Knowing what lies in wait for us just around the corner would certainly make our business less precarious. What spirits are on the rise and which are cooling off? Have drink prices hit the ceiling? Has the mega-size drink trend peaked? With our crystal ball out for repair, we posed these questions to some of the country’s leading beverage authorities.
Admittedly, you don’t need a functioning crystal ball to divine that vodka remains America’s spirit of choice; vodka accounted for 28.9 percent of all spirits sold in the United States last year, according to Cheers parent The Beverage Information Group, up an impressive 6.7 percent from 2006. Rum and tequila also continue their winning ways. Sales of rum last year increased 5.1 percent, making it now the second largest spirits category in the country. Tequila grew a vigorous 9.4 percent, with much of the increase coming from within the super- and ultra-premium segments, both of which grew at double-digit rates.
The question on the minds of many is how much longer America’s fascination with vodka will last. Were vodka to loosen its hold on consumers, what spirit category would be the biggest beneficiary? Also, what about the avalanche of flavored vodkas? When is enough really enough?
“I think America is far from finished with its vodka fascination; in fact, it’s what people drink when they don’t want to think about what to drink, when they don’t want to be challenged,” contends New Yorker Toby Cecchini, mixologist, author, wine and spirits journalist and owner of the recently-defunct bar, Passerby. “There’s a compelling dichotomy regarding the perception of vodka between the cognoscenti, who now dismiss it as an overly simplistic spirit, and the general public, who just want to drink something non-threatening and can’t purchase it fast enough.”
To keep consumers interested and to follow current trends, many vodka marketers are touting their brands’ origins, ingredients and applications. Examples include Blue Ice Vodka from Idaho’s Silver Creek Distillery, made with Russet potatoes and glacier-fed water, and p.i.n.k. Vodka, a classy Dutch vodka infused with flavorless caffeine and guarana. Tapping the cocktails-with-cuisine trend, Level Vodka now offers food and cocktail pairings, complete with recipes.
Despite new marketing and line extensions, several experts believe vodka is reaching maturity. Spirits judge and internationally renowned mixologist Jacques Bezuidenhout sees space allotments for vodka maxed out. “Back bar space is an invaluable commodity, and none of the bar managers or beverage operators I know are willing to commit any more space to vodkas and flavored vodkas.”
“The category isn’t on life support, but its expansion has already slowed,” agrees Ted Haigh, drinks author and a curator at the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. That said, he notes some trends within the mega-category: “I’m seeing traditional Polish and Russian herbal-flavored vodkas—such as Jarzebiak and Żubrówka—attracting consumer interest and growing demand.”
Cecchini, on the other hand, backs gin. “Were a spirit category to cut into vodka’s lead, I’d put my money on gin. It is, after all, just vodka redistilled with botanicals. With the new small batch and upper-tier gins coming out, I think it’s a bankable trend,” Cecchini predicts.
Robert Hess, Seattle-based drinks authority, founder of DrinkBoy.com and host/executive producer of The Cocktail Spirit on SmallScreenNetwork.com, agrees that vodka’s reign is far from over, but gin is indeed on the sidelines waiting for its moment of glory.
“Mixed in a cocktail is where gin really shines. I frequently serve gin-based drinks to people who claim they loathe the spirit,” Hess explains. “Invariably it turns out that they really enjoy gin’s wonderful combination of spices and aromatics, and that it was the liquor’s taste when sampled neat they weren’t fond of.”
Drinking patterns are interesting. In the 1980s, many time-starved and over-committed Americans slammed shooters of every imaginable color in a rush to relax. While still time-starved and over-committed today, we as a society have acclimated. We now allow ourselves small indulgences, such as springing for a few high-end Martinis, thus ushering in the return of the cocktail culture.
Mixologists are meeting rising consumer demand with ever more engaging libations, a mega-trend turned incandescent by last century’s tour de force, the Cosmopolitan. Curious, we asked our experts whether it’s still possible for a single drink to spark the widespread frenzy of the Cosmo. If so, what cocktail might it be?
Hess believes the Cosmopolitan was a once-in-a-lifetime lightning strike. “I want to think that the next drink trend is one of ‘historical rediscovery,’ in which venerable cocktails such as the Last Word, Bijou and Japanese make a return to the mainstream,” he says. “The Aviation is the first ‘lost’ classic to make the rounds across the country. There are scores of forgotten cocktails out there which are worth re-discovery.”
Widely hailed as the creator of the Cosmopolitan, Cecchini also is author of Cosmopolitan, A Bartender’s Life (Broadway, 2003). He’s convinced any one of several cocktail phenoms now are poised for immortality. Topping his list of candidates is the Bramble, a classy British import he insists is as much a liquid staple in England as the Cosmopolitan is here. Created by famed mixologist Dick Bradsell, the cocktail is made with gin, fresh lemon sour and crème de mûre. “The drink is deceptively delicious and quickly became a hugely popular call at our bar,” he says.
After several trips to the London Bar Show, Cecchini now believes England is where to look for evolving trends. He cites Tiki bars as an example, which have dominated the London scene for several years and now are spreading through New York and other major U.S. cities (see “Tiki Returns,” page 28).
In complete agreement about the return of Tiki bars and their trademark tropical drinks is Simon Ford, veteran London bar operator and brand relations manager for Plymouth Gin, Cruzan Rums and Level by Absolut. “Tiki is the next great era to be rediscovered in the U.S. These bars are hip, lively and non-threatening, all of which are essential components for longevity. And as for Tiki drinks, they’re tall, fun and unpretentious. It’s a marvelously engaging concept that’s time has come again.”
Ford also predicts a surge in demand for cocktails featuring low-carbon footprints—“green” drinks prepared using organic or locally sourced produce. He points to the increasing number of organic spirits on the market and believes that seasonal bar menus and specialty cocktails loaded with fresh ingredients is another beverage trend with legs.
Portion and Pricing Predictions
It seems that more bars and lounges are scaling back the spirits portions in their drinks. Could it be that the widespread practice of serving Big Gulp Martinis soon will be a thing of the past? Might there again be a time when the cost of a well-crafted cocktail drops below the price of platinum?
Mixologist Bezuidenhout sees early indications of a downsizing trend. “It’s about time, too. What’s more ridiculous than 10-ounce Martinis? They’re bad for business and bad for our guests. I think all bars should start stocking smaller glassware, serve appropriately-sized cocktails and charge accordingly. In the long run, the bar will make more money.”
Cecchini thinks the public’s heightened social awareness is bringing about a reduction in drink sizes. Several major chains, including Littleton, Colo.-based Champps Entertainment and Applebee’s now are engineering regular drinks to contain no more than two ounces of spirits. “It’s apparent that people are assimilating the message about moderation,” he says, “which hopefully will soon bring about the end of lukewarm, aquarium-size Martinis. That being said, I don’t think the price of a drink is bound to go down—ever.”
Disproportionately large drinks, like all-you-can-eat buffets, are wrong on so many levels, adds Hess. In addition to being excessively potent, oversized cocktails lose their chill well before guests have a chance to finish them. Regardless of how skillfully the cocktail was prepared, the last few swallows will be less than wonderful.
Hess advises that operators hesitant to reduce the portion size of their drinks consider the example being set by Julie Reiner, celebrated mixologist and owner of Manhattan’s Flatiron Lounge and the recently opened Clover Club in Brooklyn. “Among the most popular and successful promotions [at Flatiron] are cocktail flights, which consist of three small, amazingly delicious cocktails that all fall within a certain theme. Presenting a sampling of right-sized cocktails has helped her guests shed their ‘bigger is better’ mentality,” observes Hess. “I do think this is the direction the business is heading.”
Before allowing the experts we polled to get off the phone, it seemed fitting to ask for a final prediction, a last bit of bankable wisdom.
For Bezuidenhout, the keystone for future success is authenticity. “Consumers today are looking for bars and restaurants that exceed expectations, that live up to their own hype. I’ve been in many highly touted tequila bars that stocked nearly as many vodkas and flavored vodkas as they do tequila. Commit to a concept and execute down to the smallest detail. That’s what I mean by authenticity.”
Working on developing a new bar concept, Cecchini has of late devoted considerable thought to what makes people frequent a joint. “For all the pomp and polish of the cocktail world, I’m a devotee of the dive bar. I’ve noticed that people gravitate to the most authentic thing they can, in whatever market they’re in. At the end of all the discussion, you go to a bar to let down your daily load for a few hours,” Cecchini muses.
The merging of food and beverage is what’s on Hess’ mind. “I’m bullish on restaurants pairing cocktails with their appetizers and light fare. The menu at Licorous here in Seattle features a selection of amuse bouche-sized appetizers paired with complementary and equally tempting cocktails. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable experience with trend written all over it.”
Spirits authority Ford predicts we’ll soon be heralding the arrival of long-lost classic liqueurs such as Batavia Arrack, crème de violet and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram. A recent example hails from his own stable, handcrafted Plymouth Sloe Gin, re-launching in the U.S. this summer.
“Liqueurs like these open up a whole new world for bartenders,” says Ford. “Imagine having the opportunity to sit back and enjoy a cocktail or two that hasn’t been made here in the States since the 19th century. I think people will find it an intriguing experience.”
The final trend prediction comes from the dean of American mixology himself, Gary Regan. Author of numerous books, including the seminal work, The Joy of Mixology (Clarkson Potter, 2003), Regan asserts he knows only one thing: Say something often enough and people will start to believe you.
“I’ve been telling people for almost two years now that the next big thing in both spirits and cocktails is pisco. It hasn’t come true yet, but it will. Promise.” l
Robert Plotkin is a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and has recently authored his 16th book. He is the recipient of the 2007 Cheers Raising the Bar award and can be reached at www.BarMedia.com or at email@example.com.
Looking at the current cocktail scene, I think the story of the century thus far is the surging popularity of the Mojito. Culturally speaking, the Cuban-born phenom has gone from a mere blip on the screen to a bona fide franchise player, fueled in part by Americans’ love of all things Latin and by its inherently delectable flavor and easy drinkability. The Mojito has attained elite status in half the time it took the Margarita—which remains the Michael Jordan of cocktails—to grace every drink menu from Newark to New Orleans and Newport Beach.
In addition to being amazingly delicious and thirst-quenching, the Mojito possesses a number of star-like qualities. The versatile drink accommodates a wide range of flavors and types of spirits, and its mélange of mint, sugar and lime makes for an enticing appearance. Face it: It’s sexy, a quality that helped catapult the Cosmopolitan into the stratosphere. Then there’s the Mojito’s enhanced production. Preparing the drink requires muddling, a relatively slow process, but one that’s essential to capturing its brilliant depth of flavor. Who doesn’t appreciate seeing effort expended to get their cocktail just right?
What’s more, like the Cosmo, the Mojito is opening other doors, fueling the growing demand for new and exciting labels of rum while also sparking interest in the Caipirinha and Caipiroshka, two sensational cocktails from Brazil that bear striking resemblance to the Mojito both in design and taste.
All our futures should be so bright.
DrinkBoy.com founder Robert Hess believes the Cosmopolitan was a once-in-a-lifetime lightning strike.