The world of cocktails has been changing for a couple of years now, and the present may be the best time in history to be a drinker. No longer is it acceptable for restaurants and bars worth their salt to serve boring cocktails made with subpar spirits. Even chain restaurants claim to have “craft cocktails” on their menu, and that’s due in large part to the efforts of creative bartenders who have worked hard to elevate their craft.
Last week, these bartenders from across the country poured into San Antonio for the city’s annual Cocktail Conference. Over four days, industry professionals and civilian booze enthusiasts alike learned how to make better drinks in highly specialized seminars, along with sampling a variety of new and unique spirits from large and small distilleries across the world. Of course, there were also more cocktails consumed than should be humanly possible.
In scope, the San Antonio Cocktail Conference was really a spectacle. Four days of non-stop drinking is remarkable, and even more so when you’re watching bartenders make nuanced and highly-involved cocktails at dizzying speeds. These mixologists were as much artists as they were bartenders, stenciling logos and emblems into cocktail foam in vivid Angostura orange and quirky homemade herbal tinctures.
On display in San Antonio was the future of cocktails, presented by the barmen and women that make them possible. In concert with the country’s finest spirit purveyors, these bartenders mixed up drinks created from obscure Prohibition-era recipes alongside some of the industry’s most futuristic technology. As you belly up to your own watering holes in 2015, these trends will continue to make the world of craft cocktails even brighter.
Bar equipment has moved far beyond the usual jigger and shaker. At this new breed of cocktail bar, you’re likely to see machines that were once only found in high-end restaurants and medical offices. Centrifuges and sous-vide machines are finding their way into more and more establishments, thanks to their ability to develop intense and nuanced flavor combinations. At the Woodford Reserve station, bartenders used a nitrogen-powered ice cream maker to freeze the Conference’s signature cocktail, a bourbon-based Rosa Corsa, into a sweet and boozy sorbet. Another bar used a spun sugar machine to make Fernet-flavored cotton candy. The future is now.
Thanks to the popularity of fruity drinks like Appletinis, most of the cocktails served in bars are way too sweet. Sugar is an essential ingredient in many cocktails, but most lack the bitter components that create complexity of flavor. Now, even fruity cocktails are given a dash (or three) of bitters, and bitter liqueurs like Campari and Suze are more popular than ever. It may take some time to adjust to this new world of bitterness, but you’ll soon start craving the balance it provides to even humble drinks like gin and tonic.
The use of Prohibition-era recipes in cocktail bars is nothing new, especially when you consider that cocktails wouldn’t even exist without the putrid spirits that the ban made necessary. Still, though, a variety of obscure ingredients are finding a new popularity not seen since before the stock market crashed. Bitters in flavors of all kinds, including rhubarb, chamomile, and celery, will continue to improve too-sweet cocktails. Shrub, an even older concoction of vinegar, sugar, and fruit, will also be popular among mixologists this year.
Fortified wine is something that most of us have little familiarity with. This fortified wine is one of the unsung heroes of the cocktail world, providing complexity and balance to cocktails with just a splash. Oloroso, tempranillos, and other fine sherries will be prominent on bar menus this year, and you won’t find them all by themselves. At The Monterey, an excellent bar and eatery in the newer, hipsterier San Antonio, you’ll find the country’s most robust sherry program, an excellent premonition for what is to come for those that love fortified wines.
There was no booze more buzzed about last weekend than mezcal. This smoky, complex agave-based spirit isn’t necessarily easy on the entry-level drinker’s palate, but it can be mixed beautifully into a cocktail that is easy to sip. Bartenders love mezcal due to its complexity and boozy character, which means that you’ll see more and more of it on menus in 2015. The mezcal negroni was a particularly popular drink, along with more approachable fruit juice based cocktails, like the fruity strawberry-mint cocktail created by Wahaka Mezcal bartenders.
Coming in right behind mezcal in terms of ubiquity is white whiskey, known to most of us as moonshine. When brewed legally, white whiskey differs from its brown liquor brothers in that it never sees the inside of an aging barrel. The resulting spirit is smooth, but has actual flavor unlike vodka. Texas Moonshine Company, based in Comfort, Texas, is even distilling white lightning from non-traditional ingredients like prickly-pear cactus and jalapenos. This year, you’ll find it mixed into everything from Moscow Mules and martinis.
Now that many craft cocktail bars are inside fine dining restaurants, bartenders are taking culinary cues from the kitchen. Infused spirits will continue to be popular, but you won’t just find fruit and herb-infused tequilas and gin behind the bar. Ingredients that require culinary skill and technique, like rum infused with brown butter and balsamic-berry jams, are cropping up everywhere. Mixologists are also catching on to the molecular gastronomy trend, evidenced by the prevalence of gels, foams, and chemical emulsifiers in many drinks.
Low-proof cocktails are just as popular as their spirit-forward counterparts, and champagne is an ideal accompaniment to many different kinds of booze. French 75s will continue to be popular into 2015, infused with herbal flavors like lavender or ginger and served frequently with gin. One cocktail of note, mixed by San Antonio’s own David Naylor, was the light and refreshing Poinsettia. Made with Roca Patron tequila, cherry heering, and Segura Vidas sparkling cava, this may be the year’s trendiest summer cocktail.