Mixology trends of the last decade can be described as exciting and innovative, but they can also be considered extravagant and over-the-top. The introduction of savory herbs into drinks and well-crafted bitters, tinctures and syrups has added authenticity and complexity to cocktails, while bizarre ingredients and garnishes like moss, squid ink and edible gold leaf seem more gimmicky than creative.
Recently though, savvy bartenders have made a conscious effort to pull back and put a renewed focus on sophisticated drinks for mature palates. They’re moving away from cocktails that require a breathtaking list of ingredients and returning to an emphasis on hospitality. The resurgence of classic cocktails has helped, along with the realization that the drink—and its consumer—should come first.
“Our industry is now rediscovering hospitality, and drinks are falling in line with that mentality and getting less complicated,” says Dushan Zaric, a cofounder of New York City bar Employees Only and spirits producer The 86 Co. “The artistry of mixology is not about using complex stuff—it’s about putting regular ingredients into a balanced interplay so they make sense.” He adds that guests are put off when they don’t know the ingredients listed on the menu. “Bartenders need to make their drinks approachable,” Zaric explains. “If you told me 10 years ago that the state of the cocktail would be where it is now, I would’ve thought you were talking science fiction.”
Employees Only opened a decade ago as a speakeasy-style venue in Manhattan’s West Village. It was considered a bartender’s bar from the start and has always held a reputation for its top-notch drinks and expert staff. Zaric and his team start their training with the classics and end it with hospitality. “If you don’t know your classics and why drinks are made in certain ways, then it doesn’t matter how talented you are because your drinks will always miss the point,” Zaric says, adding that cocktails have entered the gastronomical mainstream. “Drinks that are too complex aren’t appealing because no one wants another sip. It’s too intense and confuses the palate.”
Keeping It Simple
While bars in major markets like New York City can often get away with strange and extravagant offerings, that’s not the case in many other regions. Mat Snapp, beverage director for Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts, points to Arizona as a prime example. “The fun thing about the cocktail movement was it started in New York City and San Francisco and slowly crept inward,” Snapp explains. “For us in Phoenix, the transition came in 2009. We opened Culinary Dropout in 2010 with cocktails that used foam and incorporated mezcal, but no one was ready for it. People admitted they didn’t know what we were doing. It was too much, too fast.”
Fox Restaurant Concepts operates 40 units, primarily in the South and Southwest, and the company takes pride in being cutting edge. However, Snapp says he quickly scaled back five years ago when he realized consumers were wary. First, he aimed to increase the speed at which bartenders made handcrafted drinks by implementing more behind-the-scenes prep. This approach is especially important at Culinary Dropout, an upscale gastropub with three locations in Arizona and one in Las Vegas. The venues average 1,000 cocktails a night.
“The downfall of creative mixology is how long it can take to make one cocktail,” Snapp says. “People were excited about these drinks, but they were also thirsty, so we had to be faster. The return to classic and simple is exciting because it makes our craft about knowledge and respect. We can’t alienate or embarrass our guests.”
Many industry veterans say the surge in cocktail creativity came with an increase in arrogance and a decrease in hospitality. Vincent Mauriello, a managing partner and director of operations for Gerber Group, recalls when his company had several labor-intensive drinks on the menu during the height of the Mojito craze. Founded in 1991, Gerber Group operates 18 stylish, drinks-focused venues in New York City; Atlanta; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; and Santiago, Chile.
“At one point, we had five Mojito variations on our menu that were made with different fruits and incorporated different spirits for guests who weren’t into rum,” Mauriello says. “The more labor-intensive the drink, the more guests wanted it. If someone saw a bartender muddling fruit, they had to have the drink. If there was fire involved as a garnish, the entire bar wanted one. For a while, it seemed like bartenders were incorporating excess ingredients into drinks as a contest just to see how much they could get into the glass.”
Ultimately, Mauriello says consumers create mixology trends and bartenders respond to guest demands. But he adds that the return of classic cocktails—led largely by bar professionals—has had a profound impact. “Classics are typically made with minimal ingredients to showcase the base spirit,” Mauriello says. “Proper glassware and appropriate ice are more important now than trying to create the newest concoction.”
Gerber Group’s top-selling drinks these days all have roots in the classics. The company’s signature GG Manhattan ($18 at The Roof in New York City) is made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Carpano Antica vermouth and Angostura bitters, garnished with Bourbon-soaked cherries. The Moscow Mule ($18) is popular at Stone Rose Lounge in Manhattan. Comprising Stolichnaya vodka, Fever-Tree ginger beer and fresh lime juice, the drink is served in a traditional copper mug over crushed ice. And the Spicy Paloma ($16), a hit at Whiskey Park in New York City, mixes Casamigos Blanco Tequila, Thai chili–infused Aperol aperitif, grapefruit juice, simple syrup and club soda.
Like Gerber Group, the beverage consulting firm Tippling Brothers has been around long enough to see myriad drinks trends come and go. Cofounder Paul Tanguay, who helps manage the beverage program for Chicago-based restaurant operator Mercadito Hospitality, has been in the bar business for more than 30 years. He says the key to success and longevity comes from serious behind-the-scenes prep—making intricate syrups and infusing spirits—to keep production fast.
“Nobody wants to wait 20 minutes for a drink,” Tanguay says. “We focus on hospitality. Over the past 15 years, we’ve definitely seen a resurgence in the craft of making cocktails, but the number of bars doing real mixology is small. However, we’re seeing a lot of cool premade syrups and batched cocktails now from reputable companies that use great ingredients, so that parlays into a broader reach for other bars.”
Tanguay says Tequila and mezcal are performing well at Mercadito Hospitality restaurants, and he notes that vodka and American whiskies are also growing. Mercadito’s drinks-focused Tippling Hall, with locations in Chicago and Las Vegas, offers kegged cocktails ($10 to $13 in Chicago) like the Misty in the Mountains, made with Del Maguey Vida mezcal, pineapple purée, beet juice and ginger-honey syrup. The restaurants also feature handcrafted specialties ($10 to $14), such as The Little Market, mixing Herradura Reposado Tequila, pineapple purée, guajillo chili and lime juice.
San Francisco’s Comstock Saloon boasts a vintage-inspired cocktail menu that lists several whiskey-based drinks. Bar manager Karri Cormican adds that Sherry is having a moment, and vodka is still doing well. The bar offers drinks like the Cherry Bounce ($10), made with Four Roses Bourbon, Angostura bitters, and lemon and brandied cherry juices, topped with Zonin Prosecco and brandied cherries, and the Bamboo Cocktail ($9), a blend of Hidalgo Faraon Oloroso Sherry, Sutton Cellars dry vermouth, Angostura bitters and house-made orange bitters, garnished with a lemon twist.
While her drinks are fairly straightforward nowadays, Cormican says the complex cocktails that were so popular a few years ago served as an important building block for young mixologists. “Those cocktails brought bartenders into the kitchen and taught them how to build ingredients for their drinks,” she says. “It helped bring back shrubs, tonics, tinctures, bitters and fresh juices, which are all readily available today. And it also gave bartenders the chance to move away from overly sugared and artificial flavors.”
Norman Bukofzer, a bartender at The Ritz-Carlton New York Central Park’s Star Lounge and Auden Bar, has been mixing drinks for more than 40 years. He notes the similarities between the worlds of mixology and food, adding that his venues are frequented today by millennial consumers who want classic cocktails. Bukofzer offers a rotating selection of seasonal spirits infusions at the hotel, but his focus is on vintage drinks. Top-sellers include a Michter’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon–based Manhattan, a Rough Ryder Bull Moose rye whiskey–based Sazerac and the hotel’s signature Shining Star Cosmo (all $20), made with Ketel One Citroen vodka, Cointreau orange liqueur, fresh lime and cranberry juices, and a star fruit garnish.
“We’re an Old World bar and we’ve always wanted to stay true to who we are and what our guests want—the classics done impeccably,” Bukofzer says. “There are times when our guests want to have an adventure with their drinks and others when they want to feel the comforts of home, and the bar creates both of these scenarios within a glass.”
Back To Basics
This trend toward classic and thoughtfully prepared drinks has also given rise to an increased attention on glassware and ice. At Parallel Post in Trumbull, Connecticut, lead mixologist Greg Genias aims for the best of both worlds—creative drinks that incorporate unique ingredients in a consumer-friendly atmosphere. His Nicky Nicky Nicky ($12) comprises Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon infused in-house with roasted fennel and mixed with Domaine de Canton Ginger liqueur, Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel–Aged bitters, agave nectar and lemon juice, served over ice in a beer goblet rimmed with agave nectar and fennel salt. “Better cocktails are being constructed with unconventional ingredients, and this trend reflects a higher level of competition among bartenders,” Genias says. “Mixologists need to be able to perform in both atmospheres—speedy and crafty.”
This competition pushes everyone to work harder and can result in better drinks, but it can also alienate consumers. Dayan Gonzalez, the head bartender at Spanish venue Barceloneta in Miami, says mixologists have to take a step back and focus on the basics, including interacting with guests. “Of course there are new drinks to create and new methods and techniques to discover, but some bartenders have lost touch with the essence of a good bar,” Gonzalez explains. “Consumers are willing to take the plunge and try most cocktails, but they can also become overwhelmed by too many options and crazy ideas.” Barceloneta’s menu includes variations on the Gin and Tonic, as well as Martinis and drinks that highlight vermouth and Cava (cocktails are $12 to $14).
Ultimately, the last decade of cocktail trends has catapulted bartenders into the mainstream, which benefits the entire industry. Veterans like drinks consultant Tony Abou-Ganim note that over the last 30 years, bartending has shifted from a part-time job to a professional career filled with passionate and talented people who have access to artisanal and well-crafted products. Going forward, he says education and hospitality are key.
“We’ve seen the envelope pushed so far that it intimidated guests,” Abou-Ganim says, adding that if someone like him doesn’t understand a drinks menu, it’s unlikely the average consumer will. “A great glass and great ice, fresh juice, premium spirits, and balance—those things make a simple drink go from average to wonderful. Our job is to make the guest’s day better, and sometimes you have to push the envelope to appreciate the simplest things. We’re coming into a second golden age of cocktails now, with a focus on hospitality and fun.”