Think of the Nightclub & Bar Show as the CES of booze. The annual trade expo just wrapped up four days of seminars, workshops and nonstop samples of alcohol at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Closed to the public, the event is industry-only and the perfect place to get the scoop on the latest trends that will shape how we drink.
So what can we expect in 2018 and beyond?
Say Goodbye to Straws
Feel free to blame (or thank) millennials for this one. As younger generations champion sustainability in the workplace, there's a growing movement against using straws in cocktails.
"A number of bar owners are giving straws upon request only," says Charlotte Voisey, director of brand advocacy for William Grant & Sons. "Tons of people get straws in their drinks, they take it out, throw it in the trash. It's waste that can't be recycled easily."
Expect to also see reusable coasters instead of paper napkins and table tops making due without linens that require large amounts of water to wash them. There's even a traveling pop-up called Trash Tiki that's recycling squeezed limes and other discarded cocktail fruit into syrups, cordials and other drink ingredients.
"These are small steps businesses can take," says Voisey. "They're not going to change the world overnight, but they can start to reduce their own footprint.”
The new measures also save money—which is why sustainability is likely to be not just a trend, but the next phase for bars and restaurants.
Single Malt Is Evolving Beyond Scotland
Voisey also knows a few things about spirits. She says single malt whisky, a category founded by Glenfiddich in 1963, has gone on to inspire whiskey-making around the world.
"Single malt for years was synonymous with scotch and Scotland, but now single malt whiskey is made all over the world—Japan, Ireland, the United States, Taiwan, India, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium—you name it,” she says. “Even France, known for its wine, Champagne, Cognac and fruit liqueurs, is making single malt whiskey."
The term "single malt" generally refers to whiskey made at one, single distillery in batches from malted barley in copper pot stills. It's a process that can be recreated virtually anywhere on the planet. "It's got tremendous cache," adds Voisey. "People think of single malt Scotch as the most revered and respected whiskey category. There's something in using that term for whiskey elsewhere in the world to leverage the same credibility."
Frozen Alcohol Is Replacing Ice Cubes
Ever try to freeze alcohol? It usually doesn't work. But Beyond Zero is a new appliance that drops to temperatures so extremely low, it's possible to freeze bourbon, gin or any other preferred spirit into ice cubes.
"You hook up a bottle and it will automatically measure one ounce and divide that into four cubes," says CEO Jason Sherman. "You can't hold them in a regular freezer, so you keep them in our storage device until they're ready for service."
Designed for the bar industry more than home use, the machines don't just change the way a cocktail is made, but also how it tastes. With an ice cube made from a spirit instead of water, the drink doesn't get watered down. So instead of getting weaker, the drink gets stronger. It could also reveal some underlying flavors and complexity. "Whenever you chill a spirit down to the temperatures we're at, it removes that ethanol heat, so you get something that's much, much smoother than traditionally served," Sherman says.
With a retail price of more than $6,000, the machines aren't cheap. But Sherman says sales have been strong in recent months, so don't be surprised if you see Beyond Zero inside a high-end bar very soon.
Cannabis-Infused Cocktails Are a Thing
With more states legalizing marijuana, it only makes sense that cannabis-infused cocktails are growing in popularity, opening up yet another can of legal worms. Nevada and Massachusetts are among the states grappling with new laws and regulations to sort out on-premises consumption. The question is, how much is too much?
"My technique hits you in five minutes," says Warren Bobrow. "Imagine that—total stoned. And it lasts for hours." Bobrow is a mixologist and author of Cannabis Cocktail, Mocktails & Tonics, a book that reveals how to add a psychoactive edge to traditional libations. He stresses that his methods are suited for a private home—not a public bar or restaurant, where it's not known where drinkers have been or what they've previously ingested.
"Even if we're doing private parties, we have to be cognizant of safety," says Bobrow. "It's not just fun and games—and it's not just business."
Beer and wine companies are now starting to experiment with infusions. Cannabis cocktails are already showing up on bar menus in states like California, but they're more likely to be prepared with CBD oil, offering the health benefits of marijuana without the THC high.
Bartenders Are Throwing Out Less Wine
Wine has a very short life span. Once a bottle is open, the clock starts ticking. Nobody wants to waste good vino by throwing out an unfinished bottle at the end of the night. So to help solve the problem, bartenders are turning to cans, taps, single-serve bottles and, yes, even boxed wine to help solve the problem.
"Don't get me wrong, you don't want to use the cheap stuff," says David Foss, a wine and beverage consultant with Invictus Hospitality. "Even in my bar in Manhattan, I've poured boxed wine. You go to cool little wine bars in Paris and they have boxed wine."
Just like kegs and cans, boxed wine is not only easier to store, but more cost-effective to ship than heavy bottles—saving dollars in a business where margins matter.
"You can offer a better product at a lower price," says Foss, who also notes that chilling wine, whether red or white, will make it last longer. "Put a cork in it, put it in the fridge and that's going to save a little bit of time."
The Emergence of Mexican Whiskey
The demand for tequila and mezcal has led to an agave shortage in Mexico that Douglas French saw coming more than five years ago. After spending two decades distilling mezcal from 30 acres of agave in Oaxaca, the supply was starting to disappear.
"I came to realize we were going to go bankrupt real fast if we didn't start making something else," French remembers. So he turned to another native plant—corn—and began producing whiskey. The result is Sierra Norte, which went into production about three years ago and already has at least 16 distributors. Each bottle retails for about $50 with 45 percent ABV in different varieties based on the color of the corn: white, yellow and black, with a red version in the works. Each one tastes a little different, but the process is the same.