The more whimsy the better in today’s cocktails, like these clever watermelon-grapefruit tequila shooters, delivering flavor with fun.
Drinking, dappling and dipping into a range of industry events and conferences like The Flavor Experience and Manhattan Cocktail Classic reveal the influencers and the top trends that motivate the direction of next year’s menus. Tales of the Cocktail (TOC) is the premier of cocktail-specific events, bringing together an ever-growing global group of bar professionals, distillers, brand ambassadors, journalists and cocktail geeks, and making it a hotbed of both macro and micro cocktail, spirit and bar trends. What follows is a summary of trends and innovations currently inspiring U.S. cocktail menus.
Top Tipples & Rising Tides
Leading the Luau
Tiki authority Jeff “Beachbum” Berry has been making rounds on the cocktail circuit for as long as I can remember, imparting the history, extolling the virtues and trying to bring back the lost art and traditions of elaborate Tiki bars and cocktails of the 1930s and ’60s, which had all but lost their mojo in the onslaught of cheap mixes and cheaper liquor. This year, Berry put his money where his mouth is and opened his highly acclaimed Tiki joint, Latitude 29, in New Orleans. Following in the tracks of the celebrated Chicago lounge Three Dots and a Dash, Tiki newcomers tread lightly in the footsteps of stalwarts Smuggler’s Cove, Don the Beachcomber, Trader Vic’s and Forbidden Island. Berry’s exhaustively researched recipes bring authenticity to his menu, which includes the 1944 Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, classics like the Zombie and the Navy Grog, and forgotten recipes like Don the Beachcomber’s Lapu Lapu overproof rum punch for two.
Meanwhile, outposts like Houston’s Lei Low, Chicago’s Lost Lake and New Orleans’ Cane & Table have modernized foundational Tiki traditionals. In fact, Cane & Table’s menu features Proto-Tikis, their takes inspired by the spirit of Tiki. Each of the Swizzles, Daiquiris and Zombiesque cocktails gives credit to its original author, like the Flu Cocktail, a sour with rye, ginger and Jamaican rum (The Savoy Cocktail Book, 1930). Lei Low’s twisted version of a Painkiller is built from rum infused with flavors in a Zombie cocktail. Both validate that the bones of these drinks go way further than the umbrella—even for non-Tiki themed bars.
Yo Ho Ho
Whether it was rum or Tiki to take the lead, the two have enjoyed a parallel renaissance. And while rum has truly never lost status, cocktail “culture” was long lost in the trap of large-batch rums and the over-sweet mixers that erased them. The world of North- and South-Central American rum demonstrates just how American rum really is. Multiple educational sessions, tastings and events this year focused on newfound sources. On the axis is a slew of small-batch artisan rums made traditionally then modernized by small American producers and blenders using local ingredients. San Diego’s very-American Jsix restaurant features cocktails with U.S.-made spirits, many of them rum. There, Queen of Rum Row features both Papa’s Pilar Blonde and Lemon Hart rums in a simple mix with lime and housemade falernum.
While the Caribbean sugar route still maintains a stronghold, South and Central American rums, both original and centuries old, are the newly beloved. Master blenders from Venezuela’s Diplomático Rum and Guatemala’s Zacapa were on hand at Tales of the Cocktail, hosting educational seminars and pairing dinners. They explained the art and science of making, aging and blending their rums, as well as how to exhibit their unique characteristics both neat and as a base spirit when matching with traditional and contemporary dishes. At Foreign Cinema in San Francisco, a food-friendly riff on the Trinidad Sour is the Stranglehold, which features Diplomático Rum, lime, orgeat, Rittenhouse Rye and Angostura. The resulting cocktail tones down the bitters so as not to overwhelm either the rum or the palate.
Those of us who have had a long love affair with once-obscure Italian and Italian-inspired liquors and fortified wines are not alone. Big brands like Campari and now Aperol may have forged a path for bittered aperitivi and vermouths, but bartenders and their followers have fully embraced varied amari as a favored ingredient, if not straight-up digestif. At Tales of the Cocktail, the Café Torino pop-up hosted by Martini & Rossi featured historical reinvented aperitivi from their birthplace, while a super-star foursome (Francesco Lafranconi with Giuseppe Gallo, Mauro Mahjoub and Luca Picchi) showed their expertise on the influence and evolution of the world’s best-known Italian aperitivo: the Negroni. Many say a well-crafted Negroni is the sign of a good bar.
Amaro is a complex beverage, often with a vastly diverse set of ingredients, making it both bitter and sweet. It requires the knowledge of what to do with that, much of which has come from Italians and Euro-alpine cultures. Seeing the escalating trend, many producers and devotees have made their own less-traditional entries: Amaro di Angostura (hailing from Trinidad) won this year’s TOC Best New Spirit award, while the unveiling of Balsam, an American Amaro-vermouth blend from Chicago’s legendary mixologist Adam Seger and master tea blender Rodrick Markus, reveals just how significant both amari and vermouth are to the modern-day bar.
Slush can certainly go upscale. The Champagne Slushies at Soda & Swine in San Diego include vermouth, cava and a range of fruity touches.
Brain-freezing beverages are not just for beating the heat at outdoor festivals anymore. Perhaps as part of the movement to elevate low-brow or just the need to bring the fun back, all manner of frozen cocktails are making a slushy splash even at the most posh bars and cafés. They range from dessert shakes to boozy snow cones, granite-style classic cocktails to blended Tiki-inspired creations. Ice acts as a low-proofer for aperitif, while sweet concoctions double as dessert and after-dinner drink, like Erin Rose’s Frozen Irish Coffee in New Orleans.
Tailor-made for high-volume bars, remote locations, pop-ups and events, a row of frozen beverage machines no longer signals sickly sweet syrup amalgams, but a way to serve high-quality, refreshing cocktails with consistency. They’re easily batched and flexible enough to switch out signature flavors by day, week or month. Brookville Restaurant in Charlottesville, Va., switches things up to go with the season and local production. At summer’s end it featured the Equinox, a boozy snowball filled with Digger birch-bark infused Blue Ridge Vodka and local honey.
Throwing together a people-pleasing or thematically signaturized base into which a number of base spirits work is a strategy that offers efficient and consistent results as well as customization. Mature cocktails may have started as a novelty, but they’ve become a bar top signature and a draw in and of themselves. For instance, suggestions for enjoying New York’s landmark High Line are not complete without a stop at Alta Linea for its legendary Frozen Negroni. And though Seattle’s TanakaSan is highly regarded for its fine Japanese cuisine, the sake slushies never fail to be mentioned first.
Once kid-pleasing, Slush Puppie, Icee and sno-balls are showing up as adult versions reminiscent of those cool treats of yesteryear, yet with grown-up sophistication. With perfected ice-shaving machines and world-famous flavors, third-generation sno-ball queen (and James Beard award-winner) Ashley Hansen of New Orleans institution Hansen’s Sno-Bliz takes her classic sno-balls to the next level with youthful exuberance. She has teamed up with various bartenders and chefs for special events, as in a recent soiree at Southern Food and Beverage Museum and their restaurant Purloo. An example of an adult-friendly sno-ball: the legendary Watermelon to which El Dorado Demerara Rum, fresh lime and rosé cava is added, or where gin, lemon and mint spikes a classic Hansen’s cucumber.
And frozen no longer means summer. In Kansas City, Mo., Snow & Co. seeks to bring that childhood treat to the adult with its two year-round, all-frozen beverage bars. Snow & Co. reports only a small drop in sales in the colder months. The all-year fun adult refreshment includes the Snow & Co. exclusive, Christopher Elbow’s Sexual Chocolate, crafted with signature Mexican spiced chocolate, Grand Marnier and elderflower liqueur, which is likely to light up a cold night.
Ribalta in New York features Bicycle Thieves with Laird’s Applejack, Galliano L’ Autentico, fresh lemon and a cardamom-dusted lemon wheel.
Bring Back the Cheer
Last year’s TOC included a heads up about the cocktail scene becoming less pretentious. Little did we know the counter-culture would kick in so quickly, turning pretention into playfulness.
Frozen is not the only offering at the bar that’s gone retro. Much like the nostalgic nosh that accompanies them, “classic” is moving up a generation and down a posh notch. What better to pair with those small plates of rehabilitated pigs-in-a-blanket, revitalized Swedish meatballs or rejuvenated pupu platter favorites than refreshed versions of the ’70s and ’80s cocktails that often accompanied them? San Diego’s retro-style cocktail lounge, Sycamore Den, serves up a rotation of machine-made flashback classics in slushy form, like the Poor Reds cocktail concocted with Jenever, Galliano, crème de cacao, milk, sarsaparilla bitters and cinnamon.
Sure, these are less profound than those still vital, historically relevant pre- and post-Prohibition cocktails, but the movement to more fun and often frivolous (though importantly, of equal quality) certainly signifies a relaxation on the cocktail scene. Look for a return to those favorite beachside swizzles, ski-trip sips and boat drinks. The Wright Bar at the Arizona Biltmore holds claim to the 1930s invention of the original Tequila Sunrise, but its popularity (and often unfortunate “modernizations”) became better known as a cocktail lounge spring-break drink once the Eagles’ hit released in the early ’70s. The Wright makes its classic as we all should, with Sauza Blue Agave Tequila, fresh orange juice and a splash of house grenadine—proving that quality ingredients will always make a worthy cocktail.
To get a well-crafted cocktail should not require a reservation at a pre-Prohibition speakeasy, and to substantiate the trend, even high-end bars are going low-brow. From boilermakers and two-ingredient highballs to blue and green drinks (with smartly reformulated Blue Curaçao and Midori of course), it wasn’t the drinks that were wrong, it was the cheapening of them that turned us off. Good-quality, fresh ingredients need not preclude simplicity or even rusticity. Prizefighter bar in Emeryville, Calif., was formed by an A-list of bar professionals who say, “Prizefighter is an attempt to gently nudge the bar industry and the drinking public in the direction we think it should be going.” They ask: “Can we put out world-class cocktails in a casual and fun environment? Can we remove all the pomp and circumstance surrounding cocktails and cocktail culture and get back to what great drinks really are?” Prizefighter’s list of Neighborhood Cocktails, Patio Drinks and Soda Fountain Specials made with natural sweeteners, fresh juices and superior technique—still line priced at $10—is high proof.
Sentimental, whimsical, artistic and often idiosyncratic forms, garnishes, vessels and display and delivery mechanisms are taking hold, further distinguishing brands, bars, catering and events. For TOC attendees interested in the farm-to-table approach, the bar Solerno (the blood orange liqueur) had a tree from which people plucked their drinks, while Grey Goose featured a “sensory” brunch where attendees could pick from mountains of citrus and planters full of fresh herbs to mix and muddle their own fragrant cocktails. Ice has also become a botanical delivery system, where bars like Bar Boulud specify inclusions, flavors and shapes (juices, liqueurs, herbs and flowers) based on the cocktail, maintaining and enhancing the flavor as they melt.
Since their introduction at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., five years ago, bottled cocktails have really popped. As a matter of practicality, bottling allows signature carbonated or barrel-aged flavors and specific recipes to be batched and preserved, even in high-volume operations. However, operators and event coordinators have made choosing, ordering and drinking from glass bottles as much a treat as it was to get a bottle of Coke in yesteryear. Specially designed coolers, funky designer vending machines and ice-filled bathtubs are only a few of the delivery mechanisms we’ve seen. More creative vessels making their mark included coconuts into which nips were inserted, Absolut Elyx House’s extraordinary copper pineapples and owls, giant sipping seashells, pop-up popsicles and, most surprisingly, Chicago’s cocktail kingdom The Aviary’s giant, green-apple balloons which aromatically burst with one sweet lick.
The Spring Fling features fresh-pressed green juice, Green Chartreuse, gin, lemon and lime at Zest Kitchen & Bar in Salt Lake City.
Boomers, CrossFitters, health nuts and Millennials alike are becoming more mindful about consumption. Better-for-you drinking may well be in the eyes of the beholder. For some, it’s lowering the alcohol, for others, it’s reducing or cutting out calories, sugar, gluten or unnatural ingredients—or maybe including more sensible, sustainable, healthful ingredients whenever possible. Regardless, wellness, health and mindful choices are becoming part of cocktail culture.
Like self-customizing flexitarians, mature tipplers may prefer a big night on the town one night, a light evening aperitif before work or a designated-driver diet of adult non-alcoholic cocktails on another. Drinkers may just want to enjoy several aperitif or cocktails and perhaps dinner with wine without ill effect, making sessionable, lower-octane cocktails more appealing for a long night. The best bars offer a wide range and arrange their menus with a nod or maybe an outright wink from highest to lowest ABV, or in sections with customizable opportunities to choose a liquor/proof.
During a Tales of the Cocktail session called “Is Non-Alcoholic the new Vegetarian?” British super-barman Alex Kratena made a case for a more visionary approach to creating alcohol-free cocktails. He asked: “If chefs don’t need meat on every single plate, why do we need alcohol in every single drink?” Alcohol-free options that are as thoughtfully considered, prepared and served as those on the regular list get the highest points. New York’s Betony serves a housemade tobacco-infused kombucha mocktail. The three-week-steeped and fermented tea and tobacco leaves admittedly can impart a nicotine high that, while non-alcoholic, may not be favored by everyone, so Betony also offers a beautiful goblet of its super-chic housemade beet “wine” as an option.
Taking a cue from those newly popular Italian aperitivi, bartenders often choose a fortified wine-based beverage like vermouth or sherry (i.e. Cocchi, Bonal, Dubonnet, Lillet, Byrrh) and properly balance, remembering to gear these adult cocktails toward the dry and refined rather than the sweet and fruity. San Francisco’s AQ does just this with several low-impact cocktails, such as its delicious Florine—a blend of sherry, sweet vermouth, grapefruit, orange bitters, hazelnut and sage.
Juiced, Bubbled and Sweetened
Cold-pressed juices, produce-based tinctures, house-carbonated flavored waters and dry sodas, and kombuchas plus coconut water, aloe, acai, chia, botanical tinctures and other juice-bar favorites are definitely migrating to the bar. Austin’s Odd Duck shows off its farm-to-table roots with several produce-based cocktails like a Carrot Mule (on draft) and a green-juice-based Green Thumb with gin, lemon and salt brine. Sweetening drinks with “natural” sugar was a crazy thought only ten years ago, yet now, with the vilification of sugar, deploying agave, honey, maple and even more naturally sweet ingredients like beets, carrots, palm and dates is en vogue for the sweetest ending. Burgeoning Fox Restaurant Concepts chain True Food Kitchen also features cocktails with a variety of more virtuous ingredients, such as organic spirits, fresh-pressed juices and natural or no sweeteners that bring all the joy of cocktails with a lot less guilt.