The Top Cocktail Trends of 2018, According to Bartenders
Thanks to the craziness that was 2017, forecasting what 2018 holds for us in terms of drinking is a particularly tough job. After all, cocktail meccas like Los Angeles could sink into the sea or imported spirits could disappear entirely. Still, we couldn’t help but ask bartenders across the country for their predictions. From the rise of the “anti-cocktail” bar to the continued rise of low-ABV cocktails, here are the trends to look out for in 2018.
Bars that Blur the Line Between Bar and Kitchen
Chefs and bartenders are starting to work together to create dishes and drinks that work seamlessly with each other. With more and more bars making use of the kitchen and chef-driven techniques and flavors, we expect the trend to spread beyond big cities.
“Behind the bar there will be an emphasis on dynamic flavors and outside-the-box presentation,” says Gates Otsuji, consulting bartender and cofounder of Swig + Swallow. “Mixologists will be challenged (and encouraged) to study culinary techniques that match the skills already being used in the kitchen. Similarly, chefs will begin to work more closely with those in charge behind the bar, to understand how flavor delivery is different when alcohol is the basis of the creation. The modern dining experience is at a point where everything needs to be cohesive—and not just in the top restaurants, but in casual concepts as well.”
Touring Bars and Bar Franchises
In 2017, we saw several of the hottest cocktail bars in the country expand and open in new cities. Chicago’s science-lab-gone-boozy, the Aviary, opened a location in New York, while cocktail stalwart Milk & Honey expanded into Las Vegas and Miami’s legendary Broken Shaker opened an outpost in Los Angeles. "The name of the game next year will be accessibility, accessibility, accessibility,” says Aaron Polsky, bar manager at Harvard & Stone. “Bars [are going to go] on tour to bring their concept to the masses—and established bars will be opening in new markets.”
Sorry not sorry, but we’re tired of pretentious bars with bowtie-clad bartenders in suspenders and that moody brick-and-Edison bulb vibe. The speakeasy of the early aughts is dead and bars are finally having fun again. “Bartenders and bars are going to be rushing to declare themselves an ‘anti-cocktail bar,’” says Cory Dixon, bartender at Nurse Bettie. John Tebeau, a bartender at Brooklyn’s Fort Defiance, agrees. “I foresee a lack of pretension becoming more and more popular,” he says. “Refreshing, three-ingredient, unfussy cocktails, and shitty beer on tap in more great bars.”
You know that feeling when you discover that the $60 bottle of wine you had at dinner is only $12 at the local liquor store? It’s not a great feeling. Bars are finally taking notice of our displeasure and dropping their mark-ups. In New York, Air’s Champagne Parlor (above the much lauded Tokyo Record Bar) recently cut their entire menu of Champagne to retail cost. They made up for the price differences by cutting down on expenses—reducing clutter on the menu and 86-ing unecessary food items—and saw an immediate increase in the total volume of bottles sold. Who would have thunk it? Lower prices encourage customers to buy more. Next year, Ginger Warburton, bartender at Lantern’s Keep, foresees other bars following in step. “I foresee minimal mark-ups on wine,” she says, “allowing everyone to try [them] without spending too much. In the same vein, I think more bars will be offering vintage/unique/rare spirits as substitutes—for a slight up-charge—in your classic cocktail.”
Veggie Cocktails, Cold-Press Juice Drinks and More “Healthy” Drinks
In 2017, we saw a surge of notable bartenders became sober and taking up extreme exercise regimens. This newfound interest in living a healthy lifestyle behind the bar is now being reflected in drinks. “I think we will see a ‘for the health of it’ approach to cocktails, utilizing cold-pressed juices, kombuchas, drinking vinegars, and vegetables like carrots and beets,” says Jonathan Teague, food and beverage manager at The Ritz-Carlton Reynolds. Zach Sasser, head bartender at Oasthouse Kitchen + Bar, specifically sees ingredients like beet juice, puréed carrots and kale making more of an appearance. “Going into this health-conscious age that we live in, I believe integration is inevitable,” he says.
“We saw charcoal take off in cocktails this year, and I think something similar will happen with tumeric [in 2018],” says Paulina Konja, bar manager at Kettner Exchange. “It is spicy, herbaceous, a beautifully bright yellow color and helps fight some diseases.” Even simple healthy upgrades will take off, according to Xiomara Rosado, head bartender at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. "For those who aren’t ready to part with their gin and juice, mixologists can stir up simple, healthy cocktails like gin, lemon and thyme—which is known to boost immunity and soothe digestion,” she says.
Even More Mocktails and Low-ABV Drinks
Whether we’ve started to realize that we can’t drink like we used to (or our hangovers have finally caught up to us), there has been an ongoing trend of lower proof cocktails. Bartenders agree that this trend is only just beginning. “The current focus on quality will be turned towards non-alcoholic ingredients in cocktails,” Otsuji says. “And, as we see high-quality mixers and fresh juices enter a larger portion of the off-premise market, there will be an expectation for them to be available at bars and restaurants as well.”
Ted Gibson, spirit specialist and head bartender at The Pony Room at Rancho Valencia, believes the move towards lower proof drinks will actually help bring people together. “I would like to see the further development of aperitif cocktail culture here in the U.S.,” he says. “The ritual gathering of friends and family to celebrate the end of the day or beginning of the evening with a light bite, low-ABV cocktail and good company.” Billy Grise, director of food and beverage at Coppin’s Restaurant and Bar, agrees. “This generation of drinkers want to be able to drink great cocktails all night so they can spend more time with their friends,” he says.
For Taylor Vaught of Selamat Pagi, low-proof cocktails are a natural response to the influx of great new products. “With so many vermouths, sherries, amari and aperitifs becoming more widely recognized and available lately, mixing up a delicious and memorable lower ABV cocktail has never been easier,” Vaught says.
Whether it means starting a compost in our kitchen or just trying to recycle more, most of us are trying to live greener. That trend has moved from our homes to restaurant kitchens, and now to cocktail bars. With concepts like Trash Tiki—a pop-up bar that traveled across the United States showing patrons and bartenders alike how to make tiki cocktails with food scraps—on the rise, eco-friendly cocktail bars are sure to catch on. "The Trash Tiki tour was inspirational in making bartenders find a second use for ingredients,” says Meaghan Dorman, bar director at the Raines Law Room, Dear Irving and The Bennett. “For example, we’ve used coffee grounds from brunch to make a syrup and leftover juice for a cordial.”
“One of last year's talking points was straws: Are you using eco-friendly straws? Are you even offering straws? This year, we're looking at the parts of our food that we'd discarded in the past,” Otsuji says. “Tomato stems lend a wonderful herbaceousness when used to flavor water. Melon rinds can be pickled to create a flavorful brine for a Dirty Martini alternative. Waste reduction isn't a terribly sexy topic, but it's another form of innovation, as yet unexplored by mainstream bars, which we're sure to see more of.”
New American Whiskey Categories
"I predict the continued growth of American whiskeys outside of the bourbon or rye category—and the state of Kentucky,” says Jillian Vose the head bartender of The Dead Rabbit. With the unregulated and vaguely defined category of American whiskey, craft distillers are redefining what whiskey can be and laying the groundwork for the future of the spirit.
“The American whiskey landscape is in the midst of a revolution,” mixologist Brian Van Flandern says. “American bourbon and rye whiskey have been trending globally for the past several years, but there will be an unforeseen consequence from the micro distillery explosion. There will be less products available for the production of traditional American whiskeys—like barley, wheat, corn and rye grains, or new oak barrels—and American distillers will revive less used grains such as quinoa, oats, millet and sorghum to counteract it. For 2018, the trend for consumers will be the discovery of ‘authentic whiskeys’ made with these artisanal grains."
Most Americans don’t drink Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados or brandy in general, but it’s officially making a come back. Big Cognac producers like Hennessey have released new, high quality spirits at lower prices that are specifically meant for mixing. And they’re attacking the American market with great vigor, trying to set it up as the next big spirit. Bartenders have taken note. “Cognac and Calvados are such versatile spirits [behind the bar],” says Brian Means, lead bartender at the Mina Group. “And in the last couple of years you’ve seen more affordable options like H by Hine Cognac and Drouin Coeur de Lion Selection Calvados hit the markets, making it more accessible to drinkers, and bartenders.”
“I’m betting that Pineau des Charentes will be showing up in more bars and on more menus,” says Franky Marshall, head of the beverage program at Le Boudoir. “It's three-quarters fresh grape must and one-quarter Cognac eau de vie. It works incredibly well as an apéritif, a digestif, paired with food, and in cocktails.” Christy Pope, co-founder and lead bartender at Cuffs & Buttons and Midnight Rambler, thinks we will see a rise in one of America’s first national spirits: applejack. “Applejack in a wonderful base spirit for cocktails,” she says. “It mixes well with other spirits—making it a very desirable product for bartenders—and, depending on how it’s applied in a cocktail, it can be both light and easy like a vodka, or have the depth of a whiskey.”
Nerdy Mezcals and Rums
Mezcal was definitely the “It” spirit of 2016 and 2017, and with more bars dedicated to the spirit popping up across the country, and more and more mezcals being imported into the U.S., it is likely to continue trending in the next year. More unique expressions coming from outside of Oaxaca will also fuel the fire, as will a continued exploration of mezcal-esque spirits like raicilla and sotol.
As for rum, we’ve all been wondering when the shoe is going to drop. Maybe 2018 will finally be the year when its consumption rivals whiskey in the United States. With more rum-focused, tiki and tropical styled bars popping up everywhere, it is definitely a possibility. It also doesn’t hurt that more people are embracing less sweet, vibrantly funktastic rums from Jamaica, South America, Mexico and the Caribbean. “I’m noticing a big trend in vintage and high ester rums,” says Jesse Vida, head bartender at BlackTail. “More and more producers are embracing the funky flavor profiles of Jamaican and other Caribbean styles of rum.”
Socially Aware Bars
It was hard not to become more socially aware in 2017. After the tsunami of sexual misconduct allegations in literally every industry, bartenders and bar owners have started thinking about their interactions with one another and how their actions affect others around them. “In the #metoo culture, individuals and groups, establishments and bartenders, will be keeping an overall awareness to the effects of alcohol for overall safety,” Pope says.
"I think that more bars will be informing their staff of and/or establishing sexual harassment policies,” Marshall says. “It's important to have a dialogue about what gets a pass and what is considered inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. For example, for some, a butt-tap behind the bar is simply an indication to a coworker that you're trying to get by. For others, it can be seen as crossing a line. I think there will be—and should be—more dialogue about these kinds of things in order to make sure that employees, irrespective of gender, feel safe and respected."