Drinkers today are weary of mustachioed mixologists serving up surliness along with $16 tipples. Hand them a menu and their eyes glaze over at the mention of yet another rendition of housemade lavender-habanero bitters. And yes, they’re sick of feeling guilty for ordering that martini with stigmatized vodka instead of gin.
Cocktail fatigue, you say? Hardly. Well-crafted libations made by ladies and gents who know what they’re doing—you know, real bartenders—will never go out of style. But what boozehounds are looking for in their glass—and where they’re choosing to belly up to the bar—is a constant work in progress.
Fashionable drink trends can go from cutting-edge to old hat almost overnight in the cocktail world—surely, there’s a hand-carved orb of ice anchoring Scotch glass, and your Manhattan is always made with small-batch rye. Still, there are plenty of new developments at some of the country’s top bars and restaurants that haven’t yet reached ubiquity. A few are on the fast track to being as widely embraced as the Long Island Iced Tea during the T.G.I. Friday’s era; others, like barrel-aged tipples, have been around for a bit but are slowly proving they’re not flash-in-the-pan gimmicks.
Click through our slideshow to read about 10 prominent barroom trends, with commentary from some of the country’s finest drink-slingers.
Written by Alia Akkam (@theqnote)
The culinary trend toward foraging for wild ingredients—set off by Noma’s Rene Redzepi and the rise of Scandinavian cooking—isn’t limited to the kitchen. Bartenders are fast becoming modern-day gatherers too, taking a cue from Mother Nature rather than the grocery aisle.
Before he started tending bar, Chris Conatser was a gardener and naturalist, occasionally teaching classes on wild edibles at a botanical garden outside of Kansas City. At Terminus (603 NW 2nd St, Corvallis, OR; 541-286-4242, terminuscorvallis.com)—the Corvallis, OR, restaurant where he currently works—that botanical passion translates to drinks filled with local ingredients like Cornelian cherry-tangerine marmalade and Oregon grape-holly, as well as honeysuckle tonic water and bitters made with Pacific madrone bark. Likewise, Washington, D.C. bartender Josh Berner, while at Cleveland Park restaurant Ripple, used foraged pine needles to smoke gin for a savory take on the Rickey. Now that he’s ensconced at Zentan (1155 14th St NW, Washington, D.C.; 202-379-4366, zentanrestaurant.com), the modern Asian restaurant inside Donovan House Hotel, he plans to seek out straight-from-the-soil blooms to garnish punches this spring.
Nature is certainly in full force at Aska (90 Wythe Ave, Williamsburg, Brooklyn; 718-388-2969, askanyc.com), the much-buzzed about Scandinavian restaurant in Brooklyn where you can eat salsify with lichen from a $65 tasting menu. That into-the-wild spirit also finds its way into the drinks such as the Next of Kin, a funky, earthy concoction made with Pu-erh tea that’s been re-fermented into kombucha and paired with aquavit, caraway, and unrefined sugar. Manager Shiraz Noor, who helped create the drinks, describes it as “eating rye bread in a magic forest. Yes, a magic forest. Only it goes down like the best mojito ever.”
Any meal at Aska should also include a taste of the soothing Decanter Bitters, an herbal sipping tonic based on a recipe found in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide from 1862. “We took a little gathering trip and found a great collection of birch saplings,” Noor explains. “After our giant Swedish cook Sebastian pulverized them with a sledgehammer, we infused it into whiskey—this is Brooklyn—and softened it with molasses.”
Just as the craft-beer community is beginning to embrace the idea of low-ABV session beers, good bartenders know that more booze doesn’t always mean more flavor. A heavy-handed Old-Fashioned may leave you cringing with each hot sip, but a delicate, well-balanced sherry drink can keep you happy all evening. Consider the resplendent low-proof, Dry Sack 15-year-old sherry punch with lemon and orange juices, Angostura bitters, and grated nutmeg by Jim Romdall, co-owner and bartender of Vessel (624 Olive Way, Seattle, WA; 206-623-3325, vesselseattle.com) in downtown Seattle. “We love low-ABV cocktails; they allow for a lot of creativity that breaks the mold of the classic cocktail ratios,” he says. “Our cocktail program is a little different. Every bartender has their own menu, so they swap out every night. One of them had an entire menu of wine and vermouth-based cocktails one week.”
These lighter-on-the-liver cocktails are also gaining traction in Atlanta. In fact, a group of local barkeeps has collaborated on an array of palate-stimulating, low-proof sippers called Suppressors. The Suppressor #M, which well-known member Greg Best has just unveiled on the menu of Buckhead gastropub Holeman & Finch Public House (2277 Peachtree Rd NE, Atlanta, GA; 404-948-1175, holeman-finch.com), features Madeira, Portal Moscatel, Salers Gentiane digestif, and bubbly cava.
For many bar patrons, part of a cocktail bar’s allure is the theater of watching the bartender assemble a drink for 10 minutes. Other guests don’t covet perfect crowns of frothy egg whites and carefully placed sprigs of rosemary; they want a good cocktail, but don’t have the patience for the longwinded spectacle it often entails.
Kegged cocktails are the newest way to speed things up behind the bar, replacing the romance of laborious drinkmaking with playfulness and convenience. At Jasper’s Corner Tap (401 Taylor St, San Francisco, CA; 415-775-7979, jasperscornertap.com) in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, bar manager Kevin Diedrich has a Negroni on tap, as well as the Grand Promenade (Wild Turkey 81 Rye, bonded Applejack, Benedictine, Yellow Chartreuse). In Chicago, Spanish-Latin restaurant Tavernita (151 W Erie St, Chicago, IL; 312-274-1111, tavernita.com) lures River North revelers with intriguing kegged potions like the Devil’s Claim (Devil’s Cut bourbon, raspberry, lemon, cinnamon, cayenne).
Even in the suburbs, at the newly revamped Racanelli’s New York Italian (851 Central Park Ave, Scarsdale, NY; 914-472-1032, racanellisnewyorkitalian.com) in Scarsdale, NY, partner and beverage director Nick Mautone was so swayed by the appeal of draft cocktails, he made his own tap using an infusion jar with a nozzle to serve the Basilico (Grey Goose vodka, Herbsaint, vermouth, and a basil infusion). “The inspiration was a load of fresh basil that might otherwise have gone bad,” he admits. “Tapping it allows the bartenders ease of use; they simply drain out a few drams and shake over ice.”
Tequila conjures hedonistic spring breaks of yore. And mezcal’s long been riding high on its cult boutique status. On the beverage menu of Bar Amá (118 W 4th St, Los Angeles, CA; 213-687-8002, bar-ama.com), chef Josef Centeno’s downtown Los Angeles restaurant, you’ll find over 75 varieties of these much-loved agave spirits, but it may be even more exciting to turn your attention to the four bacanora and sotol selections to accompany those puffy tacos. Bacanora, like its tequila and mezcal siblings, is derived from agave, but grown in the Mexican state of Sonora.
Sam Anderson at April Bloomfield’s New York Mexican joint, Salvation Taco (Pod 39 Hotel, 145 E 39th St; 212-865-5800, salvationtaco.com), likes this once-banned spirit (yes, mad bootlegging went down in Mexico) so much, he uses the Cielo Rojo in his Sonora Old-Fashioned, melding it with tequila, housemade chili-honey, and grapefruit bitters. “It offers both the clean, herbal, and minerality of a blanco tequila, while also allowing a certain smoky wildness that comes from the terroir of Sonora. Often, you make a choice between the two when ordering tequila or mezcal,” he says.
Herbaceous and grassy, sotol may resemble agave, but this prickly plant that primarily grows on the rocky grasslands of Chihuahua is wild-harvested, and when its distilled into a spirit of the same name, its subtle floral notes offer a gentle contrast to tequila and mezcal’s bite. At Raven & Rose (1331 SW Broadway, Portland, OR; 503-222-7673, ravenandrosepdx.com) in Portland, OR, bar manager Dave Shenaut uses Hacienda de Chihuahua Sotol to make an elegant Snap Dragon with Lillet Rouge and Jack Ruby tonic syrup.
When bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler started experimenting with barrel-aged cocktails in Portland, OR a few years ago, his comrades across the nation followed suit, funneling Negronis and the like into barrels for aging. It was a trend that seemed poised for burnout, yet it remains for good reason: more bartenders are doing it with aplomb, and more patrons are learning that a cocktail emerges from this six-to-eight-week woodsy hibernation with more heft and depth.
In Los Angeles, Justin Pike, who helms the bar at the Tasting Kitchen (1633 Abbot Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA; 310-392-6644, thetastingkitchen.com) in Venice, makes the smoky King of Dudes by aging bark-soaked rum in Tuthilltown American oak whiskey barrels; for the Tipperary Fizz, he ages Jameson and Carpano Antico vermouth in a Hudson rye barrel, then marries it with Green Chartreuse and egg white to create a velvety, refined sour.
Pam Pritchard, who owns the Tigress Pub (100 W North Loop Blvd, Ste G, Austin; 512-600-3232, thetigresspub.com) in Austin, spends a month aging tipples in Balcones whiskey oak barrels, such as the about-to-debut Chancellor, with Scotch, dry vermouth, port, and orange bitters. “Barrel-aging provides a type of oaky-tannic flavor you really can’t achieve from anything else. You can try and replicate it, but it won’t come out the same way,” says Jason O’Bryan, head bartender at URBN (3085 University Ave, San Diego, CA; 619-255-7300, urbnnorthpark.com) in San Diego, who has aged everything from a Vieux Carré to a Martinez. “You will mostly find people barrel-aging classic cocktails, or subtle spins on classic cocktails, because it’s a chance to taste the most timeless drinks in a completely new way. For example, everything that could possibly be done to a Negroni has been done up until this point, and when people started barrel-aging it, I swear it’s one of the best things I’ve ever tasted in my life.” Up next in O’Bryan’s barrel: a sherry-wood aged Manhattan.
For years, liqueurs have been frowned upon as cloying sugar bombs, but beyond those synthetic atrocities there’s a wealth of of historic elixirs that have been skillfully integrated into classic and contemporary cocktail repertoires. It’s a world where what was once considered anachronistic is now pined after, with Green Chartreuse on tap and bartenders ecstatic over the stateside arrival of Suze, a yellow gentian-root apéritif.
For his Carnegie cocktail, a liquid deconstruction of Carnegie Deli’s famous pastrami sandwich, Jason “Buffalo” LoGrasso of Rich Table (199 Gough St, San Francisco, CA; 415-355-9085, richtablesf.com) in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley combines St. George Dry Rye Gin with Combier Doppelt Kümmel Extra liqueur, Lillet, mustard oil, and a requisite pickle. He likes Kümmel—which has its roots in the 16th century—for the authentic notes of caraway and cumin it yields.
Scott Beattie, bar manager at St. Helena’s Goose & Gander (1245 Spring St, St Helena, CA; 707-967-8779, goosegander.com), the Napa Valley restaurant known for its cocktails, is delighted that Sonoma Valley-based Tempus Fugit Spirits has introduced authentic, lush recreations of Crème de Cacao and Crème de Menthe. Now, he can serve his guests a proper Brandy Alexander (“Germain-Robin brandy and this Crème de Cacao? It’s incredible,” he declares.) And if you think it’s all just for show, he’s got a tale for you: One evening, the bar ran out of Plymouth Sloe Gin, the red blackthorn liqueur that stars in one of Goose & Gander’s bestselling cocktails, the Sloe Gin Fizz. But when Beattie tried the $6 alternative he could easily get his hands on, he was (not so surprisingly) disappointed by the results. “There are only a few brands that are making this good again,” he says.
Being sober can make a trip to the cocktail bar with friends a tough proposition, and even those of us who aren’t teetotalers have those nights when a few rounds of Manhattans isn’t in the cards. An 8AM breakfast meeting might beckon, or the memory of the Hyundai parked on the street that you need to drive home. But, that doesn’t mean you need to sit at the bar sucking Canada Dry seltzer through a straw while your friends keep the Fernet-Branca shots coming.
Barkeeps are finally realizing the virgin portion of their menu should match the excitement of its boozy offerings. At OAK at Fourteenth (1400 Pearl St, Boulder, CO; 303-444-3622, oakatfourteenth.com) in Boulder, Co, co-owner and beverage guru Bryan Dayton does exactly that, offering a housemade passionfruit and lemongrass soda to patrons, lest they find his from-scratch ginger and root beers too pedestrian.
On the Pantone-inspired menu of Trick Dog (3010 20th St, San Francisco, CA; 415-826-7000), the breakout San Francisco bar from Josh Harris and Scott Baird—a.k.a. the Bon Vivants—it is assured that your ginger-mint-lemon concoction, topped with Erdinger non-alcoholic Weissbier, will deliver as impressive a punch as a spiked sibling.
Jamie Dodge, bar manager at Princeton, NJ’s acclaimed restaurant Elements (163 Bayard Ln, Princeton, NJ; 609-924-0078, elementsprinceton.com), is currently treating each evenings’ booze-shunning crews to the Nomad, a refreshing blend of aloe, Vadouvan simple syrup, citrus juices, and a splash of club soda. “You certainly don’t want to exclude anyone from having a good time,” he says. “Non-alcoholic drinks make teetotalers feel like they are part of the party. Why exclude them?”
Thee days, clandestine entrances and reservations-only booze dens may elicit eye rolls from bargoers who crave well-executed pours more than a tin ceiling and Ella Fitzgerald crooning in the background. The neo-speakeasy should be revered for its cultural imprint, says Michael Martensen, co-owner of the Cedars Social (1326 S Lamar St, Dallas, TX; 214-928-7700, thecedarssocial.com) in Dallas, but his overall mission is to make cocktails more accessible.
“Speakeasies—stylistically speaking, a small, intimate experience with low-lit tables—are great, and played a huge part of drinking history in the U.S.,” he says. “[But] not everyone is looking for that on every night. Sometimes you really just want to go to your neighborhood joint and see your ‘bar friends’, a.k.a. all the other bar regulars. So why not give them a quality product in that environment? That was our approach.” And it succeeds. Here, locals pretend it’s Cheers and drink cocktails such as the Royal Smile (Laird’s Applejack, Seagram’s London Dry Gin, lemon juice, housemade grenadine) against a cozy backdrop of hardbound books and brick.
The desire for an everyday bar experience with improved drinks is taking hold elsewhere, as well—it seems most people want a casual bar that just happens to churn out solid drinks. Chicago’s first gin-centric joint, Scofflaw (3201 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL; 773-252-9700, scofflawchicago.com) in Logan Square, offers a pretence-free setting where you can savor a tropical Scofflaw Swizzle No.3 (Death’s Door gin, passionfruit, lemon juice, Lillet Blonde, housemade falernum, mint) and Sunday Blue Plate comfort-food specials.
A low-key vibe is also part of the allure in Louisville’s West Main Street District at the St. Charles Exchange (113 S 7th St, Louisville, KY; 502-618-1917, stcharlesexchange.com). At this airy restaurant, the bar is conducive to hanging out all evening, knocking back craft cocktails like the Hoping the Moon Explodes (Rittenhouse Rye, Cynar, Benedictine) while taking in the room’s cascading curtains, mammoth mirror, and floor reclaimed from a tobacco barn.
Think about those two timeless drinks, the martini and the Manhattan. Both feature vermouth, but for many drinkers, it’s a bit of an X-factor. Is it a wine? A spirit? The mystery is finally fading as bartenders—propelled by a spate of hand-batched brands new to the scene—have brought the aromatic fortified wine to the forefront of their cocktail programs.
One of these new-school vermouths is made by Portland, OR’s Imbue Cellars, and it can be found in the Brandt Pays 100—a cocktail from Josh Pearson at Chicago’s Sepia (123 N Jefferson St, Chicago, IL; 312-441-1920, sepiachicago.com) that unites Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, dry orange Curaçao, Madeira, hopped grapefruit bitters, and lemongrass.
In Boston, cocktail legend Jackson Cannon has long been singing the gospel of vermouth, even making his own from scratch. Punt e Mes gets top billing alongside Rittenhouse rye and Hungarian liqueur Zwack in his Danube, an inverted Manhattan served at Kenmore Square icon Eastern Standard (528 Commonwealth Ave, Boston, MA; 617-532-9100, easternstandardboston.com). Meanwhile, at his bar the Hawthorne—also in the Commonwealth Hotel—the Half Sinner Half Saint is a bracing New Orleans-inspired cocktail of equal parts dry and sweet vermouth, laced with Pastis.
Ryan Maybee, a bartender at Kansas City’s Manifesto (1924 Main St Kansas City, MO; (816-536-1325, theriegerkc.com/manifesto), describes vermouth as “having a moment—simply because as a category we now have so many options to choose from, and there are a number of styles and flavor profiles. This allows bartenders to be creative with classic cocktails that call for vermouth, while it also allows them to build new drinks around these new products.” His most recent addition to the growing canon of vermouth-forward cocktails is the well-rounded but peaty Count Cristo (Carpano Antica, Ransom Old Tom Gin, Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch, Angostura Orange bitters, orange zest).
Enter the Dead Rabbit (30 Water St, New York, NY; 646-422-7906, deadrabbitnyc.com), Irish bartender Sean Muldoon’s long-awaited drinking den in New York’s Financial District, and you might see pineapple-infused Pisco and lemon sherbet punch being ladled out of beautiful vintage china bowls into gorgeous tea cups. The cocktails inside the tome-like menu here are masterful reproductions of historic drinks; generic tumblers from Crate & Barrel simply wouldn’t do.
In Chicago, the fanciful drinks Charles Joly makes at the Aviary (955 W Fulton Market, Chicago, IL; 312-226-0868, theaviary.com) are amplified by custom glassware like the Porthole, a graceful, tilted vessel resembling a transparent vase. And at Pouring Ribbons (225 Avenue B, New York, NY; 917- 656-6788, pouringribbons.com) in New York’s East Village, Joaquín Simó says the cocktail glasses are slightly larger than what’s de rigueur at most bars.
“The larger glasses are less about trying to make drinks bigger, but rather to try to let drinks fit better in a glass that still has to traverse the length of the bar to reach its recipient,” Simó explains. “We also use beautiful grappa glasses for our Chartreuse servings, as well as for certain sipping spirits and sherries. These glasses concentrate the nose in wonderfully expressive ways, allowing the nuances to emerge. That they’re stunningly elegant serving pieces doesn’t hurt the visual appeal of what would otherwise simply be some brown or green liquid in a glass.”