Bubbles and citrus brighten this Phillips Head cocktail—with Combier Pamplemousse Rose, fresh orange and Prosecco—created by beverage director Keith Nelson at New York City’s Arlington Club. photo courtesy of MELISSA HOM. Tippling is trendy. When the craft cocktail hits even family-style restaurants like Denny’s, we have another sign—as Slate writer Troy Patterson puts it—“that fancy-ass drinking has gone thoroughly mainstream.” Indeed, the bar has been raised to the level of a 100 percent agave tequila margarita with fresh lime and agave syrup properly served on hard-core ice. The cocktail as we know it has been resurrected, rejuvenated and has retaken its rightful place in time.
Like the chefs in the culinary revolution before them, cocktail and spirit revolutionaries like Dale “King Cocktail” Degroff have revived the craft of modern mixology in as few as a dozen years.
For as many years, Tales of the Cocktail (TOC) has drawn international bar and spirit professionals (some 23,000 this year) to New Orleans for tasting, learning, trend-watching and spirited debate. It’s a celebration of the craft of the cocktail in one of the world’s great drinking cities. The annual event is organized by the New Orleans Culinary and Cultural Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve the cocktail culture of New Orleans. But its message travels so much further. Although it may be the most renowned, TOC falls amid a year of events dedicated to the craft and science of drinks and drinking. The Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Portland Cocktail Week, VIBE, NRA’s International Wine, Spirits & Beer Event and our own Flavor Experience all contribute to the uncovering of international drinking trends. With TOC being the most recent before press time, we’ve highlighted a collection of spirits, ingredients, flavors and techniques from the event’s topics and tastes.
Champagne Popping Up
Champagne (and other sparkling wine) is making a splash on the cocktail circuit. With its floral, full and fruity character, champagne has the ability to balance a cocktail; its citrusy effervescence sends aromas to the top.
At TOC, a sold-out seminar on champagne cocktails showed how to choose the right champagne style for various cocktails. Brut, blanc de blancs, rosé, dosage and demi-sec champagnes can balance a classic or create character in a new sparkling signature. Much discussion ensued about the renaissance of the French 75, which was presented with Hendrick’s Gin and Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne Rosé for a vibrant twist. Other revivals included bourbon-based Seelbach with brut, a classic blanc de blancs champagne cocktail, and the rummy spiced Airmail balanced with demi-sec.
With varying carbonation, sugar levels, yeast, nut, floral and fruit notes, picking the right champagne or sparkling wine is both art and science. The secret is in its acidity, which makes champagne-based cocktails best for pairing with most foods—especially bar bites.
Airmail: Rhum Barbancourt, lime, honey, Champagne — Élevé, Walnut Creek, Calif.
Veronica Rose: Aperol, rose syrup, orange bitters, sparkling wine, lemon twist — Polite Provisions, San Diego
Small Batch is Still Big
Hardly a week passes without the announcement of a new distillery introducing an aged whiskey, craft gin or micro-distilled local liqueur. In fact, the American Distilling Institute reports the meteoric rise in distilleries from 70 to more than 600 in only a decade.
Validating the power of craft, even the big boys are getting into the small-batch business. Large liquor conglomerates are partnering with or purchasing regional distilleries, and they’re reviving old brands or breaking ground for micro spirits by macro, multi-brand companies. Small and large brands are also contracting with prominent mixologists, not only as post-production ambassadors but to help craft the right spirits at the outset.
While they may produce small batches, craft distillers are having a big impact on the cocktail industry.
Cannibal Corpse Reviver No. 2: Perry’s Tot Gin, pear eau de vie, Fernet Branca, lemon, Prosecco, in a highball glass — The Shanty, Brooklyn, N.Y.
No. 4 ASAP Daq: Caña Brava Rum, Tariquet Armagnac, lime, cinnamon, cane sugar — R&D Bar, Harvard & Stone, Los Angeles
Sparkling wine in the Veronica Rose cocktail at Polite Provisions in San Diego adds effervescence to Aperol and rose petal gomme. photo courtesy of john dole.
Though the craft cocktail world still has something to prove, preciousness and pomposity has taken a back seat to professionalism and homespun hospitality. The world of drinks is experiencing a lightness of being, notes Ann Tuennerman, TOC’s founder and executive director. “It’s fun to see people enjoying Tiki cocktails, and to see the Harvey Wallbanger being brought back to life.”
Demonstrating this rise in lowbrow, TOC kicked off with a Harvey Wallbanger flash mob, and the Absolut welcome party batched up frozen and shot versions of the Lemon Drop (served in pill bottles). Serious cocktail writers and historians presented “Hurricanes, Hand Grenades and Shark Attacks,” taking participants through the history of these venerable Bourbon Street “theme-park” drinks—revitalized with fresh ingredients.
That laid-back attitude can be found in everything from modest menus to respectful service, customer engagement and a renewed celebration of the congeniality of cocktails.
Cocktail luminaries are endorsing hospitality over haughtiness in the service of our craft. Menu makers and bartenders were reminded to consider what guests want and need. Fresh advice for accommodating patrons included: the embrace of vodka and mocktails, serving a great Cosmo or dessert drink, and training bartenders to understand substitutions and customizations sans attitude.
Reverse Old Fashioned: 2 ¼ oz. Volstead Vodka + ½ tsp house-blended clover honey syrup + 1 dash Peychaud’s and Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6 — Easy Company, Portland, Ore.
DaBomb: Absolut Citron vodka, lime juice, Midori, peach schnapps, Clément Créole Shrubb, crushed ice — Wayne Curtis, author
Rum and Tip-Top Tiki
Rum is taken seriously by some, but the easing of the cocktail environment has encouraged a more relaxed, free-flowing Tiki bowl of rummy classics and creative island-styled drinks. And although Chicago’s Tiki-themed Three Dots and a Dash gets awards and accolades, it doesn’t take thatched roofs and pineapple vessels to enjoy the spirits and cocktails of the Tiki era, or the old-is-new-again rum culture.
At TOC, seminars and tastings and a spirited Tiki pairing dinner proved trendworthy. Cocktail luminaries shared their knowledge, including: Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, author of five books on vintage Tiki drinks; Wayne Curtis, drinks columnist for The Atlantic and Imbibe and author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails; and famous cocktail historian, author and drink columnist for Esquire, David Wondrich. Each discussed research, science, empowerment and, most of all, enthusiasm for rums and the classic and creative cocktails they make.
Negating any notion that TOC is the least bit elitist, the 2014 competition for the event’s official cocktail turned out to be “Taming the Hurricane,” a Bourbon Street classic based on the traditional Tiki Mai-Kai. The winning entry, chosen from nearly 250 competitors, was a re-imagined Hurricane Caesar, created by Joseph Cammarata, a bartender at Backbar in Somerville, Mass.
Pampanito: Venezuelan rum, molasses, lemon, allspice liqueur, Angostura bitters, seltzer — Smuggler’s Cove, San Francisco
Three Dots and A Dash: Aged Rhum Agricole, Guyanese rum, honey, falernum, lime, allspice, Angostura bitters — Three Dots and a Dash, Chicago
The Italians are infiltrating the cocktail world steadily and with style. The ascent of Italian spirits, wines and cocktails is no surprise. But a more coordinated effort by importers, distributors and brand ambassadors has made Italian cocktail culture a reality in America and abroad.
From aperitivo to digestivo, a collection of family-owned amari, vermouth and liqueur brands has put together something of a road show: The Spirit of Italy Group. Master liqueur makers, led by Italy’s Francesco Lafranconi, one of the world’s foremost mixologists (now executive director of mixology and spirits educator for Southern Wine & Spirits), intend to expose enthusiasts and newbies alike to the range of bitter to sweet elixirs from centuries-old recipes still enjoyed the Italian way, with charisma and passion.
A TOC session called “Italian Futurism (1909-1944): Art + Drink” demonstrated how the futurism movement served as a catalyst for the drinking culture in Italy and afar. As the link between culture, tradition, art and pleasure that is the Italian lifestyle is inextricably connected to eating and drinking, everything Italian is fashionable. Even that old bar relic, Galliano, is making a comeback. The movement is palpable in North America, with not only ingredients like aperitivo, amari and limoncello, but with the style of Italian imbibing from the finest craft cocktail bars to casual outdoor cafés. Salute!
Fade To Black: Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon, Carpano Antica, Amaro Nardini, bitters — a.kitchen + bar, Philadelphia
Easy Peasy: Aperol, Cocchi Americano, sugar cube, Peychaud’s, lime, crushed ice — The Brooklynite, San Antonio, Texas
A playfully bagged “Adult” Lemonade (left)at Sapphire Laguna in Laguna Beach, Calif., combines lemonade with Luksusowa vodka and St. Germain. photo courtesy of sapphire laguna.
Preservationist drinks like ciders, syllabub, switchel, mead and shrub pervade modern menus and ingredient lists. In their TOC seminar “Westward Goes the Jug of Empire,” Wayne Curtis, Derek Brown and J.P. Fetherston traced alcohol’s influence on the New World and how it preserves both history and cocktail culture. Along with rum, sherry and whiskey, these early innovations sustained colonization, fortified industry and Westward expansion, demonstrating just how geeky and flavorful the cocktail world can be.
Sherry Shrub: Barbadillo Manzanilla Sherry, house shrub, lemon peel — Gitane, San Francisco
Switch Back: Shot of switchel (traditional mountain soda made with housemade apple cider vinegar aged in bourbon barrels with ginger and maple) with a shot of Old Overholt Rye — Montana’s Trail House, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Wild sourcing and locally focused approaches to ingredient sourcing are taking root on cocktail menus. Purveyors of terroir-based beverages and the bartenders who mix them have created ways for regional and seasonal elements to delight drinkers. From mixology to menus, tonics to tinctures, bitters to booze, it’s all about botanicals. Roots, shoots, warm spices and bitter barks are included in fresh, dried, infused and distilled forms. Following in the footsteps of America’s own Death’s Door Spirits, Scotland’s “hand-foraged” Caorunn gin highlights the botanicals gathered from their surrounds and foraged from ours to create uniquely bi-terroir drinks. Meanwhile, VeeV’s top bartenders turned out drinks showcasing the vodka-like botanical wheat distillate infused with açai berries.
The Botanist + Celery Bitters + Rosemary + Fever Tree, featuring The Botanist, “an excellent gin made in Scotland that showcases Hebridean herbs and botanicals, paired with savory bitters, rosemary and a favorite craft tonic” — Sable Kitchen & Bar, Chicago
Zona Rosa: St. George Botanivore Gin, Punt e Mes Vermouth, Aperol, Cynar, infused rose petals and an orange twist served up — The Courtesy Bar, Orlando, Fla.
The Alpine-ing of Libations
When it comes to cocktails and spirits, a tree is more than the sum of its bark and cinnamon, or of its resins like spruce or birch sap or leaves and berries such as bay, sassafras or juniper. In this case, fir is making bars arboreal. Tree-tapped influences are refreshing cocktails in multiple ways: piney garnishes and balsam bitters, spruce-like syrups and spirits from fir-tipped gins, Douglas Fir eau de vie (like Clear Creek’s), coniferous cordials and Stone Pine liqueur such as Zirbenz. (See “Fomenting Fir” on page 82).
Elkhorn Toddy: Bulleit Bourbon, Demerara syrup, Douglas Fir eau de vie, lemon, Angostura bitters — The Violet Hour, Chicago
Bitter Forest: Broker’s Gin, Aperol, grapefruit marmalade, Zirbenz, celery bitters, bitter lemon soda — Alchemist, San Francisco
Vodka back in Vogue
There was a time when most TOC presenters eschewed vodka and elite cocktail bars followed suit, some banning it altogether. Today the “blank canvas” is back, and is being deployed to refresh cocktail lists. Vodka distillers are getting back into the good graces of bartenders by working with them. Vodka is being used to lower the intensity of big cocktails or to provide a different option. Newly regional, clean and low or natural flavors better for concocting are also increasing in popularity. Absolut launched its back-bar-only line, called Absolut Craft, created with U.K. celebrity mixologist Nick Strangeway; this threesome of vodkas is specifically formulated for blending, with flavors like Herbaceous Lemon, Smokey Tea and Bitter Cherry.
Battle of Troy: Jameson Original Irish Whiskey, Absolut Craft Herbaceous Lemon Vodka, pine, lemon, eucalyptus — The Dead Rabbit, New York City
Fall Mule: Choice of Death’s Door vodka or gin, lime juice, pear purée, ginger beer — The Roman Candle, Madison, Wis.