The new cocktail culture is coming of age. Today’s drink flavors run the gamut from sweet and exotic to savory and dry. New products are on the market to help make these new drinks possible, and mixologists are taking their profession more seriously, working with the back of the house to discover ingredients while getting the culinary staff to support their efforts. “A properly executed bar program, like a professional kitchen, creates, cooks and shakes to bring the biggest ‘wow’ to the consumer,” says Kathy Casey, chef and owner of Kathy Casey Food Studios, Seattle, WA, who creates cocktail menus for many restaurants. It’s an energetic new spirits world where color, and well-developed, fresh, balanced flavor is key.
It began back in the early nineties. That’s when cocktail king Dale DeGroff dates the beginning of the new excitement for cocktails, back before Sex and the City. That’s when he was involved in a challenge where a writer, a chef, Candace Bushnell (whose book was the basis for the HBO TV series Sex and the City) and several other people gave him the task of taking everyone in the group’s least favorite spirit and least favorite liquid and coming up with a drink they liked. That’s where he met Bushnell and thus began his long association with the famous TV series. The whole cocktail craze was just beginning, and then continued to evolve until that very television show introduced the Cosmopolitan to the masses, a drink DeGroff claims he did not invent, but improved, and it’s his recipe for the Cosmo that made its appearance on the show. (He was the consultant for subsequent cocktails used on the show.) You could say, the rest is history, except that like any trend, the new cocktail excitement has continued to evolve.
THE NEW COCKTAILIERS
Enter the newest coming-of-drinking age generation, called the Millennials or Generation Y (see Cheers story, April 2004) aged 21 to 25. They are the hip-hop crowd and they want it flavorful, colorful, high energy, a little on the sweet side, with fun monikers. They were brought up on sweet beverages and soda, and on caffeine. It’s no wonder then that provocatively-named shots and shooters, and colorful Martinis made with flavored vodkas and sweet syrups are all the rage with them. It also explains the interest in highly-caffeinated Red Bull mixed with vodka. Will Jacobus, director of beverage operations at Dave & Buster’s says his company’s sales for Red Bull went up a whopping 370% last year. And then there are the odd concoctions such as Hpnotiq (premium French vodka mixed with Cognac and tropical fruit juices) and Hennessy that was invented to appeal to men who thought the blue color of Hpnotiq alone was too girly (the color is green and it’s called the Hulk).
But that’s only part of the story. There has also been an emerging interest in all things Latin due in part to our expanding Hispanic population and in other exotic ethnic cuisines. Americans today are also sophisticated about food and drink and they want it fresh. “It’s the kind of society we live in today. People know a lot about flavors and they want something new all the time,” says Paul Tanguay, corporate beverage director for Sushisamba, a Latin-Japanese restaurant company with units in New York, Chicago and Miami. Sushisamba, in fact, is a perfect example of what’s happening in that it’s a melding of Brazilian, Peruvian and Japanese cuisine, music and design (a reflection of what really happened in Brazil with the emigration of Japanese in the early 20th century).
It all comes back to why the cocktail culture is so historically uniquely American. As DeGroff says, “The cocktail is an American invention. It’s perfect for our country which is a composite of many people, just like cocktails are a mixture of wine, liquors and flavors, all in one glass.” The new cocktails today, however, have a cleaner finish, are fresher and less sweet.
AIMING FOR NEW, ADD-ON SALES
“Cocktails have a number of purposes. They get people to drink, number one, but they also advertise the restaurant. Most people have a cocktail before they eat any food. So, the more unique you can be, the more you can say about the cuisine of the restaurant in advance, the more you get your customers to appreciate your restaurant in general,” says Eben Klemm, director of cocktail development for BR Guest Restaurants, New York.
There is a lot more effort in today’s restaurants to meld the flavor of cocktails with the cuisine of the restaurant, and even with its decor and ambience. So, for example, Klemm developed three cocktails for the James Hotel, Scottsdale, AZ that reflected the three major colors that the hotel and restaurant were using–light blue, bright pastel green and lavender. The drinks are: a light green cocktail with candied blue frosting garnish that with light refraction turns light blue; a special Mojito made with a mint-flavored foam that comes out a bright, intense, minty green color; and a stone fruit swing made with peach, rum and cherry that has a lavender hue.
Klemm makes sure to work closely with the chefs when developing cocktails for a restaurant. For BR Guest Restaurant’s Dos Caminos in New York, he came up with creative brightly colored Margaritas that matched both the decor and the cuisine including a prickly pear-strawberry Margarita, passion fruit Margarita and guava cranberry Margarita.
Sushisamba offers an array of drinks that reflect the Latin-Japanese theme using both tropical fruit flavors and South American spirits (cacha