"With the Columbus location opening, we're bringing on a lot of new employees. We didn't want them to have to learn and remember all the drinks from the past seven years," explains Eric Ho, bartender at the Lakewood location.
Along with GM Vicki Green, Ho slashed the cocktail list from 15 drinks down to five for the fall season. "We wanted to create something uniquely seasonal that could be replicated easily at the other locations," he says.
Ingredients like balsamic fig purée — think fig jam — are batched each morning at the commissary, a downtown prep kitchen that prepares fresh ingredients for all four Cleveland-area locations. Some of that balsamic fig purée ends up in the Mushroom Melt sandwich, but the rest ends up in cocktails like the New Fig Fashioned, a take on the Old Fashioned, and the Spiked Fig Punch, a sour that also includes spiced rum, bourbon, orange juice, lemon juice and simple syrup.
What Makes a Fall Cocktail a Fall Cocktail?
"Fall is ripe time for pommes fruits like apples and pears, and squashes like gourds and pumpkins," Ho notes. "Like a lot of the seasonal beers you see around this time of year, a successful fall cocktail incorporates those ingredients along with complementary flavors and spices."
One of those complementary flavors comes from maple syrup, which actually gets harvested earlier in the year. Ho combines it with bourbon and lights that mixture on fire to caramelize. Then he adds equal parts hot apple cider and hot chai tea to make a drink called Autumn's Ablaze. (Due to the liability risk, you won't find this one at Melt. But the recipe is below.)
As with winter cocktails, fall drinks tend to bias towards brown spirits. That means bourbon, applejack and dark rums are in, along with barrel-aged gins like those from Watershed Distillery in Columbus and Ransom Old Tom Gin. Barrel-aging a spirit gives it caramel and vanilla notes and a palate-coating depth of flavor that complements in-season fruits. Because that's really what it's about.
"The weather's pretty temperate right now, so we don't necessarily rely on fall cocktails to make us hot, cold or cozy," Ho says. "Fall cocktails are a chance to celebrate the season itself."