With today's cocktail-focused crowds, a talented, creative bartender is as essential an asset for your restaurant as having a great chef.
Here are a six of the hottest cocktail trends that are pulling customers into bars.
House-made or fancy artisanal bitters have been around for a few years now, but is your bartender working with shrubs? These vinegar-based syrups may not be new (in fact, they were a popular way of preserving fruit back in colonial days), but they’re popular now because they add tart complexity to a drink with fresh fruit flavors that cooked simple syrups just can’t capture. We’re partial to cold-processed shrubs made with whatever fruit is in season.
We’re not just talking mint in your mojito here. Top bars are branching out into Thai basil and anise hyssop, lemon verbena and lavender. Some bars, like Drink in Boston, have their own live herb gardens front and center allowing bartenders to work with the freshest flavors and ingredients, right in front of their customers' eyes.
3. Local spirits
Excellent small-batch distilleries are popping up everywhere you look, and we’re not just talking bourbon. Say you’re in Oregon: you could stock a whole bar locally. Start with gin: there’s Aviation, Cascade Mountain, 12 Bridges and Ransom Old Tom to start. For vodka, there’s New Deal, Crater Lake, Medoyeff, to name a few. Whiskey? There’s WhipperSnapper and limited releases from House Spirits. Rogue Spirits makes a dark rum, and Bull Run is releasing a white rum this summer. There’s even local vermouth from Imbue. Need absinthe? Try Trillium. Check out your local distillery scene and see if you can't stock at least a few bottles from your neighbors. Your customers will appreciate knowing that their drink is coming right from their own backyard, and you may even be able to work with a distiller to produce signature spirits unique to your bar or restaurant.
4. Beer cocktails
Forget club soda, tonic and ginger ale. Beer beats these mixers out by adding effervescence and flavor to cocktails without too much sweetness. We’ve seen everything from tart Belgian lambics to roasty stouts, and creations as simple as a two-ingredient shandy or spiffed-up Radler to more complex drinks featuring beer with bitters and bourbon, or even boozed up with calvados, batavia arrack and vermouth with lemon and eggwhite. Low-alcohol drinks are hot these days when customers want to be able to imbibe and still taste their food afterwards. Beer-based drinks are a great way to jump into the game.
Large-format libations have a rich history (see David Wondrich’s excellent book on the topic if you haven’t already) and they’re on the upswing again. What customer wouldn't want to drop by with a group of a half dozen friends and dip into a communal bowl? Whether you’re offering whole bowls or individual servings in glass mugs, seasonally-rotating punch is now a must-have on your menu. The Violet Hour in Chicago featured a bourbon-based version for fall with apple juice, Zwack, bitters and cinnamon syrup. The Drink in Brooklyn offers 10-serving bowls including The Charter (tequila, lime juice, ginger syrup, salt tincture, cassis syrup and soda) and The Narwhal (made with rosemary infused gin, honey syrup, lemon juice and bitters.) In San Francisco, Hobson’s Choice calls itself a “punch house with Victorian flair.”
Usually, you mix a cocktail and the customer drinks it. But all over the country, bar managers are mixing cocktails and putting them away in a barrel—sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes several months. The barrel-aged cocktails emerge smooth and subtly oaky, with hints of caramel. The trend took off at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, and continues at Temple Bar in Cambridge, MA, at Girl and the Goat in Chicago, Blackbird in San Francisco, and at Summit Bar, The Dutch, and several other spots in New York. Barrel-aging takes a bit of forethought and planning, along with the space to hold a barrel for several weeks or months, but customers are willing to pay a premium for such treats. They also make service much quicker—all it takes is a pour.