The San Antonio Cocktail Conference provides bartenders and booze enthusiasts with their first major hangovers of the year. Oh, and it also teaches them a thing or two. Here, during seminars, tastings and parties, bar owners and spirit company reps reveal what trends and conversations will be happening behind the bar in the year ahead. These are the five most important things we learned at the Texas fest last week.
1. AQUAVIT IS MAKING INROADS ACROSS THE U.S.
Aquavit is Scandinavia’s answer to gin. But instead of being juniper-forward like gin, aquavit’s main flavor is caraway or dill. Many people compare the taste to drinking a slice of pumpernickel bread. The spirit has been distilled in Northern Europe since the 1400s, but up until very recently, it has been a niche product in the U.S. The only people who really drank it were Americans of Scandinavian or Nordic descent, who grew up with it at home. But that is beginning to change.
For starters, the demographics of the U.S. are shifting. While those of Northern European heritage settled in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest in the 1800s, today the largest community of Scandinavian expats in the world is located in Houston. And they want aquavit. Other Americans have gotten a taste for aquavit while visiting Iceland, a trendy and affordable travel destination of late. And cocktail bartenders in the U.S., who are always looking for more unusual ingredients to play with, are falling for the malleable spirit. They’re using it as a replacement for gin in negronis, whiskey in old fashioneds and vodka in Bloody Marys. In Minneapolis, bartenders even have their own term for when they use it in tropical-style drinks: Nordic tiki.
The sudden demand has encouraged European distillers, such as Iceland’s Brennivin, to start distributing in more states. And American craft distillers across the country are now making their own. Aquavit makes financial (and marketing) sense for them: Like gin and vodka, aquavit is quick and simple to distill. But gin and vodka are very competitive markets. The aquavit market, however, is not competitive yet. Make aquavit and you could make a name for yourself. Act quickly though; five years ago, you could only find five kinds of aquavit in the U.S. Now you can find more than 40.
2. BAR HISTORY IS-RIGHTLY-BECOMING MORE DIVERSE
Picture the classic bartender. You’re probably thinking of a white, American man with a mustache and suspenders. That’s the archetype we’ve all come to associate with traditional bartenders (and their modern iterations). But did you know that one of the most influential bartenders in history, Tom Bullock, was African-American? Or that another major pioneer, Ada Coleman, was a woman? And while the U.S. was developing its cocktail style in the 1900s, other countries such as Japan and Cuba were simultaneously developing their own distinct bar cultures?
Bartenders and historians are beginning to rediscover and acknowledge the true, multi-cultural contributions to the craft. This is beneficial for the sake of accuracy, sure, but also because it is empowering. Empowering for customers of multiple ethnicities and genders, who can now see themselves reflected in their glasses, and for bartenders of different backgrounds, who may discover historical bar figures who looked like them that they can model their careers after.
3. MEZCAL IS PAVING THE WAY FOR PEATY SCOTCH WHISKY IN CRAFT COCKTAILS
Peaty Scotch whisky is often described as tasting and smelling like Band-Aids. This category of Scotch gets its distinct characteristics during the production process, as peat (moss) is burned to dry the malt. The Scotch ends up with a smoky and briny flavor, one that many consider acquired. But now that people have gotten a taste for smoky mezcal, peaty Scotch is becoming easier to swallow.
Scotch has been an ingredient in classic cocktails for more than a century. The Rob Roy (1894), Mamie Taylor (1899), Blood and Sand (1930) and Rusty Nail (1960s) are all made with Scotch. The vast majority of Scotch drinkers, however, prefer the blended, unpeated variety like Dewar’s because it’s light and easy to mix. Peated Scotch like Black Grouse has been a sleeper ingredient, gaining fans as a component to offbeat cocktails such as the Penicillin (2005).
In the past few years, mezcal has taken off, which has proven itself to be a gateway spirit. Now people’s palates are opening up to more assertive, smoky flavors. (Not all mezcals are smoky, but the most popular ones are.) Bartenders are piggybacking off of that awakening and slowly introducing peaty Scotch in craft cocktails. In some bars, they use it as a base spirit in cocktails; in others, they split the base with mezcal; and in others still they use it as a modifier and spritz the peaty Scotch over the top of the drink, giving it that distinctive bandage aroma.
4. BARTENDERS ARE TURNING INTO SOCIAL ACTIVISTS
Chefs have been concerned about their ingredients for a while now and have declared themselves experts on sourcing, GMOs and the local food movement. (See: [Dan Barber][https://www.bluehillfarm.com/team/dan-barber].) This conversation is getting broader, now including ingredients bartenders use. And bartenders are becoming more vocal and brazen about how they address their concerns.
The primary concern is sustainability. Can the way a specific spirit is produced, like mezcal, be maintained indefinitely? And how does that relate to the ecology, economics, politics and culture of a distilling community? The agave conversation in particular seems to have reached a fever pitch. (If a bartender hasn’t prophesized to you recently about mezcal, don’t prompt them to start.) Bartenders even lead an advocacy group, the Tequila Interchange Project, in which they lobby Mexico’s Tequila Regulatory Council (Consejo Regulador del Tequila) for quality distillation practices.
Also of concern is the way distillery workers and farmers are treated. Are they getting a fair wage? A recent VICE investigation revealed unhealthy practices at a rum distillery in Nicaragua, which prompted some bartenders to pour every bottle they carried of that brand down the drain. (And document it on Instagram, of course.) Some bars put up large signs or add pages to their menus explaining why they do not carry certain popular brands. These are bold actions that are sure to increase awareness around these issues, but could also alienate some customers who would like to enjoy a drink in peace without having to think about all of its ramifications.
5. RUM WILL BE THE NEXT PREMIUM SPIRIT CATEGORY
The U.S. was built on rum, not whiskey. The sugarcane-based spirit was born after the colonization of the Caribbean, and the founding fathers sipped it while signing the Declaration of Independence. Today, 300 million cases of rum are sold worldwide every year, and Americans drink 40 percent of that. But for some reason, this spirit, wholly unique to the Americas, is still mysterious to most drinkers. And it’s primed for a craft resurgence.
Rum comes in three styles: French (fruity and dry), English (spicy and vivid) and Spanish (light and buttery). Some of the premium varieties are aged like whiskey, giving them a deep, rich taste. In the past five years, demand for lesser expensive rums have been going down, while the demand for those premium rums has gone up. This could be due to the skyrocketing price of bourbon; whiskey drinkers may be branching out into other categories and expand their spirits knowledge. For now, you can get a great rum for half the price of a great rye. But that could change soon as demand for the premium product goes up. (Remember though those dirt cheap prices could be a sign of poor conditions for workers. See takeaway number four.) Another factor fueling this new demand is the re-emergence of tiki bars, which traditionally use rum in their drinks, and the loosening of restrictions on bringing Cuban rum into the U.S.
Expect some other changes in the rum category in the years ahead. Some French rums have an appellation d'origine contrôlée (controlled designation of origin), so they must be produced in a certain place and through a certain method. With the recent debate over Havana Club—is it really Cuban rum if it’s made in Puerto Rico?—Cuba may resort to demanding its own denomination of origin as well.