"Neutral drinks like the vodka and club soda are the antithesis of the robust, spirit-forward cocktails that are the hallmark of craft bars across the country."
In today's Wall Street Journal, Miriam Gottfried confirms what many culinary observers have talked about for some time: once renowned for its fondness for the boring and the bland, the American palate is expanding in scope and big, intense flavors are increasingly in. The WSJ article primarily addresses the surging popularity of enhanced flavors in processed foods such as tortilla chips and soft drinks, but the growing taste for things that have, well, taste extends throughout the culinary world—including into the realm of drinks.
Gottfried writes, "The current flavor boom is a big change for a nation known for its mashed potatoes, chicken sticks, macaroni and cheese and other unadventurous fare. It's a reversal that has been in the making since the advent of processed food first began to drown out regional cuisines during World War II, food historians say."
In the drinks world, the drive to blandness began even before World War II, when Prohibition had the unintentional consequence of increasing the consumption of the milder-flavored Canadian whisky, rather than the more full-flavored bourbons and ryes that were no longer in circulation. Following repeal in 1933, American whiskey producers barely had a chance to start recapturing their share of the market before the country's entry into the war necessitated an industry-wide shift to the production of industrial alcohol.
After the war, by the time full-flavored spirits like bourbon, scotch and brandy were once again widely available, vodka was starting to appear on the scene and its famously neutral character made it a hit among drinkers who wanted something that didn't taste so strongly of alcohol.
Today, neutral drinks like the vodka and club soda are the antithesis of the robust, spirit-forward cocktails that are the hallmark of craft bars across the country. Just as bold is replacing boring in the food world, drinkers are showing a greater willingness to try something with a more adventurous flavor than that found in a vodka martini.
The robust flavors of bourbon and rye are hotter than they've been since before Prohibition, and bartenders are increasingly experimenting with the assertive character of scotch whisky, with the smoke-bomb spirits from Islay popping up in surprisingly engaging cocktails such as the Golden Ticket from New York bartender Jason Littrell. Bars such as Mayahuel in New York and Nopalito in San Francisco are using the pungent smokiness of mescal to great effect, and craft bartenders and drink enthusiasts around the world show no sign of wavering in their devout affection for potently bitter Italian amari.
Bold flavors are big in the food world, and increasingly that's true behind the bar. What are some of the big-flavored spirits and cocktail ingredients you like to find in your glass?
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.