As time goes by, cocktails that once seemed novel become commonplace; spirits once unfamiliar show up everywhere. And every so often, it's good to stop and take stock. Here are the cocktail trends I saw popping up in 2013—from low-proof cocktails to crowd-pleasing punch, vegetables to sous-vide.
It's fun, it encourages that communal spirit, it's a bit lower-octane so you can drink it all night. What's not to love about punch? In 2013, we not only saw more established bars offering punch, but several places devoted to them. There's Punch House in Chicago, well-schooled in the history of punches; "We're just not taking a shortcut by making huge batches of cocktails," said beverage manager Will Duncan. And at the Dead Rabbit in NYC, the menu isn't all punch —its dozens of cocktails are all recreations of 19th-century drinks—but two full pages of its massive menu are punches. "I started with punch and then built the whole menu after that," explains head bartender Jack McGarry.
Drinks with no spirits made a strong showing this year. Bartenders have gotten excited about combining aromatized wines and amari (such as the delicious Search For Delicious, with Cynar and Punt e Mes vermouth). Sherry is everywhere; in the Le Systeme Solaire at Allumette in Los Angeles, it's Oloroso sherry with bergamot-infused Dolin Blanc vermouth and bergamot bitters. The Radiant Child at Pearl & Ash in New York is a richer sherry-based flip, with an egg, Lustau Palo Cortado, Rabarbaro Zucca (a rhubarb-flavored amaro), Velvet Falernum, and lemon juice.
Interested in exploring lower-proof cocktails? There's even a book: The Art of the Shim: Low-Alcohol Cocktails to Keep You Level.
And No-Alcohol Cocktails
I'd say about a third of the cocktail bars I go to these days have non-alcoholic cocktails on the menu. By "cocktails," I mean thoughtfully composed, multi-part drinks; not just a stray soda or ginger beer.
It's considerate to guests, and opens up a wider range of potential customers—pregnant women can enjoy a virgin cocktail while their partner might have a fully loaded one; those who choose not to drink don't have to feel shut out of socializing; designated drivers aren't stuck with soda; those of us on a long night out can take a breather and rehydrate. (Truth be told, I'd be well-served by swapping out the occasional cocktail for a booze-free round, and I'd rather not have it be Diet Coke.)
Another reason to include them on your menu? "Nonalcoholic drinks—good, carefully made, nonalcoholic drinks—are the closest thing in this business to printing money," said Ryan Magarian at a seminar called "Lucrative Libations" at Tales of the Cocktail.
I vividly remember the first time I came across a vegetable cocktail: the Beet Negroni served at Parm in New York. My first thought? "That's bizarre." Second thought? "Bizarrely awesome."
It's hard to believe that was just two years ago; since then, I've had at least half a dozen beet drinks. And this year? We saw an entire garden's worth of vegetables, including some that I'd never thought would make the leap to the bar. (I'm looking at you, eggplant.)
Mezcal & Pimentón at Melibea in NYC, fresh red bell pepper juice and un-aged Fidencio mezcal. Bax Beet Yogi at New York's Experimental Cocktail Club, a beet-based cocktail spiked with yogurt mezcal. Eggplants(!) in the Deadly Nightshade at Henry in New York's Hudson Hotel. Fresh fennel in the Archduke at the Third Man, also in New York. The Parsnip Flip and the corn juice Oaxaqueño at NYC's Greenwich Project. Avocado and tequila in the Aguacate Grasa at Percy's & Co. in Seattle. The carrot-gin-Suze Watership Down at Trenchermen in Chicago. A butternut squash cocktail at Costata in Manhattan. We could go on, but one thing is clear: the variety is astounding.
Techniques Becoming Mainstream
In 2012, we had Booker + Dax, making eager use of liquid nitrogen, centrifuges, and a red-hot poker; the technique was part of the show. In 2013, we had plenty of innovative technique—but it often happens behind the scenes, quietly. More Alder, Wylie Dufresne's new casual pub with bar manager Kevin Denton, than wd~50, Dufresne's famously high-tech, high-end restaurant.
At Henry in the Hudson Hotel, that means skins of tart green apples cooked sous vide with Dolin Blanc for the Holy Spritz. At Manon, it's all centrifuges, iSi units, and hydrosols—all behind the scenes. And at The Butterfly, there's simplest drink of them all, a Highball. It's made with smoked Coca-Cola—which runs through a process too lengthy to recount here—but ends up, well, as a whiskey-and-Coke.
2013 was the year I encountered this pineapple cocktail at ZZ's Clam Bar (St. George Terroir gin, pineapple juice, lime juice, housemade limoncello, garnish of chamomile), and poured a Negroni from a teapot at Golden Cadillac.
Salts and Savories
While we've seen salty and savory elements crop up before, that trend's not slowing down. At the Experimental Cocktail Club, you'll find such novel drinks as the Stockholm Syndrome, with cumin and dill-infused vodka, aquavit, lemon juice, Peychaud's bitters, and pink Himalayan salt; and Dreams of Sushi, with hijiki seaweed-infused cognac as well as lemon, mint, honey, and housemade green apple shrub. At Bergen Hill in Brooklyn, there's a drink made with shrimp stock.
Beer As An Ingredient
Beer cocktails have become pretty mainstream. But more often than not, they've seemed like "beer with something else in it," rather than "a cocktail including beer." This year, I tried more and more cocktails where beer added just a little something extra, rather than dominating the drink. There's the Franklin Fizz at Distilled NY (muddled white grapes, Milagro reposado tequila, egg white, simple syrup, lemon juice, and Blue Point Toasted Lager); the Raspberry & Balsamic at Atrium Dumbo (raspberry, balsamic vinegar syrup, Bols genever, raspberry gomme syrup, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA); and The Reveller at Revel Room in Chicago, with Malört, honey, and Steigl Radler, a grapefruit soda and beer combination.
Every Drink Taken Seriously...
Attention to classic cocktails is nothing new, and any bartender worth his vermouth should be able to make you a decent martini. But this year was the first time I saw an entire martini list at a new cocktail bar, created by Eben Freeman at Costata. There's a "Dirty Shaken Vodka Martini" at Bergerac in San Francisco. And the G&T is getting its due, with a gin and tonic list at New York's Toro. Spain has long been obsessed with the "gin-tonic" in dozens of different forms, but 2013 is when I saw the States catching up.
Really, *Every* Drink
I have to say, I'd never wanted for a better Grasshopper, or Tequila Sunrise, or Harvey Wallbanger. But they're all back in action this year—with the Grasshopper at The Butterfly and Lantern's Keep, and a whole menu of '70s, er, classics—that Tequila Sunrise, and even a Long Island Iced Tea, at Golden Cadillac.
And the Prices Soared
While it's still possible to get $10 craft cocktails in many cities—and parts of Brooklyn and Queens, too—we encountered plenty of sticker-shock in Manhattan. Five years ago, $12 was just about the upper limit; in 2013, we saw more than a few cocktails break the $20 ceiling.The drinks at ZZ's Clam Bar might come in a coconut or a golden pineapple, but are they worth $50 for a round? How about the Jasmagne at Henry, A Liquor Bar in the Hudson Hotel—$60 a round, including tax and tip? We'll leave those decisions to you.