What's in Your Drink in 2011?

What’s next for mixology? Telling the future, even short term, is risky; I’m sure there’s some sort of spirit I’ve overlooked that’s just now bubbling up, or previously forgotten technique ready to explode. On the other hand, last year the buzz brigade couldn’t talk about anything but the pickleback. The great thing, though, about making predictions is that everyone loves to read them and no one ever remembers what you wrote.

So herewith, Jack’s ins, outs, and questions for 2011:

1. Many great barkeeps started out as underemployed and struggling actors – today, a generation of male bartenders show up behind the bar dressed as if featured in a costume-curated production of “Our Town.” The mash up of speakeasy and gilded age bar culture attracts mainly nostalgics, and its gimmicky appeal has become a widespread trend. Those customers, however, who have been enchanted while rummaging through an imaginary saloon past - one Disneyfied and sanitized of its cheap booze, acrid cigars, brimming spittoons and social bigotry – will swiftly move on to the next thing. Those operations that have pinned their hopes to this trend will need a remake this year.

2. Ice fetishism. Nothing beats quality ice, and hurrah for the bartenders who insist on having good, cold, workable varieties, who labor to chop, shave or otherwise bring fresh and suitable ice to the drink. When Dale DeGroff was preaching the ice gospel at the turn of the last century, no one gave this sea change much hope. But increasingly, I leave a new bar with a numb, wet philtrum (the space between lips and nose), after struggling to dip my beak crow-like around a monumental chunk of cold to get to my beverage. Or I find the proportion of crushed ice to liquid yields a slushy soup if I don’t pound it down within minutes of service. Here’s to more customer-friendly ice management.

3. Vodka bashing. You expect a restaurant that bills itself as vegetarian not to sell burgers, and you don’t go to a sushi bar for mac and cheese. So if you open a bar and don’t serve the spirit that accounts for nearly 25% of liquor volume sold in America, you should say so right up front, so not to make the innocent customer who wanders in feel foolish when ordering vodka soda. Go without vodka if you must, but make sure have a plan (menu alternatives) and an approach that will make your guests feel like they’ve made a good choice by entering your bar.

1. The return of hospitality. Getting a good drink is no longer a problem in most cities. But getting a warm welcome, a moment’s attention and some other sign of hospitality is still an issue. Today’s bartenders may know more about product, drinks, technique, bar and spirit history and other scholastic matters than any before them, but there’s an appalling lack of (am I being completely uncool to say it?) people-pleasing going on in the bar business. Part of this problem is structural: as menus fill with more complicated drinks, there’s little time for bartenders to spare, and bar owners are loathe to increase their labor costs for anything not demonstrably bottom-line focused. This is more hope than prediction, but with so many good bars now open, the ones that focus on service will do best in 2011.

2. Savory ingredients. The culinary cocktail trend seems to be localized – Boston, Washington, D.C. – but it’s yielding lots of interest in incorporating fresh herbs and vegetables, sometimes swiped from the chef’s garden, into drinks. Some of these ideas are really closer to appetizers than traditional cocktails, but the impetus is yielding contemporary culinary drinks that can actually be paired with dishes more easily. Include in this category the world of potable – and aromatic – bitters, with brands such as Gran Classico already making a tiny but influential impact.

3. Quality bar tools. Not so long ago, a clean shirt and comfortable shoes were the limit of what most bartenders needed to work a shift anywhere. Equipment to make drinks were almost always supplied by the bar operator. But today, at the leading edge bars in major markets, bartenders have assembled their own personal bag of tricks, packing them with once obscure items as anvil ice picks, Lewis bags and Japanese mixing glasses. Just as they’ve done to revive hard-to-source spirits, bartenders with beautifully crafted bar spoons or especially precise pourers. Or even the mundane, but well-crafted, swizzle stick. Suppliers have noticed this and better, if more expensive, tools are now widely available.

1. Micro distillers – the boom will continue, but will the quality remain? Much has been made of the locavorian urge to take on products created close to home, but as interest surges, the real skills of distilling – including delivering a reliable product to bartenders who create cocktails based on specific flavor profiles – will be tested. Here’s hoping good barrel management is among the skills these upstarts have mastered.

2. Scotch, beer and wine in cocktails. Scotch whisky is costly and too complicated for American cocktail palates, most operators say, but try a blended Scotch Manhattan variation one day and you’ll realize they are easy to quaff, and prices out close to any other brown spirit drink. The range of quality beers currently produced has never been matched in this country and the world’s brewers look here for inspiration, yet only recently have more than a few bars started creating craft beer cocktails. As for wine, let’s see if the increasing interest from sommeliers in the cocktails scene and societal pressure for lower-alcohol concoctions yields better wine-based drinks.

3. Gin’s return and mezcal’s advance. Beefeater’s limited release seasonal varieties, along with the boom of small distillery products with distinctly different flavor profiles, has once again given new life to the bartender’s botanical favorite. But will the average consumer ever get the attraction and really boost gin’s sales? Maybe this year we find out. Ditto mezcal; lots more brands, new and old, in wide distribution, and with bars like NYC’s Mayahuel making an impact with mezcal-based libations, could this be the year that customers discover mezcal?

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