The current economy combined with a new trend toward experimentation is producing a new take on cocktails (as well as different beer and wine offerings). For instance, at Island Creek Oyster Bar near Kenmore Square, in the shadow of Boston’s Fenway Park, change is in the air. In a neighborhood obsessed with baseball, it goes beyond who’s playing first for the “Sawx.” It’s change you can taste, in what all those fans drink before and after a game and during the off-season, when Beantown is locked in winter’s chill.
Tom Schlesinger, general manager of Island Creek Oyster Bar, is not one to let a trend pass him by. As with many watering holes across America, Island Creek is undergoing a sea change in what people drink, especially cocktails. It’s driven in part by a sluggish economy, Schlesinger contends, but also by adventurous drinkers who want something new and different: as in healthier, more affordable, enticing and exciting.
“Agave nectar is huge right now,” he says, noting that instead of refined white sugar, agave, turbinado and honey are emerging more often as sweeteners of choice. Recent obesity studies notwithstanding, Schlesinger is noticing a sharp veering away from sweet drinks.
Rather, he sees a shift toward “savory cocktails,” with such exotic concoctions as celery apple stealing the thunder of “cloyingly sweet Cosmopolitans or Appletinis. Those truly are becoming drinks of a different era. Instead of having green food coloring in their Martini, people are interested in having fresh-pressed apple. They notice, they pay attention.” Even in a high-volume bar such as his, craftsmanship, as he calls it, is increasingly the watchword in cocktail preparation.
On the Island Creek menu, Schlesinger sells “42 Below Passionfruit” vodka for $10, Cold River Bluberry for $10 and Hangar One Fraser River Raspberry for $11. In a category called “Other Worldly: Transcend & Indulge,” Island Creek sells Clear Creek Pear for $12, Gölles Apricot for $11 and Gölles Wild Plum—an eau-du-vie—for $14. One category is labeled Sugarcane & Agave, another merely Agave. Schlesinger says the reason for cultivating the cocktail trend is simple: “The joy you see in customers’ faces when they try something they’ve never experienced, for the first time. You see the obvious benefit for the business—repeat business, repeat guests. So, really, it’s both business- and personal-related.”
Weather as a Factor
Way down in Dallas, far removed from Kenmore Square, the cocktail envelope is being pushed even further, swayed not only by the economy but also by the recent, record-breaking heat of a Texas summer. George Majdalani, the managing partner of the city’s hot new restaurant, Stephan Pyles—Pyles, an iconic local chef, is his partner—sees “a going back to classics,” but in a healthier way, “By serving drinks done elegantly with fresh juices.”
Infusion is the key, he says. Infused flavors are “big,” as is organic fruit. In a Bloody Mary, for instance, Majdalani says, “We’re using real tomatoes instead of tomato juice.” Just as Schlesinger has seen in Boston, Majdalani offers first-hand evidence that “sweet drinks are going away.” Taking their place is off-dry rosé wine, and in some cases, beer. But not just any beer. It’s gourmet all the way, much of it coming from Texas breweries. Specialty drinks range from $9 to $11. For wine by the glass, prices range from $8 to $20. Cocktails fluctuate from $8 to $13 per glass.
Rahr & Sons Brewing Company in Fort Worth, 30 miles from Dallas, supplies some of Stephan Pyles’ most popular beers. Quilmes, Argentina’s favorite beer, is leaving its mark on Dallas taste buds, as is Vienna Lager, Shiner Bock, one of Texas’ homegrown favorites and the Belgian beer Duvel. Stone Brewing Company in San Diego is another whose beers are popular down in Texas. Beers range in price at Stephan Pyles from $4.50 to $8.
Majdalani says the economy is no small factor. “Three to four years, especially with cocktails, we were using a lot of high-end ingredients,” he says. “Now, we can’t charge any more than $10 to $12 a drink, so we’re veering away from the high-end ingredients. We’re seeing cocktails that are less expensive, with fresher, more natural ingredients, as well as Rosé wines and gourmet beers. We’re seeing many fewer sales in high-end liquors and single malts.”
Sugar and Spice
New and higher-intensity flavors have also caught on. Even farther west, in Boise, Idaho, Kevin Settles, the president and CEO of Bardenay restaurants and distilleries, is seeing the same trends as those in Boston and Dallas. Jalapeño has caught on with his drinkers, as have ginger infusions. Anything that “creates a spicy concoction works well for us,” Settles says.
Ginger-rum cocktails are popular with the Bardenay clientele, as are combinations that Settles has never before seen in his career in the beverage industry. “We’re doing cocktails with coconut rum components. We’re doing Jalapeño Margaritas. It’s pretty wild stuff for us, but it’s selling,” Settles says.
Bardenay has even begun to experiment with a “skinny cocktail,” Settles says, because lower alcohol content is another trend rapidly catching on. He confesses, however, that “It’s something we really haven’t mastered yet. You remove the sugar to make it lower in calories, but at times, it makes it hard to drink. A lot of people are not all that excited about it, even though it’s something they say they want. But it’s something we need to play around with a whole lot more.”
When it comes to food, Schlesinger in Boston says he can understand why the Japanese Izakaya trend is catching on—people want less food, lower prices and more adventure (and more healthy ingredients) in their drinks. Bardenay pairs a lot of its newer, trendier cocktails with salads, “largely to reduce price,” Settles says.
Bardenay sells a Mango Lime Fiesta cocktail for $5.50, a Bourbon Berry for $7 (which includes muddled raspberries) and a Skinny Mojito for $5, a Skinny Lemon Drop for $5.75 and a Skinny Margarita for $6. The jalapeño-infused cocktail Settles is so bullish on, the El Diablo Sangrita (jalapeño-infused tequila with a spicy mix and fresh-pressed juices), sells for $6.50.
More and more, he says, “people want to go out on a Saturday night to try something different. In our area of Boise, you can walk bar to bar and experience a bunch of different flavors. Ours is a close-knit cocktail community, where the bartenders are all friendly with one another. They respect what the others are doing. And right now, there’s a lot of energy and interest in creating cocktails of a different kind, as we embrace a new era.”