The Big Moments in Beverage

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When Cheers launched as the premiere beverage business magazine for full-service restaurants and bars in 1990, the industry was a far cry from what it is today. For starters, 25 years ago, “no one under 35 drank what we consider cocktails,” says Jack Robertiello, a spirits and wine writer/consultant who served as editor of Cheers from 1998 to 2006.

“Martinis were for steakhouses or older men,” he says. “Older women might order a Jack Rose or an Old Fashioned, which in those days was more often than not a sickly slough of soda water, crushed orange and bad booze.”

Basic drinks made with vodka or rum or gin mixed with citrus juice like the Seabreeze, Cape Codder, Greyhound and Salty Dog dominated the scene, Robertiello recalls. Cream liqueur cocktails like Mudslides and Smith and Kerns were also popular, and for shooters, guests preferred Kamikazes and Alabama Slammers.

It really wasn’t about the cocktails back then, says Andrew Freeman, president of San Francisco-based restaurant and hospitality consultancy Andrew Freeman & Co. “People used to go out for the environment,” rather than for the drinks or the bar talent, he notes.

Ice beers were big, as were lights and dry brews. Microbrews had started to gain steam: Brewpub openings in the U.S. topped 100 in 1994. But beer was generally pretty boring. Even just a decade ago, says Jason Stone, senior director of operations for beverage consultancy MarkeTeam, “the same eight domestic and import beers were on every menu across the country.”

Craft beer selections are now a necessity, Stone says. “There is an unbelievable amount of choice, and restaurants are reserving greater space for craft and local options.”

Beer today is mixology, “and craft brews have steered us away from manufacturing and into hopped-up lofts and garages where experimentation is king,” says Patrick Henry, principal of consulting firm Patrick Henry Creative Promotions. “Beer is no longer just about sessionability, but a beverage that brings as much sipping pleasure as a well-made cocktail.”

Wine has evolved considerably since 1990 as well. Back then California chardonnays and cabernets ruled, Robertiello says, “pushing Old World wines out—even on the East Coast.” Especially popular with young wine drinkers, “who had no understanding of the confusing European nomenclature, these wines were also considered fresh, vibrant and different.”

The explosion of American wines, primarily from California, Washington and Oregon, now joined by winemakers from nearly every state, notes Glenn Schmitt, founder/president of MarkeTeam. “Couple that with South American wines from Argentina and Chile, and the western hemisphere has changed the wine world.”

So much has happened in the world of beverage alcohol that it would be impossible to boil it down to under 20 things. That didn’t stop us from trying, though: Here are our picks for the top 19 trends that changed the industry.

1) The fresh factor. Soda guns, canned juices and packaged mixers may have made bartending faster, but they didn’t do the taste of the drinks any favors. Legendary restaurateur Joe Baum spearheaded the return to fresh ingredients and handcrafted cocktails when he reopened the Rainbow Room in New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1987 with Dale DeGroff as head bartender. Baum figured that if the barkeeps 150 years ago could make good drinks without modern conveniences like soda guns and sour mix, bartenders in the 1980s could do it, too. And he was right.

2Spirits get flavor. Flavored vodkas have been on the market in the U.S. for nearly 30 years: Absolut Peppar and Stolichnaya Stoli Ohranj both hit the U.S. market in 1986. Absolut Citron, introduced in 1988, “made vodka drinking interesting,” Robertiello says. “Otherwise, there was very little spirit innovation that stuck” as of the early 1990s.

That began changing around 2005, when brands like Pinnacle and Smirnoff began cranking out flavored vodka expressions; Pinnacle now has more than 40 flavors. Now rums, whiskies, tequilas and even gins are getting in on the flavor action. “We’ve moved from just a few cordials to an incredible variety of flavors in many spirits categories,” says MarkeTeam’s Schmitt.

3Classics make a comeback. Ordering something like a Ramos Gin Fizz would have been a joke in most places 25 years ago, if anyone even knew what it was. That started to change in the late 1980s, thanks largely to the Rainbow Room bar, and DeGroff’s influence on other bartenders. Cocktail historians such as Gary “gaz” Regan, Ted Haigh, and David Wondrich have brought back some long-forgotten drink recipes, and bartenders nationwide have taken note.

4The spread of speakeasies. Prohibition may have ended in 1933, but interest in how and what people drank during that dark 13-year period flared up about 15 years ago. New York has been speakeasy central—Milk & Honey, Employees Only, Death & Co. and PDT were among the first; more recent entries include Bathtub Gin and Dear Irving. The trend has spread to other markets: PX in Alexandria, VA, Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. in Philadelphia, Williams & Graham in Denver, The Violet Hour in Chicago and Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco are just a few of the storied modern American speakeasies.

5) Craft beer really catches on. Prior to the early 1990s, the most adventurous beer drinkers sought English and German imports, with an occasional foray into Belgium, says Robertiello. “Otherwise, light beer and the few local brewers left standing were what the cool kids drank—the rest guzzled light, dry and ice beer.” That’s changed dramatically with rise of craft brews. While Samuel Adams, first released in 1985, was the first craft beer brand to go mainstream, the launch of Blue Moon in 1995 was a driving force in the latest craft movement. The Belgian-style witbier, owned by MillerCoors, introduced the style to a wider audience in the U.S., and helped encourage consumers to try different types of beer.

6) Bar stars come out. The notion of the bar star began cropping up about 14 years ago, making the skill and personality of the bartender much more important than it was the prior decade. “People today follow bartenders from bar to bar—in the 1990s, they weren’t as likely to do that,” says Freeman. The bartender is often the draw today; there’s less of a commitment to a specific location, he notes. What’s more, “every market now has its top five bartenders.”

7Cider back on the scene. Hard cider may have been the original drink of Colonial America, but it all but disappeared after the beer brewers arrived in the country. A few of the Irish and English pub concepts might have stocked cider in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it really wasn’t until Boston Beer’s Angry Orchard launched in 2011 that the fermented apple beverage started to gain a following in the U.S. market. A number of cider brands have cropped up since then, and cider consumption increased 66% from 2012 to 2013.

8Mixology goes molecular. Following the trend of molecular gastronomy, the concept of mixing drinks using ingredients such as foams, liquid nitrogen, heat, gels, mists and so on started in the U.S. in the mid to late 2000s. Tony Conigliaro is a pioneer of the practice in London; he opened liquid laboratory the Drink Factory in 2005. José Andrés, Jamie Boudreau, Charles Joly, Eben Freeman and Junior Merino are just a few of the proponents in the U.S. The molecular approach isn’t for everyone, notes Andrew Freeman, but “it’s helped get a lot of people interested in cocktails,” and there will always be a place for people looking to push cocktail boundaries.

9) New wine varietals gain traction. Other than chardonnay, merlot and the ubiquitous white zinfandel, ordering glasses of wine by the varietal wasn’t all that common in 1990. The influx of New World wines would help change that as consumers discovered pinot noir, malbec, syrah, riesling and so on. Wines from places like South America, Australia, South Africa, Eastern Europe and other parts of the U.S. besides California have helped draw customers in to the different grapes, terroirs and styles of wines.

10Cocktail conferences click. As the modern mixology movement was taking off 10 to 15 years ago, people who made cocktails started becoming more  interested in talking to and learning from other people who make cocktails. The first Tales of the Cocktail conference in 2002 in New Orleans was a huge event for the bartending/mixology community. “It brought a lot of credibility to the industry,” Freeman says. “People started taking cocktails more seriously.” It also inspired numerous regional drink-industry gatherings, from the San Antonio Cocktail Conference to the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Arizona Cocktail Week, Thirst Boston and Portland Cocktail week—to name only a few.

11Prosecco adds sparkle. Sparkling wines, including some cavas from Spain, were a popular alternative to the more-expensive Champagne 25 years ago, but bubbly wines were still largely reserved for celebrations and special occasions vs. everyday drinking. Prosecco has helped American consumers look at bubbles as a more casual libation. Zardetto was one of the first to export prosecco to the U.S. in 1984, but it would take another 10 to 15 years before interest in the Northern Italian wine would really take hold, as more major brands like Mionetto and Riondo entered the American market.

12New and social media revolutionizes business. It’s hard to imagine life without Facebook and Twitter, never mind without the internet. The World Wide Web was still in development in 1990; browsers started to increase adaptation after 1993 and search engines began to appear in the mid 1990s (Google was founded in 1998). Social media networks, online business reviews and photo sharing sites have forever changed the way that operators and brands engage with consumers and share information.

13Liqueur category gets infused. With the exception of a few brands often used in making popular drinks of the day (such as Kahlua, Chambord and Midori, to name a few), a few decades ago liqueurs and cordials were largely considered something that old people drank after dinner.

As mixology started to take off, liqueur flavors became more inspired. Pama pomegranate liqueur was a unique launch in 2006, while Domaine de Canton a year later introduced a modern ginger flavor to mixology.

But it was the 2007 launch of St. Germain elderflower liqueur that had a profound effect on the contemporaty cocktail scene. The delicate, slightly floral flavor profile of the elderflower elixir made it a mixologist’s darling.

There’s also Crème de Violette, which was not available in the U.S. for nearly a century but has been making a comeback here in the past decade. It’s a key ingredient in several pre-Prohibition classics like the Aviation.

14Certification programs crop up. Bartending schools have been around for ages, used largely as beginner training to help people land that first job behind the stick. But today’s best bartenders strive to constantly learn and improve. In addition to the many conferences and seminars, there are a few certification programs for mixologists, such as Beverage Alcohol Resources and Pernod Ricard’s BarSmarts. On the beer front, there’s the Cicerone Certification program, started by Chicago brewer Ray Daniels in 2007. And while The Court of Master Sommeliers was established in 1977, the certification has taken on new importance in recent years as people get serious about their careers in wine—some consumers even pursue it to further their own wine knowledge.

15Ice is more important. Nobody gave too much thought to the ice used in cocktails 25 years ago, but that’s changed in recent years. Many bars have embraced ice machines from Kold-Draft for dense, 1 1/4-in. cubes they make, but options today range from ice planks and spheres to pebbles and spears. Chicago cocktail den The Aviary, for instance, offers 27 varieties of ice; it also has a Clinebell machine that produces two 250-lb. clear ice blocks in two and a half days that the bartenders then cut by hand. Other hot ice trends today include flavor-infused and smoked cubes.

16Drinks take on a latin flavor. The popularity of Spanish tapas culture and Latin American cuisine has spread to the cocktail menu. The Margarita was already a mainstay, but riffs on other Mexican drinks such as the Paloma have been cropping up on drinks lists. The Mojito, which surged in popularity in the mid 2000s, had the most influence, however. The Mojito’s success made guest more open to exotic cocktails like the Caipirinha and interested in spirits like pisco and cachaça. New spirits from South America continue to come onto the market, including singani, a Bolivian spirit produced from Muscat of Alexandria grapes, and Solbeso, a new spirit distilled from fermented cacao fruit. An emerging category is liqueur inspired by horchata, a traditional Spanish beverage made with ground almonds, rice, cinnamon and other ingredients. Rum-cream liqueur RumChata started the trend in the U.S. in 2009.

17Cocktails get skinny. If you wanted a low-calorie alcoholic beverage in 1990, your options were fairly limited—most figure-conscious guests stuck to rum and diet soda, white wine spritzers and light beer. But as craft cocktails exploded and new spirits flavors hit the market, demand for skinny drinks took off in the past five years. Low-calorie cocktail promotions have become common at many of the chain restaurants, while “skinny” spirits have been appearing on more bar and store shelves. Perhaps the best known is Skinnygirl, launched in 2009 by Real Housewives of New York star Bethenny Frankel, who sold it to Beam in 2011. Voli vodka and TY KU are also brands that promote their lower calorie count.

18Operators tap kegged wine and cocktails. Some consumers may still be dubious about the quality of wine on tap, but many operators are sold on the concept. Enthusiasts say it tastes better and fresher because the wine isn’t exposed to air; it’s more cost effective for operators so it can be a better value for customers, and it reduces waste. Kegged cocktails, meanwhile, enable bars to serve drinks faster to a customer during busy times. Some purists question whether kegged cocktails cheapen the art of cocktail making, but most seem to be in favor of the practices as long—as it’s done with precision and care.

19Beverage careers boom. Back in 1990, bartending was largely something you did while you were waiting to do something else: Both Dale DeGroff and Tony Abou-Ganim, for instance, got their start behind the stick when they were trying to launch acting careers. But not only is tending bar today seen as a respectable and rewarding occupation, it can also lead to lucrative gigs as spirits brand ambassadors, mixology consultants and beverage directors for multi-unit concepts. “We’re talking six-figure salaries here,” DeGroff says of corporate beverage director positions, “not just working for tips.”

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