THE HIGHBALL IS MAKING A COMEBACK.
While intricately designed cocktails with long lists of ingredients remain a major force in the beverage world, Tales of the Cocktail chose a much simpler mixed drink for its official kick-off toast libation: a classic highball. By definition, a highball is a beverage including a base spirit topped with a larger pour of soda water. While the highball sounds, well, a bit basic, bartenders can use this model as an opportunity to explore flavorful liquors and to replace the typical soda-gun sparkling water with specially sourced versions.
HIGHBROW SPIKED SLUSHIES WITH AN INTERNATIONAL FLAIR COULD BE THE NEXT APEROL SPRITZ.
The “aperitivo” trend isn’t going anywhere; Tales of the Cocktail featured numerous seminars and tasting booths centered around easy-drinking cocktails intended for pre-dinner enjoyment. While the Aperol spritz has reigned supreme among these low-ABV sippers for quite some time (even despite the New York Times’ recent anti-spritz stance), we found ourselves wondering whether another beverage might be poised for an aperitif breakthrough. In search of an educated perspective, we decided to consult a true master of the form: owner/bartender Naren Young of Dante in New York City, which just won the Best American Restaurant Bar honor at this year’s Spirited Awards (and which launched both the Aperol spritz and the Negroni into their current upper echelons of popularity).
According to Young, one particular drink could be the next aperitif to watch: the Sgroppino. “It’s a cocktail from southern Italy that includes lemon sorbet and vodka, and it’s topped with Prosecco,” Young tells us, indicating that he hopes to add the Sgroppino to his menu at Dante in the near future.
Aperitivos contribute to the thriving trend of low-ABV cocktails, and these less-potent libations may become as crucial to the dining-and-drinking dichotomy as wine pairings. We had the chance to chat with beverage-industry icon Dale DeGroff, who oversaw the Marie Brizard cocktail contest held at Tales of the Cocktail alongside fellow bartending legend Julie Reiner.
DeGroff believes that low-ABV cocktails have the potential to highlight chef-crafted flavor profiles, telling us that “when I was doing cocktail dinners in the early days, chefs would often shy away from [the concept], because they didn’t want their food running into high-proof spirits. They felt that [these spirits] would overpower the delicate sauces and the delicate [preparations] that they were trying to do. But as the culinary audience continued to grow, the cocktail world [kept pace], borrowing tools and ingredients and techniques from the kitchen. Whether it be pairing small bites with cocktails or a full gourmet dinner with cocktail pairings, [combining cocktails and food] is a great business plan, and low-ABV cocktails make this possible in a way that it never was before.”
When we asked Julie Reiner to weigh in on rising cocktail trends, she noted the meteoric ascent of booze-free cocktails, popularly referred to as mocktails. “I’m seeing a lot of growth in the zero-proof cocktail world. [They’re becoming valuable] additions to cocktail menus. We’re seeing bartenders putting non-alcoholic drinks on their menus [alongside alcohol-based cocktails] so that people who aren’t drinking for whatever reason can have the same experience [as the patrons who do imbibe]. It’s not like ‘Hey, can I have the kids’ menu’ anymore,” Reiner insists. “Also, the younger generations coming up are healthier. They’re working out more, they’re not drinking as much. It’s a different world now, and accommodating healthier lifestyles and giving people something interesting to drink [even if they don’t want high-proof spirits] should be a priority.”
HOUSEMADE COCKTAIL INGREDIENTS LIKE SHRUBS KEEP THE ARTISANAL SPIRIT ALIVE AND WELL.
Pre-made cocktail mixers are rapidly falling out of favor among savvy bartenders, who often choose instead to create their own flavor agents. One prime example? The shrub, a vinegar-based solution made with fruit that adds a welcome tang to a boozy beverage. Bartenders have the liberty to select their fruits and vinegars, and making their own shrubs allows them to claim full dominion over their mixers.
“Shrubs are really hot. I think they’re fun for a couple of different reasons. Once you get past the fact that they’re made of vinegar, you can [really learn to appreciate what they do for a cocktail]. Everyone likes vinegar in a salad, and it’s interesting to use it [in a different context]. Shrubs allow you to add acid to a cocktail without wasting a bunch of [citrus] juice. Lemons, limes, oranges…I don’t think people realize how much we’re wasting every time we make a margarita. But shrubs taste great, and they’re far more sustainable,” says TOTC attendee (and shrub enthusiast) Jeffery Merkel, owner/operator of Cinclare in Thibodeaux, Louisiana.
In keeping with the modern movement toward health and wellness, bar patrons are opting out of cocktail binges, instead ordering one or two well-crafted drinks made with prestige liquors. “I think that people are drinking less in general, but they’re drinking higher quality. That’s a big change; [in the past,] you’d go out and have a few cocktails in a night. Now, people might choose instead to have one great cocktail that’s made with really good ingredients,” Grey Goose international brand ambassador Joe McCanta tells The Manual.
Master blender Alex Thomas of The Sexton Whiskey agrees, adding that highbrow spirits once thought too “refined” for use in cocktails — like single-malt whiskies — are now enthusiastically incorporated into mixed beverages by quality-minded bartenders. “As Master Blender of a rather unconventional malt, it’s a treat to see single-malt work so well in cocktail programs. I’m a big believer that people should drink whiskey however they personally want, so to see our Irish single malt faring so well in cocktails is exciting and is definitely a trend I’m looking forward to seeing more of this year,” Thomas explains.