Tiny cocktails, really?
If the notion of miniature mixed drinks gives you pause, you’re not alone. For all those times you peered into the spirits swirling in your martini glass and thought “if only this drink were … smaller,” enter tiny cocktails to solve a problem you never knew you had.
So why are mixologists around the globe doubling down on miniscule mixed drinks? And is now — while the world wrestles with the stresses of a global pandemic — really the right time to make this a “thing”?
The history of the tiny cocktail
In reality, tiny cocktails have been quietly making the rounds for years.
Restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., began quietly adding miniature mixed drinks to menus in the early 2010s. By 2014, Instagram was awash in images of these Lilliputian libations. From there, the trend entered a long simmering phase, always hot but never boiling over the way, say, cosmos did during the 1990s or dalgona coffee did just last month.
Tokyo’s Gen Yamamoto offers a cocktail tasting menu based on “shiki,” or Japanese seasonality.
Courtesy of Hendra Wijaya
Tokyo cocktail bar Gen Yamamoto is credited as an early adopter of the idea of mini cocktails. The bar is as small as its pours — just eight seats — and the owner of the same name approaches cocktails the way a Michelin-starred chef approaches food, serving a tasting menu of four to seven drinks for approximately $48 to $73, respectively.
Slowly, the notion of premium mini drinks grew. Now tiny cocktails are no longer the exclusive purview of hip gastropubs in major world cities and can be ordered in comfy brunch spots in St. Paul, Minnesota and trendy restaurants in Kolkata, India.
Why bigger is not always better
Spaniard Jorge Conde, the head bartender of experimental cocktail bar Smoke & Mirrors located atop Singapore’s National Gallery, launched a mini-cocktail menu in early March of this year.
With a full-sized cocktail menu peppered with ingredients like pickled purslane, black rice, chili oil and white truffles and with drink names like “Dali’s Self Portrait,” the menu can be a bit aggressive for people who are not into mixed drinks.
Head bartender Jorge Conde pours two drinks from the the married pony menu at Singapore cocktail bar Smoke & Mirrors.
Courtesy of Smoke & Mirrors
That’s why he launched the “married pony” menu with classic cocktails served in small-stemmed pony glasses popularized in the 19th century. The married part references each drink’s pairing with a complementary flavor — gimlet with bergamot, for instance.
But why opt for the smaller-sized pours? If bars in Mexico party towns are hawking liquor by the yard in plastic souvenir cups, perhaps petite drinks are the upscale mixologists’ way of encouraging a more refined, truncated style of drinking.
Not exactly, said Conde.
“The idea with the ponies is to drink more,” he said. “The menu has eight ponies, and it’s very easy to drink six as the quantity of the cocktail is between a shot and a cocktail.”
Small cocktails allow customers to taste a wider variety of drinks.
Courtesy of Smoke & Mirrors
Small cocktails allow bartenders to show off their mixing skills to customers who may normally only order one or two drinks. Indecisive drinkers can taste more of the menu and designated drivers can have a sip while staying sober.
Some spirits are simply too pungent — especially those infused with onion and other aromatics, as experimental bars are known to do — to truly enjoy more than a few sips. And smaller portions keep deliciously cool throughout the duration of the drink.
While classic pony glasses hold 142 milliliters, which is about half the size of a normal cocktail (or slightly more than a half cup of liquid), Smoke & Mirrors sells three sizes of 120, 140 and 160 milliliters priced at SG$18 (US$13) per drink or SG$65 (US$46) for a set of four.
Other bars offer drinks that are scant more than a shot (but usually made with better alcohol than typical shots) which are served individually or as a cocktail flight.
Getting the glass right
Conde first came across pony glasses when he was flipping through an old cocktail book in London.
“I saw an illustration of a hand holding a pony, and I found it to be very unique,” he said.
Pony glasses were originally used to drink spirits — both before and after dinner — but serving less potent cocktails in them makes them more socially acceptable during the day. Cocktails before happy hour may be uncommon, but a half cocktail offers stiff competition to the usual glass of white wine at lunch.
The image that sparked Singapore’s Smoke & Mirrors new pony menu.
Courtesy of Smoke & Mirrors
The glasses are critically important. Serve a tiny cocktail in a regular-sized martini or margarita glass, and customers will openly revolt. Present it in a fancifully antiquated crystal pony glass, and they’re toasting and posting selfies while plotting their next drink order.
“People may have one drink from the signature cocktail menu and then a pony. Or they start with a pony and then a signature cocktail,” said Conde. “For other types of clients, instead of shots, they try a pony. They enjoy a little taste of a classic and then order something more experimental later.”
Tiny cocktails also work for situations when you’re on the fence about ordering another drink. Should you, shouldn’t you? A pony is a smaller commitment of your time and wallet.
How people react to diminutive drinks
To date, Conde said the reaction to Smoke & Mirrors’ pony menu has been overwhelmingly positive.
“At the beginning, people were a bit confused,” he said. “They would ask, ‘How small is small?’ Now most people order a set of four, and the feedback has been great.”
American Lisa Gottlieb mixes tiny cocktails as a way to relax while sheltering at home.
Courtesy of Lisa Gottlieb
He said he hasn’t noticed any particular gender or age of customers who prefer the smaller drinks, though he has recognized that the cacao & negroni pony, which weds shiraz barrel-aged gin with Campari, Italian vermouth and bittersweet cacao, is a pony bestseller.
Though Smoke & Mirrors is temporarily closed during Singapore’s “circuit breaker” response to the coronavirus pandemic, the plan is to keep the pony menu for six months, then create a new set of tiny classic cocktails with a twist.
Making them at home
While people are quarantined, the trend for tiny cocktails doesn’t appear to be losing steam, as big nights out are being swapped for more muted evenings at home. American Lisa Gottlieb is a social worker who has been making mini cocktails and food — intriguingly popping a single popcorn kernel at a time — while sheltering in place in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
“Making tiny food is relaxing for me and seems to be contributing to some stress relief for those who are enjoying my daily @liebslove Instagram and Facebook posts,” she said.
She uses items in her household to mix cocktails, including a vintage Disneyland appetizer fork she bought at a secondhand store and a sterling silver saltshaker that once belonged to her grandmother to mix and strain martinis.
“The glasses that I’m using for the martinis are vintage glass cream pitchers that were very common in the 1950s and 1960s when people ordered coffee and wanted cream with it,” she said.
“This is purely a new hobby that is motivated by being at home and quarantined and wanting to offer a bit of distraction during what is a scary and distressing time.”