Trends in Cocktail Culture by Donna Hood Crecca

Tales of the Cocktail drew crowds to the Crescent City yet again for five days of exploring all things cocktail, July 8 – 12. The event was both exhilarating and exhausting, and highlighted some emerging trends in the cocktail business. Among the product trends:

Vodka is back. After years of disparaging the spirit, top mixologists and bar mavens were singing a different tune. During the Cocktail Trends 2009 session at the Professional Series at Tales of the Cocktail, sponsored by Nightclub & Bar (shameless plug), Jim Meehan of Manhattan’s famed PDT declared: “We needed to ‘kill’ vodka, to move vodka aside to make room for other spirits like gin, tequila and rum on the back bar and in the guest’s mind. Now, there truly is a range of vodka’s out there…and I am happy to dust it off, pick it up and get it back on its feet again.” Meehan referenced three emerging vodkas – eau de vie-style such as Karlsson’s Gold, value-priced Polish rye Sobieski and Belvedere IX, which he says offers hints of juniper – and noted that vodka is much more interesting today. For its part, Van Gogh launched two new vodkas: Caramel and Triple Wheat Blue.

Green is in vogue. Organic, natural and earth-friendly spirits were also in abundance. Square One debuted its latest bottle at the event: Square One Botanical, a botanical-infused organic rye spirit. Eco-conscious 360 Vodka launched a recycling and composting program for the five-day event, collecting all the waste from the considerable amount of produce used during Tales of the Cocktail and donating it to local soil-building efforts. For its part, Veev Acai Spirit co-founder Carter Reum shared details if the word-of-mouth marketing effort that built the brand in recent years, which includes $1 donated to the Brazilian rainforest preservation effort for every bottle sold.

Absinthe is abundant. Just two years after being legalized in the U.S., absinthe was front-and-center at the event. At the Green Hour exhibit and tasting room, numerous styles of absinthe were on display, with drips and unique cocktails available for sampling. At least a dozen brands participated, including the classic Pernod and eclectic selections such as Kubler. According to Lucas Bonchick, national sales manager for Lucid Absinthe, a similar event last year was barely half the size.

One the bartending and bar operations front, several trends were in evidence:

Burgeoning cocktail bars. A Professional Series session entitled “The Bittersweet Truth of Starting a Bar” was packed with current and would-be start-up artists. Led by H. Joseph Ehrmann of San Francisco’s Elixir, the session explored the good, the bad and the ugly of morphing from bartender to bar owner for a rapt audience. Apparently, the explosion of cocktail bars opening across the country will continue.

The Internet is influential. Bloggers were out in full force, not only participating in a competition but also in a panel session that examined ways to use blogging and the Internet to grow business for a bar or spirit brand. Presenter Bobby Heugel spoke openly about the role of his cocktail blog, Drink Dogma, in the development of his Houston cocktail lounge, Anvil, and its role in growing a loyal customer base for the hot spot.

Everyone is or wants to be a brand ambassador or bar consultant. One fellow attendee mused that more brand ambassadors and consultants were at Tales than actual working bartenders. A session addressing ways to get the most out of brand ambassadors and consultants underlined that the relationship is a two-way street: operators need to be prepared to share info about their business, shoulder much of the workload and give a consulting project or new brand time to be successful, while brand ambassadors and consultants need to learn the ins and outs of the particular business, train/teach effectively and commit to follow-up. The session was punctuated with glimpses into the life of a brand ambassador – working with varied venues often in exciting locales with generous T&E budgets -- and when moderator Philip Duff queried the audience as to how many wanted to be a brand ambassador, numerous hands shot up.

Fresh is profitable. King Cocktail Dale DeGroff and Modern Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim handily demonstrated that with proper training and technique, using fresh produce instead of prepared mixers and juices results in better cocktails and better profit margins for most types of venues. They did, however, give a nod to the high-quality purees on the market, saying that packaged purees might be the best way to go to guarantee flavor and consistency, due to the complicated process required to make purees.


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