Thirsty Writer, Libations Marketer
Published in the January 2013 issue of Masachusetts Beverage Business
We’ve asked and they’ve answered. Are craft brands taking over? Is everything going to end up on tap? From what they wish would go away, to what they’re most excited about, think of this as your cheat sheet to trends. We uncover what’s hot and what’s not in beer, wine and spirits for 2O13 from a broad range of industry professionals at 13 Boston area bars and restaurants.
In this industry, keeping up with brand introductions can be mind-boggling. From flavors to regions to styles, there’s something new to taste every day. Figuring out what drives your customers through the door, opens their wallets and brings them back for more can require a PhD in bar psychology. Luckily, with the collective wisdom of industry veterans, we learn a bit more about what’s taking shape behind the bar.
BROWN SPIRITS Move over white spirits; brown goods are taking over. Whether a small batch bourbon, spicy rye or single malt Scotch, bartenders are seeing a rise in whiskey, for sipping and in throwback cocktails like the Old Fashioned and Manhattan. Tom Tellier, says, “People are really getting back into brown spirits. There are so many small batch distilleries emerging from all over the country with quality spirits. The big boys are trying to stay competitive by releasing alternate versions of their original blends. Brown spirits are huge, and very mixable. A lot of bartenders are really getting creative with these.” Indeed, a host of new products have hit the shelves, offering more choices in everything from wood finish to higher proof.
While brandy struggles, premium Cognac is growing and becoming a bar staple. “I think the legitimacy of Cognac as a mixable base spirit is going to start to shine through in dark spirit based cocktails (i.e. the Sazerac, the Old Fashioned, etc.) and the conversation will expand from ‘would you like Rye or Bourbon’ to ‘would you like Rye, Bourbon or Cognac?’,” says Vikram Hegde.
Indeed, the bar industry sees good things happening for the Rye category. Jason Babb remarks, “Going into 2O13, based on 2O12 late-in-the-year trends, there’s a major insurgence in the interest for rye whiskey. Not your grandfather’s jug of rye, but rye classic cocktails (i.e. Sazerac), high end ryes (Pappy Van Winkle) and simple rye drinks. We’ve recently added a low end, a mid range and a high end rye.”
BARREL-AGING Cited as the top drink menu trend by 2OO United State’s Bartender Guild members in a recent National Restaurant Association survey, barrel-aged drinks are continuing to gain traction. Our own Boston-area bartenders have been experimenting with aging everything from a Negroni to signature cocktails containing Pisco. Tellier says the possible combinations are endless. “You can have all different types of wood, all different types of alcohols. I don’t think we have reached a limit on this yet.”
TAP THIS What was once a novel concept – spirit and wine on tap – has now become commonplace. Even cocktails are being batched and dispensed through a keg system. However, there is much debate on the topic. When polled, bartenders were evenly divided, some pointing out the benefits: economical, eco-friendly, inventory management, less breakage, and the ability to keep wines – in particular – fresh and servable.
At Area Four in Boston, all of the wines are on tap. Rob Macey says, “In my experience, everybody wants something new. Tapped wine and spirits are a natural conversation starter. Sure, you’re not going to find an ’82 Bordeaux in an aluminum keg, but you can find more recent vintages of some interesting wines across the world. Spirits on tap intrigue me, too. I haven’t tried doing it yet, but I’m sure it would get people talking, as all over Boston tales are told of the Fernet Branca tap at Citizen Public House.”
Brahm Callahan notes that the wine on tap trend has “been done but is still super cool because the quality of the wines we are seeing on tap is nothing like it used to be, also it a great profit center as the cost is cut way down and it is a green alternative as well.”
Others, like Josh Childs argue, “I’m personally not a fan of spirits or drinks on tap – that’s what I’m behind the bar for.” And wine experts like Vilardi feel it “compromises the integrity and the taste of the wine in my opinion. It works well with beer somehow, but not wine.”
MADE IN-HOUSE For years now, bartenders have taken to making their own infusions, syrups and even bitters. Seasonal ingredients have spilled over from the kitchen to cocktails. We asked our bartenders if they thought this aspect of their craft was still relevant. All of them answered with a resounding “yes”. “If you can do something yourself, in your own kitchen or bar, then why on earth would you buy it from somebody else? I collaborate with my pastry chef on a lot of drinks, she’s made me purees, syrups – she’s not a bartender so she thinks outside the box and lends a new perspective when I’m stuck,” Rob Macey explains.
This has also raised the profile of cocktails previously made with shelf-stable mixers to a whole new level. Childs says he’s been making ’8Os and ’9Os versions with a twist and using fresh ingredients, like an Amaretto Sour is made with good amaretto, fresh lemon juice and orange peel. Steve Schnelwar agrees, calling house made bar items a staple. “Hopefully we see more bartenders expanding their in house pantries. We’re an inherently creative bunch and it’s great to play and create.” And Tracy Witkin identifies this still-hot trend as an “homage and a pursuit of crafted cocktails, as it was done when the cocktail was first flourishing in American taverns and saloons. Good infusions, syrups and bitters can make a bar program great.”
GETTING CRAFTY Nearly every state has a craft distiller or microbrewer, and even locally made wine is growing. The widespread acceptance of craft products has really resonated behind the bar, with small regional brands taking real estate from national ones. But Erich Schliebe points out that even though some craft spirits, for example, are featured in specialty cocktails, the brands still require a hand-sell to consumers. And they’re often a bit pricier, which can make it even more difficult.
“Craft distilling is great – to an extent. As much as these small companies aspire to compete with the big multinational brands, just on a local scale, they will never undercut them in price. It’s economics. The quality might be better but at the end of the day restaurants have to make money,” says Josh Taylor.
But trusting the bartender (or sommelier or beer expert) is enough for some consumers. Especially craft beer, which is more readily available on taps everywhere for a taste. Tellier sees a micro-trend taking shape in craft beer styles. “IPAs have had a huge following for awhile, but I wouldn’t be surprised if lagers started making a comeback.” Many bartenders like the creativity behind the local brands too. Fanny Katz mentions Element Brewing Company in Miller Falls for this reason. “Their beers are fantastic; they are bottle conditioned and are all about what we like – local, sustainable and interesting/unique.”
BLENDER BEVERAGES When it comes to frozen drinks, our bartenders are staunchly divided on the topic. While Bertil Jean-Chronberg exclaims, “I dream of a big return of the frozen Tiki drinks year long,” Liz Vilardi counters, “The Blue Room has not had blender for the 21 years it’s been open and we have no plans to get one anytime soon.”
Long seen as a staple at chain restaurants and vacation destinations, the Tiki revival has brought the blender in to a newly appreciated light. Several bars around town feature blenders drinks on special one night a week for fun, but many bartenders feel that for Boston, blenders are a summer appliance. But, points out Taylor, “When Drink gets a Slurpie machine then it will be cool year round.”
And for Macey, this trend should be left alone in 2O13. “I know some of my bartending brethren will disagree, but not only am I over blended/frozen drinks, I was never into them. A blender has no business being behind a bar. It’s messy, it takes up space, is incredibly loud and can be awfully time consuming when it’s a busy night.” Babb at Grill 23 definitely agrees quipping, “Blender drinks should only be available on islands, and that does not include Rhode Island.”
SERVICE FIRST When asked what the most important thing consumers want from their bar experience, all of our bartenders emphasized service. The return to pleasing the customer (after a few years of refusing to sell certain types of vodka) is also a national conversation that has taken center stage as the speakeasy concept settles down. After 2O12 brought YouTube parodies of mixologists and their “fancy” drinks and vests, many who work behind the bar have made an effort to change this perception. “I have been friendly and accommodating for over 2O years, I think that’s what people want. While important to make a good drink it’s more important to make sure everyone has a great time,” says Childs. Echoes Taylor, “It’s not about only about drinks, just a bunch of like minded people doing what they do. A good bar should just be a good hang, whether you’re drinking or not.”
Part of this shift is also attributed to more knowledgeable drinkers. With social media making drink trends accessible at a customer’s fingertips, ordering specific cocktails and brands is more commonplace. “We see a lot of people with a greater understanding of spirits, classic cocktails, beer. It makes it fun to work behind the stick because people are constantly testing you and forcing you outside your comfort zone. It’s a great learning experience for everyone; depending on what side of the bar you’re on, you get to drink while you learn,” says Chris Olds.
Sam Treadway sums it up best: “Mixology happens in the glass . . . bartending is everything else.”
SURVEY SAYS . . .
BREAKOUT SPIRITS Fortified wines, sherry, amari, Scotch, Cognac, artisanal liqueurs, rum, Japanese whisky, mezcal, rye, and Pisco BREAKOUT BEERS Smoked beers, cider, session beers, lagers, sour beers, lambics, and barrel aged beer BREAKOUT WINES Orange wine, European wines, local wines, Spanish white wine, Portuguese dry red table wines, and dessert wines UNDERUSED COCKTAIL INGREDIENT . . . Salt, water, herbs, amaros, schnapps, sherry, Old Tom gin, and dry vermouth OVERUSED COCKTAIL INGREDIENT . . . Simple syrup, esoteric vermouth, flavored vodka, sparkling wine, sugar, St˜Germain, and vodka COCKTAIL THAT SHOULD GO AWAY Cosmopolitan, Apple Martini, Vodka & Red Bull, Whiskey Smash, Martinis that aren’t really martinis, variances of a Cucumber Gin Cocktail, beer cocktails, Skinny Margarita, Mint Julep, Bloody Mary, and Vodka & Soda LOOKING FORWARD TO MORE . . . Frozen drinks, bottled or batched cocktails, aquavit, smoky spirits and beers, and rye