I have to admit up front that I'm a huge fan of the Garden; I used to eat there about twice a week in high school. Breadsticks, never-ending salad, and spaghetti with meatballs—I loved them. And I loved that every Olive Garden had the same pictures on the walls, and played the same Frank Sinatra songs ("Fly me to the moon...") But nostalgia only goes so far. The food might still be tasty, in that comforting generic-and-heavy way. But their specialty cocktails? That's another story.
Looking at the menu, my hopes dropped. Nothing but fruity and sweet-sounding drinks: Mango Martini, Limoncello Lemonade, Watermelon Martini. I had a bad feeling this would be a sugar-fest. (On the bright side, all of the cocktails were between $6.50 and $8.00.)
The Garden's menu lists the Italian Margarita as Sauza Gold Tequila, Triple Sec, and DiSaronno Amaretto. Basically, it's a regular old margarita with a sweet amaretto shot on the side. It's dominated by orange flavor; if I were branding fast-casual cocktail drinks, I'd dub it an Orange-ita. I could barely taste any booze at all; dumping the amaretto into the glass doesn't make it any better. Drinkability: This one's for those who don't want their booze to taste like booze.
I thought the Watermelon Martini would be the worst drink, but it turned out to be better than I expected, like a liquified Jolly Rancher. I'm not saying that pejoratively—it has the exact flavor composition of a watermelon Jolly Rancher: mildly sweet but tart enough to make your lips pucker a bit. At least, here, there's something to balance the sugar. The alcohol goes down smoothly, but I could tell I was drinking (and not being ripped off by a meager pour). Drinkability: Potable, but pink.
In last place was the Limoncello lemonade—I wanted a drink, I got a frozen lemonade. It's like something you get from a stand on a New Jersey boardwalk. Sticky-sweet. Drinkability: This one tastes like it's safe for a 9-year old. But even a 9-year-old would probably only like it on a really hot day.
Ok, so maybe the menu caters toward those looking more for sweet treats than serious drinks. To test the bartending, I ordered a Manhattan as my last test. The waiter returned a few moments later and asked, "Do you want that with bourbon or brandy?" Not auspicious for the Garden.
But when the cocktail arrived, I was surprised. There was a little extra in the maraschino cherry department, but this drink was no sweeter than any other Manhattan I've had. I was disappointed that I could hardly taste bitters, but the balance of whiskey and sweet vermouth wasn't bad. Drinkability: A little harsh, but at least it approaches the classic.
These things will leave you with a day-after-Halloween sugar hangover. When it comes down to it, Olive Garden's cocktail menu is more about sweets than spirits. I should have guessed: Olive Garden is owned by the Darden Restaurant Group, just like Red Lobster. The composition of the Garden's drinks is eerily similar to their seafood-serving cousin. If you're at the Olive Garden, stick to the beer and wine (or water.)