Cocktail Culture: Evolving Beyond Beards and Suspenders Into Something Weirder Still

Pisco is never going to happen. At least according to the bartenders I polled about the South American spirit that's been hailed as the next big thing for the past few years. Right now in the S.F. cocktail world, sherry and Scotch are having their moment, mezcal's getting a little overplayed, and rye and absinthe seem so five years ago. Up-and-comers include artisanal cordials like crème de menthe and crème de cacao, fortified wines like port and vermouth, and possibly aquavit — though some think it too could go the way of pisco (always the bridesmaid, never the bride).

Tracking the course of “It” drinks is about as absurd as charting the highs and lows of high school popularity, but it does neatly illustrate the amazing growth craft cocktails have seen since the days in 2003 and 2004 when everyone was soooo impressed with fresh fruit juices and housemade bitters. These days, if your bitters aren't made in-house and your lemon juice isn't from fresh citrus, you might as well kill yourself with your ice chipper.

Cocktail culture wasn't always like this. In the '90's, big martinis and flavored vodkas were the thing. Then around 2003, bartenders started seriously geeking out on old recipe books from the Cocktail's golden era: the years before Prohibition. Whiskey and rye became big, because those were the predominant American spirits in the late 1800s (vodka, a mostly Russian affair, didn't really enter the American market until WWII). Drinks like Sazeracs, Corpse Revivers, and Last Words became the things the cocktail cognescenti was drinking, and the chances you'd be served a well-crafted version at a bar increased dramatically.

Now the cocktail scene's moved on, expanding beyond the romance of the pre-Prohibition and bootlegger days to incorporate spirits from other eras — like Scotch drinking, popular in the '50s — and from other countries — like mezcal, formerly not widely available outside of Mexico.

This growth is due to a number of factors. An increase in the breadth and depth of spirits is available, thanks to proliferating distribution channels and small-batch producers (many states have relaxed their distilling laws in the past decade). It's also the kids these days: Food culture now is so much about chasing new, exciting flavors — a hallmark of Millennials, many of whom are now of legal drinking age, and who use the Internet to spread information about new spirits and drinks in real-time. Mostly, though, this new territory is being explored because bartenders like pushing the envelope with new drinks, and are thrilled that the public finally seems ready for them.

“[Right now] there's the general culture to try new things, bigger, bolder-flavored things, like oxidized sherry or smoky Scotch,” says Scott Baird of Trick Dog and cocktail consultants The Bon Vivants. “It's become very cool, something that's culturally acceptable. There's been a paradigm shift, it seems like.”

Rachel Liederman, co-manager at cocktail destination The Alembic, agrees. “I definitely think we're in a different place than where this whole cocktail trend started,” she says. Small craft distillers are reviving old liquors and fortified wines that weren't part of the pre-Prohibition cocktail boom, which opens up new avenues for bartenders. “There's more to play with and people are exploring other things because there's more out there,” she says.

Take Scotch — whiskey at its peatiest and smokiest — which is partially in vogue now because for the first time there are more affordable Scotches on the market. It's not that Scotch cocktails are a new invention; it's that the drinks are now cheaper to make and the public is receptive to them.

“I had Scotch cocktails at the menu at Romolo and they didn't sell,” says Baird, speaking of his former gig at 15 Romolo. “Then over the last years, times have changed. People are more interested in these flavors.”

With the shift in popular tastes, there's also been a welcome shift in the way bartenders interact with their customers. It's less about the obnoxious pretensions of the earlier cocktail boom — ice cube posturing, old-timey accouterments like suspenders and lumberjack beards, and, most of all, the goddamn smugness of “mixologists.”

The snooty attitude, especially, has become obsolete — a fact I only realized a few weeks ago, when I nearly got in a fight with a bartender at a well-known cocktail bar over whether I “really wanted” to order a mezcal drink (he warned me repeatedly that it was “quite spirituous” and “not at all sweet,” to the point where I felt like I was begging for his permission to order it). That was the first time in nine months of drinking in the city I'd encountered the smarminess that used to be part and parcel of the mixologist mystique.

Chris Lane, bar manager of Lolinda and formerly of Tradition, Wing Ho General Store, and Flora, thinks that the shift toward flavor-forward cocktails has brought with it a new emphasis on service. “Something I've thought about a lot recently is that as bartenders, we can't underestimate our guests anymore,” he says. “We've gotten the ball rolling. We've educated people to the point where they're willing to try mezcal in a cocktail, and you shouldn't try to steer someone from that.”

To Lane, the current move toward obscure spirits and new drinks was inevitable, because bartenders, like chefs, enjoy the challenge of putting flavors together in a new way. “That's the exciting part, that's why we start going, 'Huh, I wonder what mixing a Scotch and a rum would be like in the format of an X cocktail and put a float of sherry on it,'” he says. “It's always going to be our responsibility as bartenders to push the boundaries of the stuff we do, but make sure our guests are along for the ride.”

It's true: Scaring customers away from new experiences before they have a chance to try them is the quickest way to ensure they'll never try them again. But getting customers to taste new things is essential for new drinks to become popular — even if some, like poor old pisco, never do make it to prime-time.

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