Posted on | November 2, 2011
Written by | Jack Robertiello
About two years ago, the London bar owner Tony Conigliaro was experimenting with aging cocktails, bottling them to see how they might change over time. It was a thoughtful effort to play at the limits of cocktail creativity, yet by the middle of 2011, dozens of bartenders were busy announcing their barrel- or bottle-aged Negronis, Manhattans or other signature drinks. Welcome to the new era of cocktails, where trends occur internationally, instantaneously and with no holds barred.
What Conigliaro wrought is one of the trends that bar folk are fairly certain to be talking about through 2012; others teeter on the cusp between fad and a new standard. Perpetual change has become part of the new normal. Some trends come and go; others go-go-go! Yet others represent contemporary twists on the tried-and-true.
Take for instance, seasonality; the concept may already seem old hat, but the notion continues to drive cocktail menus. It’s one cutting-edge trend accessible to any level of bar, and offers the most flexible model for experimentation.
“Seasonal cocktails mirror the key findings from the food industry that your final product will taste better, and it supports local produce which is good for the environment,” says Simon Ford, Pernod Ricard’s director of trade outreach and brand education.
“Seasonally inspired menus will alawys be here beacuse naturea nd the economy will always remind us how time moves on,” notes Duggan McDonnell, owner of San Francisco’s Cantina. But he points out that sticking to seasonality can be tricky. For example the best citrus is available in winter, making then the best time to feature fresh Margaritas, Caipirinhas and Pisco Sours. But winter is when most bartenders emphasize strong, spirituous cocktails rather than more fruit-driven drinks.
Service, Service, Service
In the past few years, seasoned bartenders who cheered the return of refined techniques and classic cocktails have wondered why service hadn’t kept pace. When asked what sort of upgrade he’d like to see in bars and restaurants, Gary Regan, author of numerous books including most recently The Annual Manual for Bartenders, calls for greater attention to sussing out and providing what guests really want, rather than forcing a drinking style on them. McDonnell puts it best when describing his idea of perfect service: “Laughter with intelligence; charm with efficient service; and speed with grace under pressure.”
Among particular service trends, tableside cocktail carts and batched drinks served on tap offer operators a chance to elevate specific cocktails with the former, or to speed service of complicated and popular drinks with the latter. Punch, of course, still has room to grow before it goes from fad to trend, but its return to popularity has softened criticism of both batched drinks and those served by the pitcher. Says Ford, “I can see cocktails on tap spreading as a trend in the next few years. This is a perfect way to get rid of the 15-minute cocktail without having to admit you’re a slow bartender, and it’s highly marketable. You would almost automatically become a specialist of the cocktail that you chose to keep on your taps.”
Standbys Can Still Set the Standard
New products always get plenty of attention, but lately traditional spirits have stirred bartender’s hearts. Irish whiskey sales continue to grow at an astonishing rate, and Ford says he’s seeing it appear in more cocktails as well. Mezcal is another spirit most often cited as a coming category (see sidebar).
Pisco is worthy of notice, says Regan, and McDonnell, who is part of the team behind Encanto pisco, agrees. “I hope that America chooses to understand and embrace this great spirit, and furthermore, I hope that down in South America, both the Peruvians and Chileans can come to an accord. If they do, then there’s no reason why pisco won’t become as popular as rum in 15 years.”
The flourishing of potable bitters and small-production aperitifs excites many bartenders today, and Elli Benchimol, beverage director of Lia’s and the three Chef Geoff’s restaurants in the Washington, DC, area, cites them as well as vermouths and digestifs as products on the rise. European fortified wines are quickly assimilating into recipes, aiding the growth of bitter, savory and pungent cocktails.
Some Trends Divide As They Conquer
Not all trends are popular among craft cocktailers, who think of themselves as artisans; witness “skinny” cocktails. But there’s no denying their power. Such restaurant chains as Carrabba’s Italian Grill, P.F. Chang’s and Morton’s are featuring cocktails tagged with that moniker currently. Morton’s has the Skinny Blood Orange Cosmo, while Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar last summer featured among others the 99-calorie Skinny Sexy Sailor. How widespread was the trend last summer? It wasn’t just chains going the lo-cal route: In Philadelphia, restaurant Valanni featured nine cocktails with a calorie count under 170.
As for those aged, fat-washed and other manipulated cocktails, Benchimol repeats an often-heard concern: “I really worry about hygiene. A lot of mixologists do not have food safety certification, and don’t realize that a lot of the ingredients we add to a spirit can re-ferment, or grow icky bacteria that can really make somebody sick. I’ve had some really tasty cocktails from some amazing mixologists, but I’d get home later, and have a really upset stomach.”
Like aged and skinny cocktails, the search for great ice and the arrival of white whiskey bring a mixed response these days.
“Ice is becoming a bigger deal,” says Eric Alperin of Los Angeles’ Varnish, which recently invested in two machines that produce 300-pound blocks of sculptor-level ice. “We break it down into usable pieces with power tools and Japanese saws. I equate it to baking your own bread or roasting your own coffee beans in house.” Still, customers don’t always see the worth of such efforts, and Regan is particularly skeptical about “all the myths about ice that people continue to believe and spout about.”
White whiskey similarly puzzles some, including a number of suppliers happy to sell a spirit practically the instant it is distilled. Benchimol says she loves white whiskey, and serves what she calls a “a more manly version of the Cosmo” made with white whiskey and white cranberry juice, but Regan puts the case against perfectly: “White dog, hopefully, won’t last. There’s a good reason we age whiskey, you know.”
Perhaps. But like with aged cocktails and other trends, when crafty bartenders get behind something, the wave is hard to avoid. Just as gin returned as an ingredient of choice and rye emerged from the dusty back bar, white whisky might soon evolve from curiosity. Stranger things have happened at the 21st century bar.
Mezcal: Breakout Year?
Every year, one spirit category or another gets pegged as THE next big thing. In recent years, it’s been cachaça or pisco, but today, the focus is on mezcal.
Take what entrepeneur Bridget Dunlap has done in Austin, Texas, opening the town’s first mezcal-only cantina, called Bar Ilegal after the only brand she currently carries. A tiny space that will only hold around 20 people is hardly sign of a trend, but Bar Ilegal is just one of the many new bars which are featuring a significant number of mezcals.
In New York City, Salon Hecho puts mezcal center stage in cocktails like the Esmerelda (mezcal, gin, muddled cucumber and basil leaf) as well as those infused with avocado leaves, strawberries, juniper berries, pineapple and other ingredients and called Curados. Hecho carries 11 bottles from five makers (Del Maguey, Ilegal, Los Amantes, Pierde Almas and Los Nahuales). In Chicago, Masa Azul recently opened with 10 mezcals, three sotols, and four of its 13 listed cocktails including one or the other.
There are many Mexican-themed restaurants and bars where the number of mezcals offered have slowly increased, but even operations without the Mexican connection see the attraction in featuring at least one mezcal-inflected drink. At New York’s Tiki temple Lani Kai, the Tia Mia is made with mezcal, Jamaican Rum, toasted almond orgeat, orange liqueur and fresh lime juice.
Cocktail menus at recently opened spots are including the spirit as well. Blue Bear Tavern in Philly opened with the rum, pineapple and mezcal Bear Punch. Pearl Dive Oyster Palace in Washington, DC, included The Cigar on their opening menu (mezcal, lemon juice and smoked peach ice, garnished with charcuterie), while Catalyst in Boston opened with the Mexican Sand (mezcal, Cherry Heering and vermouth).
Just as all Cognacs are brandies, but not all brandies are Cognacs, all tequilas are mezcals but not the other way around. Mezcal can be made from a variety of agave plants and distilled in more places than the five states where tequila production is allowed.
As for its longtime reputation as firewater infused with the aromas of burning rubber, there’s still a little something to the idea that these are powerful and pungent spirits; even the better-made variations coming to the U.S. retain a punchy essence. They are an acquired taste, like Islay single malts or grappa, but customers who are fueling the growth of tequila are showing more interest in its rustic cousin.