It’s that time of the year again: With 2017 on its way, I get to guess how we’ll all be drinking in the New Year. Want to judge the accuracy on my previous predictions? Here were my guesses for this year and 2015. From pop-up bars to non-alcoholic cocktails, here are my predictions for what you’ll be seeing more of behind bars and on shelves in the coming year.
There’s a thriving craft distillery movement growing by leaps and bounds Down Under, and there’s an ever-expanding trickle of Aussie spirits finally starting to make their way into the U.S. Among the best things I tasted this year are the amazing gins from Four Pillars, based in the wine country outside of Melbourne. They use native botanicals for truly unique flavors, and they made their American debut this summer. Other Australian booze you can now find Stateside includes Sullivan’s Cove, a Tasmanian single malt named the world’s best in 2014; Belgrove, a rye distilled from grain grown on-site in a biodiesel-powered still; Black Gate, which makes whiskey and rum, as well as eau-de-vie from native quandong fruits; and Starward, a single malt made from Aussie barley and aged in barrels that held apera, the local version of sherry. In 2017, I expect to see even more southern-hemisphere spirits on our shores, hopefully including the American debut of Bundaberg, Australia’s most popular rum.
Bitter has been big-time in the last few years, and the formerly obscure amaro is everywhere on cocktail menus lately. But with brands like Campari, Fernet-Branca and Cynar going mainstream, creative mixologists around the country are pushing the envelope even further, creating original amari in-house. This can be as simple as modifying an existing amaro, like the White Russian at Trifecta Tavern in Portland, which calls for Amaro CioCiaro infused with locally roasted coffee, or the Sazerac from bitter-focused New York bar Amor y Amargo, which uses a house blend of eight different amari as the base spirit. But others go further: At the new ramen, oyster and cocktail bar ROKC in Harlem, bartender Shige Kabashima created his own made-from-scratch amaro flavored with burdock, a root common in Japanese cuisine, which goes in a Martini-like cocktail with gin and dry vermouth. Vermont bar Misery Loves Co. actually makes three different house amari: one made with cardoon, a thistle-like cousin of the artichoke; another whose main flavor is peppercorns; and a third made from both the peel and fermented juice of bitter Seville oranges grown in a friend’s yard in Texas. And in Philadelphia, popular restaurant Le Virtù, which is devoted to authentic food and drinks from Italy’s Abruzzo region, make four different house digestivo-style amari, based around laurel, fennel, cherries and gentian, respectively. Sometimes, it’s a matter of necessity: Amer Picon, a French bitter orange liqueur that’s needed for the classic Brooklyn cocktail, is no longer available in the U.S., and lots of bartenders are making their own, including Beau du Bois at Los Angeles’ The Corner Door. After tasting a bottle of the real thing from France three years ago, du Bois started using Haitian orange peel, cacao nibs and other bitter botanicals to create his version. And the trend is even going commercial: A group of bartenders and other restaurant-industry folks in Southern California are about to launch Amaro Angeleno, a citrusy bitter liqueur that uses a wide variety of locally grown ingredients. I expect to see lots more like the above all over the place in the coming year.
In the past decade or so, hundreds of craft distilleries have opened across the U.S., and their success has started to draw the notice of the big players in the business. This year, several high-profile acquisitions surprised the cocktail world. In October, Svedka Vodka and Corona beer owner Constellation won a bidding war for Utah’s High West Distillery, buying the brand for $160 million, and two more major investments were announced just this month: Remy Cointreau is buying Washington State single malt-maker Westland, and the world’s second-largest spirits company, Pernod-Ricard, revealed that it had bought into West Virginia’s Smooth Ambler. The world’s largest spirits company, Diageo, has also been working since 2013 with the UK’s Distill Ventures, essentially a venture-capital fund for booze that’s so far put more than £25 million of the company’s money into brands around the globe. But it’s not just big companies swooping in to buy brands; some of the consolidation is homegrown. Davos Brands, a craft spirits company founded in 2014 that owns Sombra Mezcal and Astral Tequila, just purchased Aviation Gin from pioneering Portland distillery House Spirits. And Samson & Surrey, a brand-new firm started by former Bacardi executives, made major investments this year in both Chicago-area grain-to-glass distiller Few Spirits and Bluecoat Gin maker Philadelphia Distilling, with a larger portfolio of craft brands surely on its radar.
THE WISCONSIN OLD FASHIONED
If you’re a cocktail fan, you know what an Old Fashioned is: a mix of whiskey, bitters, sugar and water. Well, that’s not true in the Badger State. Wisconsinites have for decades been enjoying a unique twist on the classic cocktail that uses brandy as the base, muddles in a cocktail cherry and an orange wedge, and tops the whole thing with club soda, and Sprite (if you order it “sweet”) or sour mix (if you order it “sour”). Previously something looked down upon by “serious” bartenders, the Wisconsin Old Fashioned is catching on in higher-end joints around the country. Bartender/writer (and Playboy columnist) Jeffrey Morgenthaler might have kicked off the trend back in 2012 with a widely read blog post, but the drink’s really been growing in popularity in recent months. At Beverly Hills’ new Citizen, barman Josh Goldman (who learned to make the drink bartending while attending the University of Wisconsin) has a Wisconsin Old Fashioned on tap, made using Spanish brandy, kirschwasser (cherry brandy) and orange Curaçao, along with house-made bitters. Just across town in Sherman Oaks, California, the new Tribute is also serving the drink, using a tasty applejack from Caifornia as the base spirit. And in San Francisco at The Interval, Jennifer Colliau has a full page of Old Fashioned cocktails on her menu, including a Wisconsin version that incorporates house-made marasca cherry syrup.
The guest-bartender night is nothing new in the bar world, but lately, watering holes are taking the concept to the extreme, setting up pop-up events that last for days or weeks and completely transform their spaces. The holidays are a popular theme: In 2014, the owners of Mace and Cocktail Kingdom in New York teamed up to transform Mace into a Christmas wonderland called Miracle on 9th Street during December. The concept was such a success that it expanded to a handful of bars last year, and this year, there are a whopping 16 Miracle bars all over the world (seriously: everywhere from Pittsburgh to Paris), each featuring some of the same cocktails (like a brown butter-washed cognac Egg Nog) and some of its own originals. A similar concept, the tiki-ish Sippin’ Santa’s Surf Shack, took over New York’s Boilermaker a few years back and this year expanded into two additional bars—Lost Lake in Chicago and Latitude 29 in New Orleans. And Chicago’s CH Distillery has a special A Christmas Story-themed food and drink menu this December—including a BB Gun cocktail and duck fried rice, of course—during its monthlong “Christmas: A Cocktail Story” pop-up. But it’s not just at the holidays! Lost Lake hosted a weeklong popup hosted by Houston bartender Bobby Huegel called Texas Tiki Disco this spring, and Michigan bar The Oakland has turned itself into a tiki bar called Honi Honi every summer for several years. And a front bar area at Seamstress in New York has been something of a pop-up playground for bartender Pamela Wiznitzer: It’s hosted a variety of weeks-long engagements featuring everything from Guatemalan bar Café No Sé to a massive selection of rosé wine over the summer. This May, Seamstress will be going tiki as well, with a two- or three-week pop-up featuring top tropical-drink talent from around the country. And just this month, New York’s Will Ferrell-themed bar Stay Classy hit the opposite coast, hosting a 10-day pop-up inside the famed Chinese Theater in Hollywood. It’s a win-win-win: The bartenders involved get a free trip (and make plenty of money in tips!), the bars benefit from extra media attention and the rest of us get to taste something delicious and new.
Sure, most bars will happily serve non-drinkers all the Coca-Cola, ginger ale or ice water they want, but few top-flight mixologists were putting their talents to work on zero-proof mixed drinks until recently. San Francisco’s Trick Dog was an early adopter, including a “without proof” section on all of its menus to date that features complex concoctions of fresh produce and house-made syrups and shrubs. In Los Angeles, bartender Gaby Mlynarczyk is hard at work on a book tentatively titled Clean & Dirty Drinking (it’ll be published in the spring of 2018) that features both boozy and alcohol-free twists on the same creative recipes. You can try some of the experiments, which use deliciously complex syrups and sophisticated flavor combinations, at her bar Birch, where she’ll be highlighting a few no-proof tipples in a “detox project” menu in January. Founding Farmers in Washington, D.C., features a “Farmacy” section on its drinks menu that highlights the array of house-made sodas on offer in egg creams, phosphates and more, while in New York, two-Michelin-star tasting-menu spot Atera offers a “temperance pairing” option, in which complex house-made virgin tipples replace glasses of wine. There’s now even a non-alcoholic “spirit.” Seedlip, a unique pair of non-alcoholic products made by distilling alcohol and water with clever sets of flavorful botanicals, launched in November of 2015 in the UK and is just beginning to trickle into the States right now. Both bottlings—the earthy and woodsy Spice 94 and the grassy and herbal Garden 108—are designed to mix with tonic for a sophisticated soft drink. The bar community’s been grappling with its reputation for overindulgence recently, with some high-profile figures going public with stories of their own problem drinking, so this trend couldn’t be coming at a better time.