All in Good Taste

Smoke, Spice and the Savory Sense of Umami are Popping Up in Cocktails From Coast to Coast

Keeping up with trends can be a daunting task — owners and operators have enough on their to-do lists already with day-to-day operations and long-term planning. But that doesn’t mean trends can be ignored. After all, they’re the prime indication of what your guests want, and if you don’t offer what they’re craving, they’ll leave you to find some place that will. But just what are the flavor trends in the cocktail and food world that you need to know to keep your sales trending upward? We asked three operators in three different cities to weigh in and provide direction on ways to capitalize on the trends.

Drink, Boston

drink boston cocktail
Drink in Boston showcases cocktails with smoke and spice. Photo Credit: Justin Ide

It’s smokin’ in Beantown. At least it is at Drink. Smoke is a note that’s in right now at the 1,500-square-foot space that boasts 38 seats, says bar manager John Gertsen. “It is a mixture of house smoking ingredients and using smoky spirits such as Scotch and mezcal. That dark, earthy, smoky character of some mezcals is really popular,” he explains. Gersten uses this trend to Drink’s advantage, employing these popular smoky flavors in signature cocktails.” We have a drink on the menu called the Smoking Jacket, featuring red wine and mezcal, that sells well.”

Additionally, staff members at Drink use smoky flavors in a different, more innovative way, creating a batch of smoked cherries by cooking them in Cognac over wood chips and then letting the fruit sit in a mix of spice and spirits for nine months. The cherries are used to garnish drinks such as the Rob Roy, where they add an extra smoky dimension to the classic cocktail.

From smoked fruits and liquors to fresh flavors, the mixologists at Drink tend to stick mostly to local and seasonal fruits and herbs when creating cocktails. This means that flavors, like trends, are ever changing — what is hot depends on what is at market (late spring brought strawberries to cocktails, for instance). But Drink also experiments by adding a taste of exotica into cocktails via the spice route, tapping into the trend of heat in flavors.

“Indonesian pepper, in small doses, can bring a third element to a drink and deepen the flavors, much like the use of bitters,” Gersten says.  However, for those wanting to ease into the spice game, Gersten reminds that certain spirits contain hints of spice. “The exotic spice component can also come from certain syrups, liqueurs and even rums.”

As for food, Gertsen notices a call for simplicity. “Comfort food is key. Our simple hand-cut French fries served with a malt vinegar aioli sauce are very popular and so are our chicken wings, which have been glazed in spicy honey.”

Public, Double Crown & Madam Geneva, New York City

Black Tar Cola at Madam Genever
Homemade Black Tar cola served at Double Crown and Madam Geneva has an umami taste.

From spice to acid to savory concoctions from the early 20th century, this trio of NYC restaurants and bars owned by the AvroKO Hospitality Group knows how to enhance any cocktail. “Spice, good acidity and sugar content all play a role in our drinks,” partner Adam Farmerie says.

Spice is hot, especially in Double Crown’s Kumquat Red Chili Smash (gin, kumquats, chili and simple syrup, topped with egg white foam). “Spice has always been something we’ve played with. It can be piquant or subtle like fennel seed,” Farmerie says, revealing that at Public, the infused fig and fennel vodka made in-house is particularly good.

The appetizing flavors don’t end with spice. The chefs at all the AvroKO restaurants enjoy playing with umami flavors, and the “savory” taste defined by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in the early 1900s is starting to make its way into the cocktails. At Madam Geneva and Double Crown, head barman Martim Smith-Mattsson created a house version of cola called Black Tar, made from cooked down molasses, juniper, coriander, plum, soy and a number of secret ingredients. “The result is that it’s a much deeper, richer cola while tapping into a certain umami sense” Farmerie says. “It is ridiculously delicious.”

Also delighting guests: homemade jams. They‘re big in the kitchen and a dollop goes into some of the mixed drinks at Madam Geneva to create an extra layer of flavor. A recent favorite is pineapple and vanilla jam with a little star anise, shaken with gin and citrus.

Finally, acidity in cocktails now stretches beyond lemons and limes. At all three venues, yuzu and calamansi limes (a small, hard lime found in Southeast Asia) add to the building blocks of creating a balanced cocktail.

Nopa and Nopalito, San Francisco

Neyah White, bar manager at San Francisco’s Nopa and Nopalito, uses different variations of the usual garnishes and ingredients in his cocktails. For instance, he sees heirloom ingredients in the kitchen as a thriving trend that will heavily influence the cocktail world. “We’re going to see more specific [heirloom ingredients],” he says. “We’ll hear about things like Agretti and other varieties of lettuce.”

Different varieties of mint also are gaining steam. “When we have the supply, chocolate mint Old Cubans are on the menu at Nopa, and we will be calling out red-stem mint this summer,” he explains. “I have seen shiso popping up again and again, especially in Mojitos.”

Herbal and bitter tastes also are on trend in San Francisco. “Vermouth just exploded,” White says. “It’s more about the style of drinking. People are able to have a drink that is lower in alcohol. It’s an aperitif in the real sense of the word.”

From bitter to savory, umami is another taste trend on the rise at Nopa. “Umami will continue to show up more and more in a purposeful way,” he says. “Mushrooms will be in unexpected places, vinegar and pickles used freely and longer cooking times at lower temperatures. We are using Sal de Gusano (worm salt ground with agave caterpillars and chili) with mezcal at Nopalito,” White points out.

Yuzu also seems to be making the rounds. After White saw Dale DeGroff make a Yuzu Margarita on Cinco de Mayo, he experimented with it. “I did a yuzu drink for Domaine Chandon recently and have a house-made yuzucello at Nopa.”

Obviously, flavor enhancers today are infinitely more complex than in years past. Palates are more adventurous and operators aren’t afraid to introduce their guests to something new and exciting. Smoke, spice, umami and flavorful acid elements are adding depth at the bar and the dining table, and your patrons are developing a taste for it. NCB

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