A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend some time in New Orleans. It has long been one of my favorite cities in the United States, both for its food and its people, and I always leap at any opportunity I get to visit.
I was even more excited on this occasion, however, as the particular reason for this visit was to attend the Tales of the Cocktail convention, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary. From an event which began in 2002 with just a handful of attendees, this celebration of the mixed drink now attracts well over 20,000 people, including representatives of all the major spirit brands as well as the best bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts from around the globe.
I will admit that it is, at its heart, an excuse for the cocktail community to have a really good time. There are also plenty of fascinating seminars, presentations by brands large and small, as well as enough tasting sessions to give you a good snapshot of what the latest developments are in the drinks business.
Here are the top five trends I saw emerging from 2012 Tales of the Cocktail:
1. Shrubs and Cobblers
If you thought that “shrubs” and “cobblers” had more to do with gardening and baking than with booze, think again. They are now appearing on cocktail menus all over the country.
Cobblers are mixed drinks that date back to the 1830s and were a way for bars to highlight two of the new and exciting items of the day: ice and straws. The original cobbler was made with sherry and a small amount of sugar. The ingredients were shaken over ice and then served in a tall glass filled with ice and topped with berries. The drink was then imbibed through a straw, which was actually made of straw, as paper straws were not invented until nearly 50 years later.
Shrubs date back even further to the late 18th century and are mixed drinks made with vinegar. Unlikely as that sounds, they were originally known for their medicinal properties, but are now proving to be hugely popular for a new audience looking for a long, refreshing drink on a hot day. At Tales of the Cocktail, I tried a number, but the most memorable was made with a small amount of rhubarb vinegar and tonic water over ice.
2. Micro Distilleries
One of the more pleasing developments in the drinks business in the last few years has been the huge growth in the number of micro distilleries that have sprung up to offer consumers an option to the major multinational spirit producers. While the larger companies are all about consistency and volume, these smaller distilleries are nimble enough to experiment and push the boundaries in the world of gin-, vodka- and whiskey-making.
Just like their cousins in the craft beer brewing industry, not everything these micro distilleries create is a success, but when they get it right, they can come up with some genuinely exciting products.
Two of my favorites are Death’s Door Distillery from Middleton, Wis., which produces a really terrific gin, and Catdaddy Moonshine from North Carolina. There are now dozens of new distilleries popping up every year and even a guidebook to help you find them.
3. “New Make” Whiskey
I have to admit that this latest drinks trend is one that leaves me absolutely cold.
Creating even a small distillery nowadays takes huge capital and investors are very hungry to see a quick return on the money they front. All of which means the distillers are under increasing pressure to get their product to market as soon as possible; they do not always have the luxury of waiting three or more years for their stock to age in wooden barrels.
Hence the sudden upsurge in the offering of “New Make” whiskey, which can also be called “unfinished” whiskey and “white” whiskey. It is essentially corn spirit that has been bottled before it has been aged in oak barrels and which lacks any of the subtleties and flavors that aging brings.
While “New Make” whiskey is proving popular with cocktail makers, the elephant in the room is that most of it is not very good at all and is more a result of economic expediency than any other more creative reason.
There are, however, one or two that are more palatable and, if you really want to try some, look out for Hudson Whiskey New York Corn, which is bright, fruity and works well in cocktails.
4. Barrel-Aging Spirits
At the other end of the spectrum from white whiskey are spirits that have been barrel-aged or “finished” to add extra layers of flavor to that which is produced by distilling alone.
Finishing whisky in barrels has long been a tradition in Scotland, where spirits that had developed for a number of years in bourbon barrels would be moved for the final few months before release to a sherry or wine cask to take on extra layers of flavor.
In recent years, however both distillers and bartenders are using the method on other spirits such as gin and vodka, as well as using barrels to age complete cocktails such as the Negroni and the Manhattan.
In expert hands they can add a new twist to classic cocktails and are well worth looking out for; few “proper” cocktail bars don’t have at least one barrel-aged drink on their menu.
Finally, it is terrific to see that one of my favorite spirits, rum, is now getting its place in the sun, both for use in cocktails and as a drink to sip and savor in its own right.
But for a cocktail, it’s hard to beat the classic Hemingway Daiquiri made with white rum.