Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Trends to Watch for in 2010

"Enough already with the whole speakeasy schtick."

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Farewell whiskey, hello vodka and cognac? [Flickr: andym8y]

Wow, was that a boozy decade. The martini-lounge craze that was sparked in the 1990s, coupled with a growing culinary awareness that touched everything we eat and drink, evolved into a full-blown renaissance for spirits and cocktails in the first decade of the 21st century. The big question, of course, is now what?

Based on what's been happening as the aught decade (did we ever settle on what to call that?) draws to a close, here are six trends we might see in the next decade.

Craft Cocktail Bar, 2.0

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Starting with Milk & Honey in New York and spreading to just about everywhere, speakeasy-style bars came to define the craft-cocktail movement, with exacting attention placed on each detail of a drink's composition and construction. I count some of these bars among my very favorites, but even I'm saying, enough already with the whole speakeasy schtick.

In the closing months of 2009, two craft cocktail destinations opened that, while devoted to the enjoyment of excellent spirits and the creation of awe-inspiring drinks, also place "fun" high on their priority list. Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco, inspired by the mid-century tiki and Caribbean-drinks phenomenon, and The Tar Pit in Los Angeles, drawing inspiration from 1940s-era supper clubs, dispense with the Prohibition-themed trappings of the speakeasy bars, discarding the overly serious demeanor along with it.

Look for craft cocktail bars to lighten up a bit more in years to come, and to rediscover the notion of customers simply having a good time.

Cognac's Stealth Advance

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Walnut-infused cognac. Ooh, fancy. [Flickr: Kenn Wilson]

While bartenders and distillers revived lost or forgotten ingredients such as rye whiskey and Old Tom gin in recent years, cognac has been slow to catch on strong in the cocktail world. Part of this is no doubt due to the price—a basic bottle of a decent VS cognac still costs more than many excellent gins—but while premium cognac has done great business in nightclubs, in craft cocktail bars it's still relatively ignored.

Just in the past year, more pioneering bartenders have been exploring what cognac can do in cocktails, and a cognac summit in France in early 2010 is bringing in bartenders from around the world. Let's see where this goes in the years to come.

Flavor on Steroids

Bold-flavored spirits and liqueurs such as rye whiskey and Italian amari came on strong this past decade. Now, more bartenders are turning to some of the biggest flavors behind the bar, lacing drinks with potently smoky mescal and prying the dasher top off the bottles of Angostura to make drinks with explosively striking flavors.

I'm not sure how much further this can go, but I've also been surprised in the past—look for more higher proof and adventurously flavored spirits and ingredients in coming years.

Specialty Spirits Bars

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Mayahuel. Get a recipe for their "Division Bell" cocktail here ยป [Photograph: Laren Spirer]

While bars dedicated to single-malt scotch or premium sipping tequilas are nothing new, this past year saw the opening of two bars that focus on particular realms of the spirits world, whether enjoyed on their own or in creative cocktails. The aforementioned Smuggler's Cove, in San Francisco, has possibly the most ambitious rum program of any bar in the world, and Mayahuel, in New York, introduced the notion of a tequila and mescal bar that incorporates craft cocktails into the experience.

As new brands and styles of spirits continue to appear on increasingly crowded back bars, look for more places to pick a spirit and go deep.

Vodka's Not Dead Yet

While still the biggest selling spirit in the country, vodka is widely reviled in the craft-cocktail world, so much so that earlier this year the Wall Street Journal proclaimed it was on its way out.

Now, driven by devil's advocacy, a sense of fair play or simply curiosity, a handful of craft bartenders are reevaluating vodka's merits. Could embracing the spirit cocktail aficionados love to hate be the next trend in mixology?

Whisk(e)y Market Sobers Up

The late 20th-century booms in single-malt scotch and premium bourbon were only the beginning—virtually all types of whisk(e)y caught on big this past decade, and prices have soared accordingly. But wait, isn't there a global economic downturn? Yeah, that could be a problem.

As Malt Advocate publisher John Hansell details in the winter issue, whiskey fans have found a lot to like in recent years, but between escalating prices, limited access in some markets, and a tin ear that some producers have for their customers, many consumers are growing restless. Many recent releases have emphasized longer age and, accordingly, a mighty price tag; it'll be interesting to see how many younger, more reasonably priced bottlings appear in coming years.

Any Others?

Those are a few of the things I'll be watching and writing about as we enter the next decade. And trends in the spirits and cocktail world you're watching out for?

About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.

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