Monday, February 8th, 2016
For many years, I’ve occupied two worlds: not only have I been behind the bar full-time for the past 20 years, but also I’ve been writing about it for well over a decade. People like myself, who not only publish their thoughts on spirits and cocktails but also work behind the bar on a daily basis, are normally inundated this time of year with requests for speculation about what will be trending behind the bar in the coming year. And, as anyone who knows me can attest, I have some pretty strong feelings about all things bar-related. So here are my predictions.
Cocktails that you can actually Drink
Contrary to what many trendy bar programs are pushing, I have always considered it to be a massive failure when a bar is full of people sitting around smelling their cocktails and quietly posting them to Instagram. That sort of deep reverence for the liquid gold found in the glass screams failure to me, as the true sign of a healthy bar is the sort of place where people are talking, laughing, and enjoying themselves first, and paying attention to the nuanced aromas of their cocktails last. Cocktails that people can drink really help create that sort of atmosphere and as a decades-long veteran of the business; I can assure you that the vast majority of guests enjoy cocktails they can actually drink.
Drinks People Love to Hate
I’ve gotten a lot of praise and a fair amount of criticism for the way I’ve embraced so-called ‘terrible’ drinks over the past few years. The Grasshopper, the Amaretto Sour, and the Blue Hawaiian are all extremely popular in my bar. But the reason we champion these drinks isn’t simply because we enjoy being anachronistic. It’s because we firmly believe that there are no bad drinks, only bad bartenders. And as more of us take up the cause of redeeming all cocktails, not just those pre-Prohibition classics we all know and love, it’s going to be harder and harder to defend the stance that a certain style of drink is no good. Especially when there’s a bar down the block turning out craft Strawberry Daiquiris to an eager crowd.
More Flavored Whiskies
Speaking of terrible drinks, here’s one we can probably all agree to dislike, though there’s nothing we can do about it. Some of you might remember the 1990s and easy 2000s, when there was a new vodka on the shelf every week. Well, the marketing machine has officially moved off of vodka and onto the very spirit we all worked so hard to re-popularise: whiskey. We’re already seeing overly expensive ‘craft’ whiskies, all sorts of flavored whiskies, and we’re only going to see more of this. Education is going to be paramount, because the consumer is about to become very ill-informed by every brand seeking to make a buck. Sure, when this dies out we’ll be left with a handful of decent options and about a hundred that didn’t make the cut, but that will be driven by consumers, not bartenders.
Less Gimmicky Vodkas
There is an upside to spirits companies putting all of their energy into terrorizing whiskey, and we can safely predict a return to well-made, flavorful (though less ‘flavored’) vodkas. Let’s face it: none of us who know what we’re talking about ever hated vodka, we just hated hearing and having to talk about vodka all the time. There are fewer pleasures greater than a frozen glass full of ice-cold, rich, creamy vodka placed between yourself and a towering Olympus of chilled shellfish. I know it, you know it, and your guests know it. Welcome back, vodka.
We’ve been hearing this one for years now, from bartenders all over the globe. “I just want to open up a dive bar with good cocktails.” Am I right? The fault in this idea is that it continues to polarise bars as one of two possibilities: dive bars, and bars with good drinks. But there are so many other types of bar out there, and your average cocktail bar seems to think that any place that doesn’t stock twenty different amari is a ‘dive’. As someone who worked in a dive when getting started in the business, let me inform you that a true dive is a terrifying, unsafe, horrid place to work. What’s really on the horizon is a more relaxed atmosphere with a return to entertainment, games, and music. Look at Prizefighter in Oakland, California. Look at Good Times at Davey Wayne’s in LA. Look at the Tiki craze. People are getting tired of walking into dark recreations of Prohibition-era saloons. Drinks have always been about fun, and the tide is turning: pretending it’s 1922 isn’t fun anymore. You’re going to see more juke boxes, more bowling lanes, more shuffleboard tables, more music. A nice game of pool with a Belgian beer in hand and Zeppelin on the jukebox shouldn’t be that hard to find. And we’re not talking about the sort of pitted, slanted, felt-torn pool table you’d find in a “dive”.
We’ve already seen a dining revolution in the fast casual model, and I have a strong suspicion that we’ll be seeing a similar pattern in the bar business. The current system of $16 cocktails that help pay for two hosts at the door, a team of educated cocktail servers, and the other sorts of amenities that are the trappings of a fancy cocktail bar isn’t going to last forever. We’re now seeing an order-at-the-bar model that does away with all of the formality that has crept in during recent years, and these sorts of places are packed on a nightly basis.
Because at the end of the day, a good cocktail, a delicious spirit, and a solid bar shouldn’t solely be reserved for special occasions or date nights. These things have always been, and should always be, accessible to everyone. And accessibility has always been a trend that will never go away.