Food & Wine

The Art of the Cocktail Menu

By Carolyn Jung

A sampling of cocktail menus from Trick Dog trailblazers Josh Harris and Morgan Schick, who have earned internation al acclaim for concocting inconceivable ingredient combinations such as Coke, Fernet-Branca, pumpkin and curry; sherry, absinthe and cream cheese-washed gin; and everything-bagel syrup steeped with poppy seeds, sesame seeds and dried onions. (Allison Webber Photography)

You know you’ve achieved world domination when you win a top international prize so often that you’re ruled ineligible for it ever again. Such is the case for Trick Dog, San Francisco’s trailblazing bar, which was honored with the Spirited Award for “world’s best cocktail menu” from the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation in 2017 and again this summer.

Upon opening in 2013, this Mission District speakeasy was an immediate sensation, thanks in part to its unique format. Twice a year — January 8 and July 8 — fans wait with bated breath and rabid thirst for the debut of its new specialty cocktail menu. Wildly elaborate, the menus take the form of children’s books, vintage records, Pantone color wheels and in-flight safety brochures. Each menu features roughly a dozen new cocktails that defy and thrill. The fanciful creations star inconceivable ingredient combinations such as Coke, Fernet-Branca, pumpkin and curry; sherry, absinthe and cream-cheese-washed gin; and everything-bagel syrup steeped with poppy seeds, sesame seeds and dried onions.

Each menu can cost thousands of dollars to produce, not to mention untold angst. Trick Dog founders Josh Harris, 37, and Morgan Schick, 41, labored over some menus for more than a year; others, they turned around at the last minute under extreme duress. Still, they’ve never missed a drop date for any of the 14 menus so far.

What does it mean to be recognized for such hardcore diligence not just once, but twice? “It means we get to stop trying so hard,” deadpans Schick, who, after picking up the July award, immediately scrawled on a cocktail napkin the theme for the next menu: the complicated, incredibly complex and highly obscure libation known as gin & tonic.

Highball drop.

Not.

Much as they joke that they’d like to phone it in from now on by churning out mindless two-ingredient cocktails, that’s not about to happen. Schick, a former cook with a graphic design background, and Harris, who put aside law school to bartend instead and has been sober since he was 22 (he only tastes Trick Dog’s cocktails), enjoy the challenge far too much. “We like what we make, and our guests like it. But it can seem like what we’re doing is a silly thing,” Harris says. “This year just felt really sweet.”

Although their creations may be irreverent, the two are dead serious when it comes to giving back. After patrons started pilfering menus, Harris and Schick decided to sell them instead and give the proceeds to various charities. To date, that’s amounted to $100,000. Their Pig & Punch event celebrated its 10th anniversary this year in New Orleans by surpassing its goal of raising more than $500,000 in total for youth programs. The duo, co-founders of BV Hospitality, which also includes the globally inspired Bon Voyage bar in San Francisco, has also pledged to fund a $150,000 scholarship for low-income college students.

The premise behind Trick Dog, Harris explains, is to take items that aren’t menus and turn them into menus. “The only guideline is that we don’t want to offend or upset anyone,” Schick says. “The election menu walked a fine line because politics is something you’re not supposed to talk about in a bar.”

That “Trick Dog for President 2016” menu didn’t go exactly according to plan — in more ways than one. Originally, the menu was supposed to be a small American flag imprinted with the names of the drinks, which were modeled after political slogans. But the prototype came out so badly, with frayed edges and type that bled, that Schick had only a week to devise plan B: printing the drink names on campaign buttons instead. The results pleased them, even if the ballot outcome did not.

“We were disappointed in the election results,” Harris says. “Obviously, we didn’t campaign hard enough.” Not losing a beat, Schick adds, “We shouldn’t have farmed out the design to the Russians.”

This is what you get with these guys — wit and wonder, shaken and stirred. Their astonishingly ambitious “Mural Project” won their first “world’s best cocktail menu” award. They commissioned the painting of 13 different public murals around San Francisco. An equal number of cocktails were created, each named for one of the artists. The drink descriptions, as well as images of the murals with their locations, were bound together in an art-book menu. Eleven of the murals still stand today.

The “Joy of Cocktails” menu, which garnered the most recent award, is their first cookbook. Harris and Schick worked closely with 13 of San Francisco’s top restaurants to create the cocktails, such as the Mr. Jiu’s, a scotch and rum drink blended with house-made osmanthus almond milk and bitter melon tincture, and crowned with Chinese almond and apricot jelly to mimic classic Chinese almond Jell-O.

They’re already cooking up this winter’s experiment — sort of. “Three days after the new menu launches, we think about the next one. Then four months go by and we say, ‘Wow, we really should start thinking about the next one,’” Schick says with a laugh.“We don’t know what we’re doing yet for the January 2020 menu. We do have a bunch of ideas.”

Harris sighs, “All of which I’ve forgotten.”

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