Cocktail trends: The US

The World’s 50 Best Bars’ Camper English looks at the cocktail trends in the US.

Though the 16 American bars on Drinks International’s World’s 50 Best Bars list vary widely in focus – from high-volume cocktail bars such as Trick Dog to high-end hotel cocktail bars such as Elephant Bar at the Nomad Hotel to whisky bars Canon and Dead Rabbit to the molecular mixology mecca that is The Aviary – common trends emerge when we look at them together. 

Two drinks to rule them all

In just about every cocktail bar in America, two of the most popular drinks right now are the Old Fashioned and the Moscow Mule. Sean Kenyon, barman/proprietor at Denver’s Williams & Graham, says they are the number one and three sellers respectively. Although consumer favourites, bartenders tend to view them differently.

The Moscow Mule is an entry-level Highball for vodka drinkers, many of whom are more attracted to the shiny copper mug it’s traditionally served in than the beverage itself. At many bars, the menu offers an alternative to the standard with a substitute liquor (Mezcal Mule, Mumbai Mule, etc) to redirect drinkers toward more interesting flavours. At other cocktail bars, including Brooklyn’s Clover Club and New Orleans’ Cure, it is offered on the happy hour menu, perhaps a bit grudgingly. Julie Reiner, owner of Clover Club says “We’ve had it on our happy hour menu. If you want the Moscow Mule, then here you go.” The era of “the bartender is always right” is clearly over. 

The Old Fashioned, on the other hand, derives part of its popularity from the Mad Men TV series but it’s a cocktail that American bartenders seem more than happy to make. The versatile format allows for endless variations with any number of base spirits and accent sweeteners and bitters.

Neal Bodenheimer, co-owner of Cure, says: “We always have one Old Fashioned variation on our menu and it’s not because we feel like we have to, it’s because we want to. And they sell well.”

 The Old Fashioned may also indicate the declining trend of the syrupy, excessively bitter drink with three amaros competing for attention in the glass. In a way, the Old Fashioned is like a scaled back or more refined version of this. Kenyon says: “Bitter is becoming an accent again rather than a base. The total focus on bitter liqueurs and overly aromatic everything is going away. Bright with bitter accents instead – playing with each other rather than layering on top of each other.”

Morgan Schick, creative director at Trick Dog, says: “People want leaner, drier drinks than they did a few years ago, especially in San Francisco where there is a heavy trend toward bitter. About a year ago we halved the amount of sugar in our Old Fashioned.”

More fortified wines

On the opposite side of the coin, and perhaps also a self-correction for all the Old Fashioneds, is the rise in lower-alcohol drinks. “I’ve noticed over the past year the increase in low-abv drinks being an acceptable thing on menus – and a necessity. Before, if it wasn’t a strong, boozy, stirred and bitter drink people didn’t want it,” says Reiner.

Bodenheimer says: “Not everybody wants to get clobbered on three cocktails when they go out. We’re seeing people using significantly more fortified wines: madeira, marsala, sherry, new vermouths.”

Sherry is particularly popular, providing a lot of flavour at a lower abv (and, often, price point) than many base spirits. It’s also versatile, from bone-dry fino and manzanilla to Pedro Ximenez that can be used as a sweetener in place of a liqueur.

Ingredient-led mixology

Over the past decade it seems every pre-Prohibition cocktail has been unearthed and celebrated, but now bartenders aren’t so stuck in the past. The classic cocktail formats are certainly still being used, but the flavours are changing. 

Schick says: “The veneration of the classics is starting to go a little bit, but the understanding of why we all love them is starting to come up – that we like a Sazerac not because it’s steeped in history but because it’s simple and perfect and delicious.”

Most of the old-style spirits needed to recreate the classics, such as genever and rye whiskey, are now readily available in the US. 

In addition to more mixology-friendly base spirits (including navy-strength gins and smokey mezcals), there are all sorts of interesting liqueurs coming to the market in flavours such as melon and tree bark and aloe. Rather than bartenders leading their cocktail development with history, they’re able to lead with interesting flavours and products used in those classic formats.

Bodenheimer sums it up. “Now we have amazing bar tools, spirits, every flavour of bitters. So the trend is to use these to make great drinks with great products. We’ve see the pendulum swinging back the other way toward simplicity, which I, for one, welcome,” he says.

The whole package

Tiki drinks such as those served at Chicago’s Three Dots and a Dash and San Francisco’s Smuggler’s Cove have spread to other bars in recent years. It has become common for there to be one or two tiki
drinks (in format, but not necessarily made with rum) on top cocktail bar menus, often served in a ceramic mug or with a mountain of crushed ice or other fun garnish.

Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove, says: “It’s wonderful to see exotic cocktails taking their place alongside the classics in top bars. They are a vitally important part of the American drinks canon, and their inclusion reflects not only on the respect they have earned, but also the desire of operators to serve their guests something more playful.”

Other playful or casual accents at American bars include fun menus such as Trick Dog’s Chinese restaurant menu and Dead Rabbit’s graphic novel-style book. The new drink list at San Francisco’s Trick Dog is designed like a Chinese restaurant menu with pictures of the drinks and numbers rather than names. 

More energetic music, better beer and wine programmes, and much faster cocktail preparation are also at play. American bars have become very good at speeding-up service without compromising on quality, using tricks such as partial batching of drink ingredients, putting cocktails on tap and preparing house-made bottled cocktails before opening.

Schick says: “A lot of people are thinking more holistically about the whole bar experience, especially now that bartenders are just better at making good drinks: Now sourcing isn’t such an issue – you can get the products. And you can get the staff who are well-trained even before you open. 

“So it frees you up to work on these other aspects of the experience. I think more bars are getting focused on a more complete aesthetic.”

Sean Kenyon of Williams & Graham agrees: “The super-serious cocktail bar was necessary because it raised the level of knowledge, of technique, all of that. I do love the more casual-style bar with great cocktails, and cocktail people being complete beverage professionals, knowing their wine and beer; a broader focus. 

I think that’s really where we’re all going.