The modern cocktail culture is rich, diverse, appealing and poised for trajectories that we cannot imagine. Advances in mixology, culinary creativity, technology, agriculture, production and distillation all meet a growing and enthusiastic audience. What we drink is now influenced by everything from global cultures to politics to the environment. The conventions of imbibing have at once been rejected, reestablished and rejuvenated in head-spinning revolutions. And those conventions were in full regalia in 2016. A look at what emerged from conferences, gatherings and a whole lot of leading bars and trendy tipple sheets gives us this round-up of cocktail trends worth exploring.
1. Classics Lay Claim
Classic cocktails have moved past the revival phase and are now firmly entrenched in the new cocktail culture, with all its riffs and reinventions. Much like the best French sauces, vintage drinks have earned their due. It is not only about lauding the history of, say, the classic daiquiri in observation of Cuba’s unsealing—it’s about the benchmarking of its foundational bones: the ingredients, techniques and balanced proportions that make it one of the greatest cocktails. Even “new classics,” by present-day bar authorities, are being celebrated in this way. Heritage cocktails that could not be properly prepared without their authentic ingredients are now making a comeback. A bona fide sloe gin fizz, for instance, was much less possible before genuine sloe berry or blackthorn plum-flavored spirit had a sponsor (in Sipsmith). Now, reintroductions of traditional spirits, traditional ingredients and classic cocktails bolster the backstory.
- Classic Sloe Gin Fizz: Sloe gin, lemon, agave— Stetsons Modern Steak + Sushi, Chicago
- Classic Daiquiris—Rumba, Seattle
2. Asian Invasion
Asian ingredients and techniques have recently been on display. These include: Japanese whisky, sake and shochu, as well as ingredients like miso, Sichuan peppercorns, yuzu and salted plums. Many of the Asian-influenced cocktails feature savory and umami-rich ingredients that meld into spirits, making them great for all-night sipping as well as menu matching.
- The Tiger’s Cup: Old Tom Gin, shishito, lemon, sea salt, tonic—Izakaya, Houston
- Umami Mary: Vodka, miso, shiitake, lemon, tomato and Clamato—Gato, New York
3. Coming Clean
Farm-to-glass and grain-to-glass—bars continue to mirror the food world, where the use of clean, sustainably grown ingredients has become paramount. A new emphasis on mindful, socially responsible production of ingredients—from the distiller to the type of juice used—are all top-of-mind. With a preference for more natural concoctions, fewer added flavors, sugars and colors—and a penchant for the taste that more natural ingredients provide—better products are increasingly becoming available. And the more simple the cocktail becomes, the more critical it is to get the ingredients just right.
- Zest Beet Sangria: Organic red wine, organic beet juice, fresh organic fruit—Zest Kitchen & Bar, Salt Lake City
- Handmade Cider, made with 100% Virginia Newton Pippin apples—Husk, Nashville, Tenn.
4. Modern Mexican Sips
Our longstanding love affair with our neighbors to the south and the newfound status of tequila have contributed to the recent rise of modern Mexican foods and ingredients that are now staples in the U.S. diet. We have developed an affinity for all things Mexican. The drinks hailing from Mexico may just be our favorite part. Be it a blend of agua fresca, a topper of Topo Chico, a dash of cacao, a shot of obscure spirits such as Bacanora or the chile liqueur Ancho Reyes, or the mainstreaming of mezcal—all these have us drinking up Mexican cocktail culture.
- China Dance Club: Mexican sotol lemon, salted cacao bitters and egg white—The Lion’s Share, San Diego
- Bacanora Negroni: Bacanora, Gran Classico, Cynar, Barolo Chinato, mole bitters—Hecho, San Francisco
5. The South American Spirit
It could be tequila and specialty rums that gateway-ed us into other South American spirits—or perhaps it’s just good stuff. Pisco—grape-based brandy made in the vineyard regions of Peru and Chile—is often used as a lightly earthy base spirit for cocktails. Aside from the two most popular pisco cocktails, the “sour” or “punch,” the spirit is being fueled for light concoctions. Meanwhile, the sugarcane spirit cachaça, Brazil’s No. 1 spirit and the third-most-consumed spirit worldwide, has gained wider attention, too. Brazilians often drink it straight, and we know it best for its most popular mixed drink, the Caipirinha, but it is as versatile as white rum or vodka for blending.
- Campsite: Campo de Encanto Pisco, Campari, Bonal Gentiane Quina, IPA, cucumber—Slowly Shirley, New York
- Lil Smokey: Mezcal marries with the Brazilian sugarcane spirit cachaça, pineapple juice, and a sage-lime garnish—Leyenda, Brooklyn, N.Y.
6. Retro Playfulness
Toning down the seriousness of the cocktail renaissance in recent years, there has been a recoiling against snobbery and Prohibition-era condescension in the new cocktail world. This is observed in the highest-end bars where vodka, for instance, now plays a reformed role rather than being relegated to the back room for “those” customers. Another aftermath is the fun retro craze that began with the increasing adulation for the Tiki drink, but hasn’t ended there.
For decades, many once-ubiquitous liquors that pervaded average bars—such as Baileys, Galliano, Kahlúa, Midori and even vodka—were shunned by the cocktail community. But dispense with the college-drinking games and the terrible mixers, and many of these spirits remain mainstays, not only for their classic preps but for their makeovers. Hungry bartenders and signature cocktail menu makers are finding new tricks with old dogs. A prime example is Jägermeister, which should always have been part of the mixing-with-amaro wave.
- Shandy on Acid: Jägermeister, heirloom peach liqueur, lemon, cardamom bitters, Mr. Pineapple wheat beer—The Spare Room, Los Angeles
- The Sardinia: Midori Melon, Hendrick’s gin, fresh kiwi, white cranberry, fresh sour—Luciano’s, Rahway, N.J.
7. Herbs & Vegetables Add Garden Variety
With a surge in demand for savory that isn’t all spirit-based, forward-thinking bars have been successfully experimenting with muddled, juiced or puréed vegetables and/or herbs. Now, drinkers can find their way to more dry, savory and botanical cocktails. Herbs lend distinctive fragrance that offsets sweet or cloying fruits and flavors, while vegetables impart earthy, savory notes. Both enhance the ability for sessionable and/or pairable drinking. The neo-Peruvian Llama Inn in Brooklyn, N.Y., demonstrates how herbs and vegetables appear on its menu of “culinary cocktails” and deliver savoriness that complements the menu. Its punch, the Llama Del Rey, combines Peruvian pisco, housemade purple corn liqueur (chicha morada) and wood-grilled pineapple. A variation on the pisco sour, the Flying Purple Pisco, includes puréed purple Andean potatoes with lime, Peruvian Chuncho (Sarrapia leaf) bitters and nutmeg.
- The Still Life: Olive-leaf-infused Absolut Elyx vodka, dry vermouth, vinegar, kombu seaweed and green tea bitters, olive oil powder, charcoal “dirt,” rosemary, shallot pearls, kosher salt—The Commons Club, Chicago
- Chupacabra: Tapatio Blanco tequila, Bonal Gentiane Quina, carrot, lime, turmeric, whey, root beer—Trick Dog (secret menu), San Francisco
8. Savory Makes Moves
Culinary and cocktail trends indicate that palates are turning to more savory choices. Bartenders will continue to push the savory envelope with spirits steeped in nuts, seeds, vegetables, mushrooms, seaweed and fermented foods. Enough bars with limited kitchens and restaurants with limited menus have proliferated to want and need cocktails to pair well with everything from small bites to tasting menus. Culinary-complementing cocktails are often savory, or at least lacking overly sweet ingredients.
- Deli Slang: London Dry gin, lemon verbena, buttermilk, Suze, horseradish, lemon, agave, egg white—The Elephant Bar, New York
- The Floraison: Gin, almond liqueur, tonic, lemon and Aleppo pepper—Highball Lounge, Boston
9. Disco Daze
Perhaps it is the recoil against fancy dining and the ensuing rise of burger joints—whatever the reason, the fun of the ’70s and ’80s is having a rebirth. Maybe it was just the pure simplicity of the times that is bringing back cocktails like the Pink Lady, the Sex on the Beach and the Long Island Iced Tea—not-to-mention the Tiki craze.
- Grasshopper: Crème De Menthe et Cacao, vanilla ice cream, Fernet-Branca, sea salt—Pépé Le Moko, Portland, Ore.
- Harvey Wallbanger: Absolut Vodka, Galliano liqueur, orange juice—Saxon + Parole, New York
10. Agave Moves Up
Agave-based spirits have moved front and center on the bar scene. And they are not just for shots anymore. New single-strain, cleaner tequilas and more traditionally produced mezcals are yielding fresh, untainted mixed drinks with amazing complexity. Watch out for other agave-centric spirits like Sikua, a mezcal predecessor, and aguamiel (“honey water”) or pulque, essentially low-ABV fermented agave nectar.
- Oaxacan Negroni: Reposado tequila with gin, Campari, Barolo Chinato with cola nut extract, served with one large rock—Abajo, New York
- Agave Service: Rey Campero Madre-Cuishe, Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol, sangrita, orange, sal de gusano—Qui, Austin, Texas