I’m sitting alone at the bar at Silverleaf in Shoreditch. It’s five o’clock somewhere – here, to be exact. The late spring sunlight streams through the windows and illuminates the brilliant gold-embossed liquor cabinet, momentarily drowning the room in a psychedelic coruscation. I don’t really notice, though. I’m too busy trying to decipher the menu.

The bartender walks me through the cryptic notes on each page of the menu. “We assigned a symbol to each of the major flavour profiles,” she tells me. “So if you look here, it helps you figure out the tasting notes of each drink.” A guide on the opening page helps you understand what each hieroglyphic-style note means. A sort of open-and-close square represents ‘dry’, the infinity symbol sitting atop a cross through line means a drink is ‘aromatic’, three balanced balls connote that a cocktail is ‘herbaceous’.

Beyond the symbols, though, each cocktail is also accompanied by an artwork that is meant to help evoke a sense of what the cocktail might taste like, comprising colours that represent each major ingredient – but also what it will feel like and, without sounding too Gen Z, the ‘vibe’ that it possesses. The verbena olive oil tipple, for example, is described as floral, dry, mineral and fruit and is visualised in a highly textural orange and lilac painting with subtle hints of teal. While sipping on the drink it sometimes feels like the painting comes to life, acting as an accurate portrayal of the subtle acidity, viscosity and delicate grassiness of the cocktail.

The menu at Silverleaf has since moved on, and now, rather than these structured paintings, the team have commissioned science photographer Karl Gaff to take photos of their drinks under 100x magnification. The result is a series of kaleidoscopic, fractal photographs that are highly visceral. “These images showcase the literal DNA of our drinks,” Liam Broom, general manager at Silverleaf tells me. “They help the guests understand the huge amount of work that it takes to produce these bespoke ingredients.”

Silverleaf isn’t alone in exploring this relationship between cocktails, artwork and drinker experience, either. In London, places like Scarfes Bar, Lyaness and Velvet by Salvatore Calabrese have all incorporated artwork into their menu in some way, shape or form.

At Lyaness, Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka Mr Lyan) is continuing his reputation for producing groundbreaking cocktails that continue to subvert perceptions of what a drink can be. In this bar alone he and his team have created ingredients like “KFC liqueur”, a combination of Japanese flavours designed to produce a cordial flavoured like the Colonel’s infamous 11 herbs and spices, or “enriched chicha” which sees a series of niacin-rich ingredients like blue corn and red quinoa fermented with koji rice to produce a savoury and rich liquid which is then combined with Don Julio blanco, persimmon, Empirical Plum, lemon and soda in a ‘fluffy tequila fizz’.

It makes sense, then, that the menu would need to somehow stand up against the extraordinary levels of innovation taking place behind the bar. From the reflective silver cover to the futuristic, space-age motifs throughout, it’s clear the menu is meant to speak to the almost otherworldy flavours in the drinks. “The Lyaness menu was really an embrace of both the bar’s focus of balancing a host-hunter dynamic – our description of balancing seeking out unusual and mad flavours, but then making them feel relevant and accessible to people – and our keenness to push boundaries in the space,” Chetiyawardana tells me. “For each menu’s focus, we asked Magpie Studio to interpret the content in their own way and find ways to bring this to life.” Utilising digital tools and AI to create the final product, the messaging of both the menu and drinks is clear: this is the future of mixology.

Over on the Isle of Man, meanwhile, this futuristic style is approached in a slightly more tongue-in-cheek manner. A big, bold tiki bar which doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s unsurprising that Kiki Lounge has adopted a comic book design for its menu. Although, it’s so much more than a menu – it’s more of a zine, with articles on everything from the importance of clear ice to an educational snippet on mezcal.

“Visual elements in our ‘Menu-Zine’ leverage the expressive and rebellious spirit of zine culture, challenging traditional cocktail presentations while enriching customer understanding through narratives and artistic design,” Jamie Lewis, managing director of Kiki Lounge tells me. “Each element tells a story, engaging customers with the origins and inspirations behind our drinks, and emphasising community engagement and creative expression that defines Kiki Lounge.” For them, it’s just as much about connecting with the customer as it is creating something visually captivating. There’s a community element to it as well – all of the artwork comes from local talent, which works to highlight and celebrate the island’s rich art scene.

Much like how the new Silverleaf menu aims to exhibit the level of thought that goes into each drink, Lewis thinks the menu at Kiki Lounge helps to reinforce the message that, like art, cocktails are so much more than the sum of their parts. “Each cocktail is presented as a work of art, with visuals that reflect the creativity and skill involved in their creation,” he says. “This not only enhances appreciation of the drinks but also deepens understanding of mixology as a dynamic art form.”

The connection between drinks and art is not always about this highly technical approach to mixology though. As Kristijonas Bazys, bar manager at Scarfes Bar, says “A cocktail menu does not have to be covered in designs to connect mixology and art. This comes down to bartenders presenting their ideas and showcasing their skills to the guests. For people to consider mixology a form of art, they must immerse themselves in the full experience, from the atmosphere to the menu to the delicious cocktails bartenders provide.”

This personifies the dichotomy among bars at the moment. As detailed openings dominate the conversation, bristling with clarification machines and laboratory concoctions, a wave of bars have opened that focus on the exact opposite: classic cocktails served in unassuming settings, done extremely well. Take Satan’s Whiskers, for example. In the middle of a bar scene that is pushing boundaries left, right and centre, the Bethnal Green watering hole has managed to nab the best bar in London two years in a row at the Class Bar Awards, all the while mixing relatively classic, straightforward drinks. This is not to say that simple is better, but that as one side of the industry continues to push boundaries and create impressive experimentations, another is proving that there’s still space for a classic martini and a words-on-paper menu.

It’s this ethos that Scarfes Bar has adopted with their new menu, “From Scratch”. “It’s all about going back to basics and starting from the beginning while twisting and perfecting classic cocktails,” Bazys tells me. The artwork on the menu – all of it done by the eponymous Gerald Scarfe – was chosen to exhibit that. “The artwork chosen for the menu represents Gerald’s caricatures being created from scratch; they evolve from sketches to his final caricatures. Even though it’s quite simplistic, we wanted to spotlight the main idea of our new cocktail list through his art,” Bazys adds. So, while perhaps not utilising this artwork to communicate anything about the individual cocktails themselves, the artwork still serves a purpose, working in symbiosis with the drinks on the list.

Interestingly, it’s not just future-thinking menus like the one at Lyaness that utilise AI for both artwork and design. At Velvet by Salvatore Calabrese and Bar Les Ambassadeurs in Paris, both menus have AI-created artwork on their menus despite being, at first glance anyway, fairly traditional (albeit impressive) hotel bars – the exact antithesis to new-wave venues like Kiki Lounge. “By integrating AI-generated abstract artwork, each piece is crafted to embody the unique flavours and textures of our cocktails from a non-human perspective,” Kevin Rigault, bar manager at Bar Les Ambassadeurs tells me. “This approach not only beautifies our menu but also aims to communicate on a sensory level, helping our guests to choose a cocktail that resonates with their tastes.”

“Mixology is indeed a form of art: combining flavours, textures and colours to create something unique and enjoyable,” he adds “By adorning our menu with visual art, we mirror this creative process, highlighting that each cocktail is not just a drink but a carefully crafted experience.”

When drinks writer Millie Milliken interviewed Chris Tanner, Martyn Simpson and Jack Wallis about the opening of their new venture Dram Bar, they commented that the pendulum seemed to be swinging in favour of the “high-concept, orchestrated opening.” Interestingly, two of the three were involved in the opening of Silverleaf, possibly one of the most high-concept openings in recent years. At Dram Bar, they’re hoping to do things differently, stripping it back to the basics. Although, there’s still some serious ingenuity happening here and, of course, a very large centrifuge (the machine used to strip solid particles from liquids in order to clarify them) in a prep room littered with tanks of CO2 for in-house carbonation. Not exactly your bog-standard margarita.

It seems that the rise of these ‘high-concept’ bars, as Millie and the Dram guys put it, has brought with it this new trend towards illustrating and adorning menus. As mixologists and bar folk have more ability to experiment, they are then faced with the dilemma of communicating these experimentations to the people drinking them. I’ve always said that it was the first time I interviewed Mr Lyan when I finally realised how special a cocktail can be; how a drink can be treated with the same reverence as a plate of Michelin-starred food. But trying to get that across via the simplified means of a menu can end up being reductive. So, bartenders have found themselves turning to visual elements.

It would be impossible to sit down at Silverleaf and not be drawn in by the sheer beauty of seeing these ingredients at 100X magnification. It is a reminder that there is so much of this world that you can’t understand until you take a closer look. Cocktails are very much the same. The menu may laconically state, as in the case with Silverleaf’s Fig & Meadowsweet: ‘Aberfeldy 12, Olorosso, Fig Mead, Meadowsweet’, but it’s between the lines where the magic happens and the cocktail comes into its own. By utilising artwork, bars can finally help the drinker read between those lines.