like a really hot summer day."
Peach Sangria: Seven Daughters Moscato, St Germain Elderflower, Hendrick’s, peach puree, clover honey, lemon juice, lime juice, cane sugar. $10.99
As weird as it is to say, this thing looked less sweet than the others on the menu and that's saying something when you see liqueur, honey, and cane sugar on the ingredient list. But elderflower and gin go very well together and so do champagne and peach, so here we go. It presents very nice with large strawberries floating in it and a pale gold. Tasting, the moscato wine really sings through... especially on the finish. Again, we wouldn't have ever suggested there was gin in this drink, much less Hendrick's. Maybe not elderflower either. Definitely can taste and appreciate the honey. On the edge of being too sweet until the finish.
The Good: very different taste... way off the beaten path of pop-culture cocktails… or, it tastes like Sangria, which is still a revelation to Martini drinkers. The honey is a great note. We like seeing fresh strawberries and peach wedges (!) suspended in the drink. It's nice to see a chain restaurant try hard with fresh ingredients.
The Bad: not enough gin and way too much Moscato. Those could and should be better balanced. It's an outdoor summer drink rather than a sipper.
Would we Order Again? As an after-work, happy-hour kind of drink? Sure... particularly if it's on special. (Note, though, how expensive this one is.) Hard to imagine trying to impress someone on a first date with this thing. It's a party drink rather than a date drink and a patio drink rather than a fireplace drink. Taking a jug of this to a friend's party is the highest and best use.
Bonus Waitress Opinion: "This one's one of my favorites!!"
Diddy Up: Ciroc vodka, ruby red grapefruit, Red Bull, fresh squeezed lime. $9.39
This looks perfectly hideous unless you’re a rap star (Diddy being a reference to Ciroc, which is a vodka he partially owns and sponsors). We also think putting Red Bull in anything automatically disqualifies it instantly as a cocktail. And this is on the "handcrafted" list? It should be on the "Immature and Foolish" list. But alright: we’re game. Maybe grapefruit somehow saves this otherwise atrocious looking nonsense. (Kids, if you want caffeine in your drink, use coffee!) It comes in a giant pint glass with the red grapefruit essence (?) sitting in the bottom. It smells like an old jolly rancher that’s been melting in the gas station parking lot under the Phoenix sun. It tastes like it, too. Why do people drink this Red Bull stuff?! It defiles everything it touches.
The Good: it tastes like a frat party. You're getting some kind of technological energy miracle in the synthetic potion that is Red Bull.
The Bad: it's made of Red Bull. This is not a cocktail ingredient. Don't try to class it up with grapefruit; it's still a total bush-league, amateur move in ordering it.
Would we Order Again? Never again. Not even for science.
The BFM (Best Friday’s Margarita): Patron silver tequila, Grand Marnier, lime, lemon, agave nectar. $9.69
This looks better! No added sugar, this looks like a classic margarita with nice, top-shelf ingredients and agave nectar instead of sugar. Thank God it showed up in a short, elegant cocktail glass on the rocks instead of slurpy style. (Sadly, there was a piece of strawberry in the drink, we suppose from an improperly rinsed muddler coming off of another drink. Not the end of the world but kind of clumsy.) We're really, really hoping there's no sweet and sour mix in there. Tasting, it's quite good. No mix, not overly sweet, good tequila flavor... it's the first drink where we could actually taste the spirit inside it. Very nice job!
The Good: a classic drink done well. Everything comes together. Not sure we would've expected TGIF to come through with an excellently executed Margarita but it happened. If you're going to drink at TGIF, get the BFM.
The Bad: Nothing... nothing at all! (Only the random piece of other cocktails floating in the glass but we’ll blame an overworked bartender on that.)
Would we Order Again? Yes... in fact, it's the only thing we're ordering off of the menu at this point.
Bonus Waitress Opinion: "I can't even do Margaritas and I like that one."
Ultimate Mojito: Bacardi rum, fresh mint, cane sugar, lime, lemon, club soda. $7.99
Another classic recipe and again hopefully not too sweet. We worry a bit about an abundance of club soda. It presents in a pint glass-huge!-with lots of fresh mint floating inside along with a lime wedge. Looks a little too big. Tasting... it's a nice try. The ingredients are authentic but it's a little too sweet with respect to sour and a little too diluted. The imbalance stems from the lack of rum. We think that because the glass is so tall, the drink is overly diluted (even before the ice melt) and all you have left is sugar water flavored with a little mint and lime. That's not all bad but when you know what the real drink tastes like, it's kind of disappointing.
The Good: fresh mint, baby! We do appreciate the fresh ingredients. The size would be good if the rum pour were more of a double. Thank you, TGIF, for not effing with a classic recipe!
The Bad: overly diluted, tastes less like a cocktail and more like a soda fountain drink or some kind of virgin cocktail.
Would we Order Again? Sadly, no... sad because it's so close to being good. If we could tailor the drink order to maybe serve without club soda, it might be better.
Overall, we're impressed with how the TGIF cocktail menu is evolving. The use of fresh ingredients is really nice to see. But the chain restaurant culture is leaking through: first, the drinks are overall way too sweet; second, the portions are often way too large; and third, there's nothing daring, everything is safe. But we can, without any sort of reservation whatsoever, highly recommend the BFM (Best Friday Margarita) on the menu. It should please absolutely anyone from the novitiate to the demanding palate.