A little over two years ago—the last time we put the spotlight on trends pervading the cocktail world—we were celebrating the rise of an invitingly relaxed new bar landscape. Fatigued with overwrought drinks made by self-serious “mixologists,” patrons were seeking out simple classics chased by cans of Tecate in low-key settings that played Biggie Smalls, not Nina Simone. Pre-made cocktails were conveniently dispensed from taps, low-ABV session drinks made with vermouth became regular bar calls, and commonplace tequila made way for its smokier sibling, mezcal. Historic, once-obscure liqueurs such as byrrh were resuscitated and given a hero’s welcome at trailblazing bars.
Not that much has changed. Bars today crank out unpretentious Long Island Iced Teas alongside glorified riffs on the Mai Tai. Curious drinkers sip yet other agave spirit: the new-to-the States raicilla. And evenings might end with a nightcap made with the herbal liqueur Genepy—after downing a vodka soda without shame.
Here, we take a look at the ideas, drinks, and spirits currently dominating the boozehound conversation, along with commentary from an array of the nation’s best barkeeps.
THE RISE OF LATIN SPIRITS
Julie Reiner, the maven behind New York institutions the Flatiron Lounge and Clover Club, has now opened Leyenda, a colorful Brooklyn bar devoted to cocktails highlighting Latin spirits. The versatility of cachaça, pisco, and mezcal is showcased in drinks such as the Hey Suze (Peruvian pisco, gin, Suze, lemon, sugar snap peas, absinthe) and the Cabezaso (Irish whiskey, mezcal, Lillet Rose, Martini Bianco, St-Germain, mole bitters, habanero shrub). Running the joint is Speed Rack co-founder and former Clover Club bartender Ivy Mix, who fittingly used to tend bar in Guatemala. “With mezcal there are a variety of different agaves, which all create different flavors. It’s the same with pisco; there are so many different grapes and blends,” she explains.
All eyes on Brazil during last year’s World Cup games certainly gave cachaça the edge. Bartenders around the country started showing off Brazil’s national sugar cane spirit in refreshing cocktails beyond the predictable caipirinha, dovetailing with new brands like Avuá. When next year’s Summer Olympics descend upon Rio, cachaça will most certainly find itself in the spotlight once more. Allison Widdicombe, bartender at Williams & Graham, in Denver, is a native of Hawaii who grew up on a sugar cane plantation. Naturally, she has a soft spot for the stuff. “I love the grassy notes that come from the fresh pressing of the cane juice. It creates a spirit that balances sweetness and salinity very nicely,” she says. “A particular favorite on our menu right now pairs the Amburana with maraschino liqueur, guava, lemon, honey, and egg white.” (Photo: Facebook/Avua Cachaca)
RECOGNITION OF TAKEN-FOR-GRANTED SPIRITS
A decade ago it would have been baffling to think a circa-1700s, monk-made French liqueur would be as wildly popular among bartenders as it is today. But so it goes with the yellow and green herb-packed varieties of Chartreuse. Most craft cocktail establishments feature it in at least one drink, and New York bar Pouring Ribbons is certainly one of them. Now consider Bénédictine, that other mysterious French herbal concoction, which plays an essential role in cocktails like the Vieux Carré. At the Hawthorne in Boston, a number of drinks on the ever-changing “bookmark” menu feature Bénédictine, such as the Frisco (Rittenhouse rye, fresh lemon juice) and the Monte Carlo (Templeton rye, Angostura bitters). “For so long people just equated Bénédictine with B&B,” says the Hawthorne’s bar director, Jackson Cannon of the retro liqueur that blends both Bénédictine and brandy. “Now most bars don’t stock B&B at all, but this could be considered a better version. People are realizing it has rich berry, honey, and nutty notes.”
A newfound love for Jägermeister is just as robust. Considering Americans’ increasing passion for all that tastes bitter, Sother Teague, barman at New York’s amari-loving Amor y Amargo, thinks it’s the perfect time for Jägermeister to make a comeback. “Its complexity is what draws me in. It has a lush mouthfeel combined with loads of baking spices like ginger, cinnamon, and anise” he says. Because of its bitter-sweet-citrus profile, Teague recommends weaving Jägermeister into classics like the Old Fashioned (skip the sugar and bitters), or a riff on the Margarita with grapefruit juice and dry curacao. (Photo: Facebook/Jagermeister)
GIN IS ONCE AGAIN A THING
It was the spirit that fueled Prohibition-era America, but after the speakeasy rendezvous ended, a mid-century fascination with vodka eclipsed the juniper-forward spirit. Gin is the star of classic tipples like the Gimlet and Aviation, yet masses deemed the spirit too floral, too piney. Then a new crop of unconventional botanical-laden brands—Monkey 47 and Fords Gin among them—arrived on the scene, offering alternatives to the traditional London dry style. Bartenders were slowly showing guests that a Martini made with gin, not vodka, is far superior.
“There is nothing wrong with vodka, except that its major marketing point, for so long, has been its lack of flavor,” says New York bar consultant Jan Warren. “If you are using ingredients with no flavor, what is the point? Of course, we are seeing some backlash there and vodkas like Elyx, Purity, Karlsson’s Gold, and Aylesbury Duck are being made so you can taste the wheat or potatoes. Gin, on the other hand, lends some citrus peel, spice, and obviously juniper to whatever cocktail you make. I think customers are realizing that gin isn’t frightening.” (Photo: Facebook/Hendrick’s Gin)
“Nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and hot pepper—they have been used for ages,” says Nico de Soto, one of the partners at New York’s spice-centric newcomer Mace. At the petite bar, de Soto has dreamed up a dozen cocktails that run the gamut from the Cardamom with vodka fat-washed in pistachio oil, to the nutty Pandan, paired with rum and pineapple juice. Such unusual flavors certainly draw interest, but melding them presents its own challenges. “For example, the Ambrette (rye, ambrette bitters, soy sauce, sherry, tobacco essence) is earthy and musky,” de Soto points out.
Taha Ismail, beverage director for Kapnos and Graffiato, in Washington, D.C. and Virginia, is also intrigued with the challenge of weaving spices into cocktails. At Graffiato, one of the favorite drinks is the Tony Starr (Thai chile-infused mezcal, tequila, orange liqueur, blood orange, lime). The Angry Elf (tequila, Serrano-infused yellow Chartreuse, lemon, Bénédictine), meanwhile, appears at Kapnos. “Making a cocktail is kind of similar to cooking. You are using culinary skills. I’m Moroccan, so naturally I gravitate toward coriander and cumin, and I love using Serrano chiles. I just made a beet Margarita that is rimmed with a dehydrated harissa salt.” Balance is crucial to any cocktail, of course, but when a bartender is handling spice, Ismail notes, a delicate hand is particularly important. (Photo: Facebook/Mace)
COCKTAILS AS DESSERT MUSE
The 1970s, ’80, and ‘90s—otherwise known as the dark days of cocktails—overflowed with cloying liqueurs and misguided drinks like the notorious Sex on a Beach. “Classic formulas and techniques gave way to artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, and time-saving methods. Bartenders replaced actual egg white with ‘bar foam’ and real lemon juice with sour mix,” says Kyle Davidson, bartender at Chicago’s Blackbird. “As such, bartenders forgot how to bartend. You can still make an excellent Grasshopper or Brandy Alexander in the blender with fresh cream, good liqueur, and proper measurement, but most served were basically just flavored ice cream.”
The after-dinner drink category is often passed over because of this unattractive past, but with cocktails like the Grilled Pineapple at Brooklyn bakery-bar Butter & Scotch and quality products like Giffard Banane du Brésil (a liqueur uniting real Brazilian bananas with cognac) making a splash, many are now worth sipping. “When the ingredients used were pre-made, you couldn’t blame a bartender for mixers like Rose’s being sweet, but now when they make their own it’s up to them,” Davidson says. “As a bartender, I constantly tell guests that sugar is in a drink just as salt is in food. There is a line, a threshold for the right amount of seasoning, and an under-seasoned drink is just as bad as an over-seasoned one.” (Photo: Facebook/Butter & Scotch)
DRINKING IN THE SUBURBS
A night out in the suburbs often meant swilling a Strawberry ‘Rita at TGI Fridays or bust. Now, cocktail culture’s presence is so potent, it’s permeated beyond the urban meccas. About 30 miles shy of Boston is Beverly, where you’ll find the Barrel House. Here, patrons sip on classic Whiskey Smashes or creations like the Los Altos Sour with silver tequila, cacao, and lemon. At Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen, a stunning mansion in Morristown, New Jersey, one of the hideouts is the 1920s-inspired Vail Bar, where bar director Christopher James says the Game of Thrones cocktail is a particular hit among Garden State revelers.
But are there challenges in convincing locals to try more interesting libations? Nick Pagor, who oversees the cocktail program at Chicago gastropub Bangers & Lace, which has an outpost in Evanston, says, “The older suburban crowd tends to stick to the classic cocktails that they know and like, and can be a bit harder to convince to try something new. However, when we get a younger crowd in, they are just as adventurous as our patrons in the city.” This means they might be found with an Aimless Arrow (Laird’s Applejack, Sailor Jerry rum, grapes) in hand. (Photo: Facebook/Bangers & Lace)
Shots and shooters are markedly different creatures, points out Nicholas Jarrett, bartender at New Orleans bars the Saint and Cure. While shooters have been bastardized by such gimmicky creations as the Buttery Nipple and Lemon Drop, shots “are the most communal form of drinking,” Jarrett adds. In recent years, the Pickleback has taken hold, dreamed up at Bushwick Country Club, in Brooklyn. “It was a cool, really easy process shot that you could ‘teach’ someone. Good pickle brine immediately masks the burn from shitty whiskey. It quickly got promoted to Jameson in craftier bars.”
At the Normandie Club in Los Angeles, every month the menu highlights different shots in its Spirit Obsession section. The current selection revolving around agave offers the likes of El Tesoro Platinum Tequila and Vago Espadin Mezcal. “I’m still astonished when 21-year-olds walk into the Saint and order a Fitzgerald. That initial high-minded ‘elitism,’ where bars didn’t offer vodka, and wouldn’t make shots isn’t really necessary any more,” says Jarrett. “Bartenders appreciate the community-building aspect of shots-as-drinking, bar patrons cede taste-making authority to bartenders.” The lifting of this stigma now allows patrons to explore a wide range of spirits in a new, non-fussy light. “Once professionals slapped the ‘tini out of consumers, it became reasonable to tentatively broach the subject of shots,” Jarrett points out. (Photo: Pixabay)
At Dirty Habit in San Francisco you can order A Dirty Decision, with chanterelle-infused sherry and a black garlic tincture. It might sound unusual, but savory drinks have long been a part of drink culture, says Chad Solomon, proprietor of Midnight Rambler in Dallas. You can trace its roots to the Tomato Juice cocktail of the early 20th Century. “Savory ingredients like miso, MSG, and curry are all finding their way into drinks,” he says. “As bartenders continue to learn from chefs and collaborate with the kitchen, we will see more and more savory ingredients being utilized in cocktails. Guests are more receptive than ever to them.”
At his own bar, Solomon and partner Christy Pope do exactly this with the Pho King Champ, a twist on the classic Bull Shot “re-imagined through the lens of Vietnamese pho. We also wanted to give a nod to the steakhouse culture that exists in Dallas with a playful twist on the beef broth shot, utilizing the aromatic ingredients in pho.”
Robert Ortenzio, barman at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in Las Vegas, says savory cocktails are “gaining more real estate on menus.” One of his own is the Pork Chop (bourbon, fresh thyme, Dijon mustard, apple cider, lemon juice, simple syrup), in which he brings together ingredients “that speak to the traditional culinary preparation of pork. If you get too creative you can miss the mark, so you’re better off trying to let those ingredients speak for themselves.” (Photo: Facebook/Yardbird)
Slowly Shirley, the 1940s-like Hollywood den below the Happiest Hour, in New York, is home to a rich, dark cocktail combining mezcal and beets. Further downtown, at Genuine Superette, the juice blends that Eben Freeman makes as afternoon quenchers—such as the Copper (carrot, orange, parsnip, turmeric, lemon, ginger shrub)—magically morph into cocktails when he spikes them with gin, triple sec, and Kummel. All the kale margaritas and sugar snap pea concoctions we’ve seen in recent years is a good thing, says Bobby Heugel, president of Clumsy Butcher, which owns and operates a number of Houston establishments such as Anvil and the Pastry War. Using creative fresh-squeezed juices is just another (good-for-you) tool in the drink-slinging arsenal. “It seems limiting to only focus on limes and lemons where there are so many more options,” says Heugel. (Photo courtesy Lizzie Star)
RESTAURANT BARS ARE AWESOME
Until he went to New York in 2006 and saw his first “cocktail bar,” Erik Adkins, bar director of San Francisco’s Slanted Door Group, had equated quality drinking with restaurants like Absinthe and Nopa. “To me this seemed natural. Restaurants already stock a variety of herbs and fruits and many have a dedicated pastry department that can manufacture syrups. I always assumed that restaurant bars had an advantage,” he recalls. But New York was different. “Craft cocktails emerged from bars with little or no food like Milk & Honey, Flatiron Lounge, and Pegu Club. In many ways they had an advantage because they didn’t have to focus on food and wine. They could focus on one thing: great drinks,” he explains.
Even so, Adkins’ take was not far off: Restaurant bars are fast becoming some of the country’s finest perches. Consider the celebrated ones at the NoMad Hotel and Eleven Madison Park, whose programs, overseen by Leo Robitschek, have snagged James Beard Awards.
“A lot of young bartenders now have the opportunity to manage a bar and write a cocktail list. I think that this is great. However, I think that many bars are getting ahead of themselves. I would like to see bars spend less energy trying to be overly creative just for the sake of being unique,” says Adkins. Many are following his advice, whether this be Estadio in Washington, D.C., Balena in Chicago, or Bestia in Los Angeles.
“I started in the industry a bit over a decade ago when cocktails were little more than either a Manhattan, a Martini, or a crazy concoction of syrups and flavored vodkas,” remembers Bestia’s bar director Nicholas Krok. “Back then, that’s what was popular and profitable, so for the most part no one was questioning it or wanting to explore different approaches.”
Now he’s seeing bartenders incorporate flavors “that I would never even have imagined ten years ago” into drinks. “We’re creating cocktails that revolve around the balance of bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and umami by taking our cues from chefs as well as classic recipes. At Bestia, every cocktail that goes on our list goes through a rigorous process of tasting by our team and chef Ori. If it’s not perfectly balanced and focused on the flavors we want, we tweak it or start over—much like the process for creating a balanced dish in the kitchen.” (Photo: Facebook/Bestia)