To borrow a line from the great Ferris Bueller, “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That’s especially true in 2016. Blame the internet, our binge-watching culture or our short attention spans in general, but trends come and go faster than an American Idol’s singing career. This is true even in the normally slow-moving world of beer and spirits. Think about it. Everybody in this country drank nothing but macro lagers and gin and tonics for decades, and now we’re sprinting through beer styles and “it” spirits. Forget bourbon, give us rye. Session beers are so last year, let’s go back to big IPAs, but only the ones that taste like fruit punch. You could hurt yourself trying to keep up. Consider this your crib sheet for some of the hottest trends in the beer and booze world for the past year.
The hyper-localization of beer
This trend is many-fold. First, and perhaps most importantly, it indicates a shift in the business model for new breweries. As it stands, there is a reduced focus on distribution, SKUs, and shelf presence; instead, breweries like Trillium, Treehouse, and Bissell Brothers (whose distributor, Sweet Machine, handles them and only them), are selling most of their packaged product direct-to-consumer as fast as they can make it. California’s Monkish Brewing has partially evolved on the fly to embrace this model, and is now as renowned for their top-tier turbid IPAs as they are for their farmhouse offerings.
Second, there is a gradual shift towards utilizing local ingredients. Casey Brewing and Blending uses 99% local Colorado ingredients; Almanac is adamant about using fruit from California farms. Illinois’ Scratch Brewing, one of the most exciting projects to come along in a while, epitomizes this aesthetic, making prolific use of wild ingredients foraged from within a few square miles of the brewery.
Better bottled cocktails
For a long time, the mere mention of a “bottled old fashioned” or Manhattan was the sort of thing that would deservingly get you thrown out of a nice cocktail bar. In 2016, though? It’s no longer quite so easy to deride the idea of premixed, packaged cocktails that are more than just a gimmick. We tasted several this year at Paste that were at least on par with the basic cocktails you could find down at your corner bar, and simultaneously witnessed an evolution in the packaged cocktail paraphernalia (bitters, syrups) that will allow drinkers to make better, or more unique, cocktails in their own homes. As the American mixology craze and whiskey renaissance shows no sign of slowing down, the improvement and refinement of bottled cocktails was something we all should have been expecting.
In the last year, I’ve sampled a solid bottled old fashioned from Bully Boy Distillers (a bit heavy on Angostura, but good), as well as two rye cocktails from Hochstadter’s—Slow & Low Rock and Rye variants at both 84 and 100 proof. The 100 proof option in particular is the most genuine bottled cocktail I’ve run across so far—I would not be disappointed to be served that semi-sweet, citrus-laced drink if I ordered it at a restaurant, and that’s a sentence I’ve literally never written before this point. Additionally, I also sampled a trio of “Old Fashioned Cocktail Syrups” from Georgia that are available in citrus, pecan and maple bacon flavors, which were uniformly impressive. Even more-so than the bottled cocktails, these syrups are practical additions to your home bar for the freedom of experimentation they represent. Sure, they’re ostensibly for making an old fashioned, but if you’re anything like me, you can probably think of a few other potential recipes that could benefit from a subtle “maple bacon” infusion. And what’s to stop you now? —Jim Vorel
The rise of Methode Gueuze, as a term
Ever since American breweries began to experiment with spontaneous fermentation, the question of what to call these beers has vexed them; the terms “gueuze” and “lambic” are off-limits, due to their appellation controllee status. Some have resorted to the quick workaround of labeling the beer “lambic-style,” or “gueuze-style” ale; the term “American wild ale” has been thrown about, but it falls short in characterizing exactly what these beers are.
This year, Jester King Brewery proposed an alternative: “Methode Gueuze.” Meant to indicate a beer produced utilizing the gueuze method without aping the regional and historical context of the classic style, it seems, at least for now, a solution that benefits all parties. And as the number of American breweries and blenders that use spontaneous fermentation grows—Allagash, OEC, Funk Factory, New Glarus, The Veil, Casey, etc.—the timing of such a development could not be more perfect.—Josh Ruffin
The ascendancy of rye whiskey
As so many distilleries have attempted to emphasize in their marketing materials over the years, rye truly is the original American whiskey. It was the most commonly consumed whiskey in the American colonies and the basis of the earliest classic whiskey cocktails (sazerac, old fashioned) before being nearly driven to extinction by the legacy of Prohibition. In reality, rye whiskey faded out of the cultural lexicon so thoroughly that in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, it tended to sit unloved on the shelves of American liquor stores as the drink of old men. Rye drinkers today may even look back on those times as halcyon days, where the lack of demand meant easy access to brands like Rittenhouse for something around $9.99 a bottle.
These days of course, rye is back in a huge way. It may have been the revival of Prohibition-era cocktail culture that brought it back into the limelight, but rye has far surpassed simply being thought of as the ideal whiskey for your Manhattan. American whiskey geeks today are hunting out and consuming rye neat, and the style is finally being afforded the same kind of respect as bourbon. Following the example set by brands such as WhistlePig, more well-aged, high-percentage rye whiskeys are appearing on the market on a yearly basis, and more of them are generating serious hype among collectors. But the biggest change has simply been on the level of an average drinker—the kind of consumer who consumes a variety of drinks and liquors. It’s these people who are now, for the first time, seeing rye as an ideal dram for a nightcap in the place that might have previously been held by bourbon or brandy or port. Coupled with the innovation presented by American micro-distilleries, who have embraced unique ryes (wine barrel finished, roasted malt heavy) wholeheartedly, there’s never been a better time to be a rye whiskey fan in the U.S. —Jim Vorel
Whiskey distilled from commercial beers
2016’s most interesting whiskey trend might be one closely tied to the craft brewing industry. As recently as two or three months ago, I’d never tasted any commercially produced whiskey that was created by distilling commercially produced beer. Now, in the last month alone, I’ve tasted four of them—clearly, there’s a trend being born here. Each of the distilled beers has been radically different. One was made from an un-hopped golden ale, and most closely resembled a neutral bourbon or corn whiskey. Another, however, was made from distilled Samuel Adams Boston Lager, and was profoundly different—full of piney, resinous, woodsy American hop character. It’s truly the only whiskey of its kind that I’ve ever tasted. Just days ago, I also had an opportunity to taste a whiskey from a local Decatur, Georgia distillery made by distilling another local brewery’s Belgian quadruple, and the results were once again fascinating and utterly unique. Rich, malty and with a nose wafting exotic spice notes of cardamom and ginger, this whiskey drinks somewhat like a premade cocktail, and it set my mind to racing on the mixology potential that these distilled craft beers represent. They honestly could lead to some of the most exciting and fresh innovation that the liquor market has seen in years, and I can’t wait to sample more of them. —Jim Vorel
The normalization of the New England IPA
It’s hard to pin down exactly when it happened, but the New England IPA has taken over the world. One minute, Heady Topper was this little-known beer that eschewed some of the common guidelines for America’s favorite beer style, and the next minute every new IPA that comes out is a hazy, juice bomb that looks like a glass of Tropicana. It’s possible Russian hackers were involved. If 2015 was the year of the session IPA (and it probably was), 2016 was definitely the year of the New England IPA. Wanna know why I think the New England IPA has taken over? Because eight out of 10 breweries in my home town make one. And I don’t live anywhere near New England. Drive all the way across the country, as far as you can get from Vermont, and you’ll find the same story; IPAs have gone from crystal clear hop bombs to cloudy, tropical drinks with just the faintest hint of hop bitterness.
Now, here’s the fun thing: The New England IPA has gotten so popular, so fast, that there’s an argument surfacing that it shouldn’t even be considered its own sub-category of the IPA style; it’s merely the next step in the evolution of the American IPA. What we’re calling a New England IPA is just the West Coast IPA with new, fruitier hop strains. And that’s a solid argument because IPAs have been getting fruitier and less bitter for at least a decade. Here’s my take on that argument: I don’t care. Call them New England IPAs call them Vermont IPAs call them New West Coast IPAs, call them Jingle Bells…doesn’t matter. Just keep making them. —Graham Averill
Cocktails got fun again
One of my favorite cocktail bars is exactly 1.1 miles away from my house. In other words, it’s walkable. So, I go there a lot. Some would say too much, but haters gonna hate. My point is, I know this bar, inside and out, and over the last year it has completely transformed from a “proper” cocktail bar (read: uptight) where the bartenders wear vests and spend most of their downtime hand-shaping ice, to a fun-loving, “party punch” kind of place. Imagine a ceiling covered in red Christmas lights and tinsel. Imagine a hipster DJ disinterestedly playing ‘80s hits from a laptop. Imagine straws coming out of a watermelon filled with booze. The thing is, it’s still one of the best places to get a Negroni in town. They still have one of the best bourbon and rye selections within 100 miles. You can still get a serious cocktail here, but the bartenders and owners aren’t taking themselves too seriously anymore. In addition to the classic cocktails (and yes, hand-shaped ice) you can also get a boozy slushy or even a Jello shot. And this bar isn’t alone in its transformation. Bars all over the country are starting to relax a bit. It’s as if we’ve achieved enough distance from the dark cocktail days of the ‘80s and ‘90s, that we can admit to ourselves that we kind of miss how much fun we had when we were drinking all those appletinis. Now, our cocktail culture has matured enough that we can have a well-made Manhattan served side by side with watermelon party punch. And there’s nothing wrong with that. —Graham Averill