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Getting Into the Spirits

The West Street Cooler at Boston’s Back Deck features local Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Ragged Mountain rum, Aperol, lime and watermelon juice and a soda topper. Photo courtesy of BACK DECK. All the news that’s fit to drink — a roundup of the latest techniques and trends in the world of cocktails

By Robin Schempp

We are deep into a new era of the craft cocktail — now a mainstream movement of connoisseurship that follows on the heels of “fine” wine, “boutique” brews and “gourmet” food. This growing appreciation of the craft brings with it a fast-paced progression of new products, ideas and techniques. As we wrap up a year that was teeming with beverage breakouts, we set out to categorize a handful of trends that are inspiring cocktailians and will no doubt give rise to even more innovative and authentic craft cocktails in the coming year.


Craft distillation is bigger than ever in America. Nearly every state now has at least one artisanal, craft or micro-distilled spirit. Producers like Wisconsin’s Death’s Door Spirits, New York’s Tuthilltown Spirits and Hudson Whiskey, and Vermont’s Whistlepig take the craft a few steps further — or maybe back. Like the country’s best chefs, they concern themselves not only with technique but with the quality of their ingredients — especially where, how and by whom those inputs were produced. In many cases, their concepts start with base ingredients that are linked to local, sustainable and organic grain, fruit and botanical farms, and craftspeople (such as barrel and still makers) who are the foundation of their award-winning flavors. This proud approach harkens back to the spirit of the innovative, resilient Americans who founded our nation.

Light, white, moonshine-y new makes (white whiskeys) or un-aged corn- and grain-based spirits have come from behind the shadows to take the stage so that fledgling craft distilleries have something to sell as they await the aging of aged versions. These market-savvy entrepreneurs have built a niche on the cocktail trail, proving that their crisp, clean, “raw” product can be versatile and formidable foundations for blending at the bar.

Meanwhile, a whole new crop of egalitarian spirit stills like Catdaddy and Stillhouse (from New York’s barbecue master Adam Perry Lang) have deliberately put together a corn-grain mash bill not meant for aging because they are after that quick, clean finish — akin to but richer than vodka — as a standalone or light cocktail base. A whole new market has opened with sophisticated “redneck” renditions flavored with everything from cherries to chiles. Bigger players like Buffalo Trace and Ole Smoky are creating even more momentum, so expect to see a lot more straight and flavored moonshine, corn whiskey, white whiskey and lightning.


Move over, tequila, gin, rye and bourbon — a congregation of new books, blogs, advocacy groups, bars and cocktail menus are signaling “rum.” Perhaps it’s the explosive growth of Daiquiris, tiki- or punch-style concoctions; maybe it’s the more laid-back style rum renders, but likely it has to do with the sugar-cane spirit’s amazing range of forms and flavors.

Consider clean silvers or light whites for mixing and building refreshing combos, grander golds and every age of añejo for blending or nipping, and intense, deep, dark and delicious sippers, toppers and finishers. Taking space on the back bar are newly popular super-specialty rums, not only from Puerto Rico and Jamaica but Nicaragua, Guatemala, Haiti and Belize, in various barrel-aged styles. There are “Navy-strength” heavy hitters, those made from various cane sources such as Cruzan Black Strap or Guyanan Demerara, and a whole new family of naturally yet flavorfully spiced entries.

Sixties-era Cuba is the inspiration for New York City’s rum-rich Cienfuegos, which was conceived by the bar superstars behind Death & Co. and Mayahuel. The menu includes: classic and re-imagined rum-based cocktails, swizzles and Daiquiris; at least a dozen punches made to order; and several trips around the rum world with themed flights.

Indian Feni (or Fenny), a cloudless yet pungent spirit made from coconut palm sap or cashew apples, is debuting stateside, most often mixed with fruit juice or carbonation. It may pick up the slack from a not-quite-rocketing Korean soju and Japanese shochu market.  However, Baijiu, the sorghum-based “official spirit of China” (and third most-consumed spirit in the world) could hit hard. Comparable in flavor and quality to vodka or white whiskey, it has high-profile proponents, such as Dale DeGroff and David Wondrich. For those unready for the exotic, Asian flavors are budding in more established brands such as the just-released Vietnamese black peppercorn-enhanced Bombay Sapphire East Gin.

After years of making the rounds, South American grape-based Pisco is finally making a punch (with cachaça on its heels), replacing vodka or tequila in drinks with delicious results.

As if America has not already developed a crush on all things from the Italian bar, The Spirit of Italy — a group of family-owned artisanal distillers led by master mixologist Francesco Lafranconi —  has been descending on cocktail-centric events, bringing a wide array of traditionally produced liqueurs, spirits and digestives. They open our senses and bars to fruits and flavors from the Amalfi coast: Sfusato lemons in limoncello, amari, anise and even grappa — a cultural journey in a glass.

In his Dewar’s Yorkshire, mixologist Manny Hinojosa offers a seasonal, on-trend blend of bacon-infused scotch, green-apple purée, maple syrup and orange bitters. Photo courtesy of w WHITE DESIGN/THE PERFECT PUREE OF NAPA VALLEY. APERITIF A LA FRANCAISE
Steeped in tradition yet also chic, aperitif wines and liqueurs have entered the market. French additions are tres bon: Champagne and Champagne cocktails have never been hotter, the evolution of rosé wines and vermouth is mind-blowing, and a few comeback kids — Pastis, Dubonnet and Pineau des Charentes — have found a new, youthful market. Lillet Blanc and Lillet Rouge are already enjoying a well-deserved renaissance, but Lillet’s new rosé is cause to celebrate. Lillet Rosé is a blend of the same Grand Cru Bordeaux wine varietals used in Blanc and Rouge and “secret” fruit liqueurs. With a soft, light wine nose, the weight of vermouth and a dry finish, it should be versatile in both the front and back bar. Byrrh Grand Quinquina, a French bittersweet aperitif newly available in the United States, dates to 19th century France and is made with red wine, quinine and mistelle (partially fermented grape juice). It is deep, spicy and warming, yet refreshing, opening its uses to cool-weather aperitifs and cocktail concoctions.

What ever happened to the proverbial gold tequila? These days, Mexican spirits shine at both ends of the spectrum: From crystalline 100 percent agave blancos and silvers to ritualistic smoky mezcals, Mexico is getting back to its roots (and leaves) with traditional, handcrafted, old-style and certified organic production.


Ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails are making a huge showing. Pre-mixed, diluted and carbonated bottled blends not only have a kitschy charm, but they offer consistency and relieve complexity from both peak and shoulder service hours, at busy wait times and special events. Some savvy bar innovators are even taking a page from artisan beer- and Champagne-making and fermenting bottled beverages “sur lie” (on yeast).

New York’s Saxon + Parole bottles, batches and barrels. Its beverage program, spearheaded by Naren Young and Linden Pride, features a fresh approach to custom-made spirits, syrups, bitters, juices and sodas, in addition to its proprietary Parole whiskey used in both barrel-aged cocktails and RTD bottles. Its “bottle club” allows guests to craft their very own bottled cocktail and keep it chilled in the Cocktail Cabinet.

Barrel-aged spirits and cask-aged cocktails debuted a few years back with some cult interest, and now they’ve become a global obsession among barkeeps. As with wine or whiskey, the wood melds and mellows and lends distinct flavors from brown spice, vanilla or caramel. From whiskey “finished” in sherry barrels to vermouth-casked martinis, there seems no end to the innovations of barrel-aged drinks.

Portland, Ore., barman extraordinaire Jeffrey Morgenthaler, who is credited with reviving the house-aging trend, serves up a revolving menu of kegged signatures at Clyde Common, including: a Tuthilltown whiskey-barreled Negroni; more seasonal bottled selections like the Broken Bike; a carbonated wine aperitif with Cynar; or Remember the Maine, a two-month-aged concoction of rye, vermouth, Cherry Heering and absinthe.

Pre-batched cocktails in pitchers and punchbowls are still big, offering communal, party-like panache as well as saving time and labor. And barrels and kegs aren’t just for aging anymore. Proponents of bulk-batched recipes stored in keg systems say they preserve finished cocktails’ refrigeration/carbonation. This system allows consistent craft cocktails to be tapped and dispensed faster — at higher profit margins.

Vodka, honey syrup and ginger ale build the base of this “Buzzer,” but hibiscus-cardamom-ginger liqueur and a candied-ginger garnish give it an exotic finish. Photo courtesy of national honey board. * HIGH-PROOF SPIRITS, LOW-PROOF COCKTAILS *

Cask strength or “Navy strength” (57 percent abv/114 proof, which was concentrated enough for shipping yet not enough to ignite the British Navy vessels’ gun powder) rums and whiskies may be nothing new to aficionados who enjoy their deep distillations, but their use in cocktails is growing as bartenders realize how well their flavor and oomph stand up — especially in cocktails that require many modifiers or extended shaking/diluting. Newly released offerings include: cognacs (such as Pierre Ferrand’s 1840 Original Formula and Louis Royer Force 53); tequilas (like DeLeón cask-strength extra-aged); and especially “hot” gin. Plymouth’s Navy Strength has opened the door to others, like New York Distilling Company’s highly regarded Perry’s Tot high-proof gin.

From those who want to drink the night away without repercussion to the amazing popularity of “skinny” cocktails, we are seeing a demand for both lower-proof spirits and finished cocktails. Drink styles like highballs, Collinses and other thirst-quenching adult coolers as well as adaptations of popular cocktails may use one of many new, low-proof, low-calorie vodkas. This growing movement for lightness has a robust side too: Even heritage brands like Wild Turkey have entered the light arena with its long-aged, full-flavored Wild Turkey 81, which can be enjoyed in a cocktail or over rocks.

The Shanty, adjoining the New York Distilling Co. in Brooklyn, embraces the high/low schizophrenia with the spirits and cocktails of co-founder and celeb cocktailian Allen Katz. The Leather Bound includes NYDC’s own high-proof Perry’s Tot gin that is barrel-aged and bracingly blended with Ramazotti, lime, Allspice Dram and Angostura bitters, while The Acerbic Mrs. Parker is a sprightlier sipper made tall with the cinnamon/elderberry-kissed Dorothy Parker American Gin, with lemon and hibiscus syrup.


Vegetable and herb flavors seem to be more than a passing fancy as our palates search for balance and our bodies look for curative victuals. Modish options beyond the well-worn cucumber and basil include sweet potatoes, dried chiles, beets, pineapple sage and avocado leaves. Muddled, infused, steeped, juiced, sliced, shaken, garnished, shrubbed and tinctured, produce can create drinks that are both complex and compatible with food.

Fat-washing and bacon garnishes may have seemed like the limits of cocktail craziness, but watch for other proteins like crab and bonito flakes or savory and fermented products like vinegars, tomato paste, nuts, mushrooms, kombu or smoked ingredients. Well-positioned seasonings — salt, pepper, vinegar and prepared sauces from chile to steak — help to subtly balance sweetness.

To explore the savory side of cocktails in any bar, try super-hot sherry in styles like Manzanilla, Amontillado or Oloroso, which can contribute a range of meaty, briny, earthy minerality. Also try ready-to-use products like saba, toasted nuts, kombucha, seasoned sea salts, varietal peppercorns, Worcestershire sauce, molé bitters or my new favorite: Rare Botanical Bitters’ Truffe Amere Perigord (black truffle bitters).

Increasingly, tea is tapped for cocktails (with no relation to the Long Island iced tea). Using strongly brewed tea as a mixer in cocktails contributes depth, layered flavor and plenty of refreshment. Black tea lends intensity and astringency to sweet brown spirits and icy coolers, while Lapsang Souchong imparts a light smoke quality. Use jasmine or Earl Grey for floral character and aged or bright green matcha for, well, green-ness, and infused tisanes as an aromatic vehicle for intense herbal, spicy, fruity and botanical notes. Chamomile and other flowered teas like hibiscus are especially hot now, as a syrup, base spirit and cordial infusion mixer or even a garnish.

Commercial tea-infused spirits and steeped syrups are gaining ground as well, with a profusion of sweet tea-flavored spirits, green tea-infused liqueurs and complex examples such as Belvedere’s new Lemon Tea Vodka, developed by mixologist Claire Smith, featuring black and green teas, ginger, chamomile, lemongrass, honey and lemon.

We have come a long way from Irish coffee and Sombreros when blending coffee and cocktails. Astringent and sweet, alcohol and caffeine — roast and distillate combos can be tricky. All manner of coffee — from espresso to ready to drink, whole bean to cold brew — is being added, blended, suffused and sprinkled into unexpected cocktail concoctions. Classic and contemporary coffee-based spirits are coming back on line, imparting intricacy and density to drinks from aperitif to dessert.

Sage at the Aria in Las Vegas utilizes coffee, tea and savories to balance cocktails like its Desert Shrub (Siete Leguas Tequila Reposado, Prosecco, pink grapefruit and purple sage), Tea Rose (tea-infused Death’s Door Vodka, St. Germain, lemon, rosewater, pine nuts) and Tahona (Sombra Mezcal, Green Chartreuse, smoked grapes, lavender bitters).


Bitters has seen a meteoric rise. The cocktail kind in the small bottles of every imaginable ingredient has reached every semi-craft bar in the world. And the big bottles of bracing bitter botanical blends are booming as well. Training-wheel versions — like sister products Aperol and Campari — will give mass-market rise to a whole host of products and flavors: Euro-Medi bitter and botanical fusions, aromatized wines, aperitif, digestif, amari and cordials infused with quinine, gentian, cinchona, anise and other botanical roots, herbs, barks, resins and flowers. Bonal Gentiane Quina, Cocchi Americano, Grand Classico Bitter and Fernet Branca are all deployed for their bitter-edged balancing properties in finished cocktails. And who would’ve guessed that the artichoke-infused Cynar would be hitting the bars so hard?

Once central to America’s remarkable history of distillation, a number of producer-farmers have established small-batch fruit distilleries. These make everything from classic apple jack to fruit brandies, aromatic eau de vies and liqueurs from tree fruits, berries, maple and even pine needles. Once primarily served neat, there is renewed affection for these flavorful, aromatic and often body-giving blenders.

Thanks to the new cocktail movement, where bartenders scour old books for revivable methods, the shrub has seen resurgence. No, the Colonial comeback is not a bush in the glass, but rather a preserved (vinegar-acidified) fruit syrup used to add sweet-tart fruit flavors to drinks. Since shelf life of shrubs is long, operators not interested or capable of a big farm-to-glass program can still get many of those benefits with long-lived, consistent results. There are new commercially available versions, but shrub couldn’t be easier to make using good quality (even frozen) fruit, vinegar and sugar and a quick hot or slower cold process (which generally produces a fresher infusion).

At Drago Centro in Los Angeles, bar manager Jaymee Mandeville deploys a wide range of bitter, fruit and aperitif blends in her oh-so-modern menu that is an ode to the past. Cocktails include the Modern Botanist (St. George Botanivore Gin, Byrrh Bitter, lemon, mint, raspberry white-pepper soda), the American Cherub (Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Lillet Rosé, strawberry shrub, cherry tomatoes, toasted fennel tincture) and the White Picket Fence (Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy, Schizandra White Tea, peach, lemon, egg white, Miracle Mile Forbidden Bitters).


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About The Author

Robin Schempp

Robin Schempp has always had a proclivity for exploring and enjoying the many expressions of the table, bench and tablet. For 20 years, she has shared her discoveries as president and principal of Right Stuff Enterprises, based in Waterbury, Vt., specializing in creative culinary concept and in product, menu and market development for food and beverage solutions. Robin regularly writes, speaks and teaches about food and culinary R&D. She is chair of the Slow Food Ark of Taste, vice chair of Chefs Collaborative, president emeritus of the Vermont Fresh Network and an active member of Research Chefs Association and the International Association of Culinary Professionals.