2010 in Spirits and Cocktails: Mezcal, Tiki's Comeback, and Friendly Bartenders

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[Photograph: Maggie Hoffman]

The last five or so years have been dynamic ones in the world of spirits and cocktails; which makes it kind of surprising (to me, anyway) that 2010 was relatively quiet.

I know this puts me at odds with Jason Wilson of the Washington Post, who proclaimed 2010 "a year of big news in spirits." This isn't to diminish Wilson's points, nor is it to suggest that the interesting new products or trends that did emerge this year -- some of which are great, and I hope to see them around for a while -- were somehow not up to snuff.

But in light of the re-emergence of once-lost spirits that occurred in years past, or great innovations in cocktail thinking that made the past decade such a great time to be a curious drinker, 2010 just seemed mostly meh.

Among the trends of the past year that do seem genuinely worthwhile, tequila and mezcal continued their climb in prominence. Tequila's rise started a good decade ago, and has only increased in recent years as new brands have taken over liquor-store shelves like fireweed.

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[Flickr: wayneandwax]

And mezcal? Pretty much unseen in craft bars only four or five years ago, artisanal mezcal came roaring down the pike around 2008, and 2010 saw bottles of excellent mezcal from Ilegal and Del Maguey (including an affordable mixing mezcal, Vida) popping up all over the place. If there's a single trend from 2010 worth celebrating, mezcal's wide resurgence is it.

But not everything was good in the realm of agave spirits. While some of these new tequilas are strikingly good, others -- as Wilson and our fellow booze journalist Camper English have suggested -- are simply dull, overpriced liquor in fancy bottles, which prompted both of these gentlemen to dub tequila as the new vodka in 2010.

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[Photograph: Nick Solares]

Other trends that took hold in 2010, and that I'd like to see more of in 2011, include tiki's comeback. Sure, we've been talking about it for years, but tiki's big move came in the final weeks of 2009, when Martin Cate opened the doors of Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco. A product of years of work and dedication by one of the most talented people (and it should be said, one of the nicest guys) working in bars today, Smuggler's Cove took the once-declasse realm of exotic drinks and made them respectable, and proved that just because something comes in a volcano bowl adorned with flowers and erupting with flames, it can still be a delicious, well-balanced drink.

Smuggler's Cove was followed by the debut of the equally excellent Painkiller and the Hawaiian-themed Lani Kai in New York, and by the greater acceptance of the joys of goofy-looking drinks in craft bars across the country. (And arm-in-arm with tiki, rum continued its run of popularity in 2010.)

But other drink-related happenings of 2010 just don't have the oomph of developments of past years. White dog (aka unaged whiskey)? Sure, there was a media blurp about it earlier in the year (and I've written about it a few times myself), but I think that was more of a quirky fad than a trend. While white dog offers an interesting perspective on how whiskey is made, it's just too esoteric and, let's admit it, too weird-tasting to have much legs as a genuine trend.

Likewise, while microdistilling continues to grow at a healthy pace, the middling quality of so much of what's coming out of these liquor startups is keeping this occurrence from becoming an interesting trend. This could change in 2011, but my bet is it's going to be another half-decade or more before there are more than a dozen quality brands coming from these new distilleries.

Perhaps the most interesting development of 2010, that has a good chance of resonating well into 2011, is the renewed emphasis being placed in craft bars on the art of hospitality. After years of deadpan stares and the occasional sneer that became all too common in speakeasy-style bars and other craft-cocktail establishments in past years, 2010 saw some of these very same bartenders realizing that, hey, maybe it's a good idea to be nice to the customer for a change.

Perhaps the clearest sign of this trend - and I think it genuinely is one - was the selection of Seattle's Zig Zag Café as the best bar in the country by GQ this past October, and the choice of Zig Zag's head bartender, Murray Stenson, as the best bartender in the country at this summer's Tales of the Cocktail. I've been sitting across the bar from Murray for years, and while he's justifiably renowned for the quality of his drinks, his true skill is in making a customer feel completely welcome, regardless of what they're drinking or who they are.

Bartenders come from around the country to witness this master of barroom hospitality, and the more that take the lessons home and deploy a smile and some patience with their customers, the better it's going to be for everyone concerned.

There are other things that I think will continue to emerge in 2011: bourbon's on an upward bounce, bitter aperitifs and liqueurs are blossoming in number and accessibility, and could this finally be pisco's year? -- but let's hear from you. What are some of the welcome trends you saw this past year? And what interesting developments do you think will take place behind the bar in 2011?

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