What Defines the Current Cocktail Zeitgeist?

We pored over several dozen drink lists from top bars to find out what trends are defining America's cocktail scene right now.

Is it possible to outline the zeitgeist of the current moment in cocktail history? We tried.

By poring over several dozen drink lists from top bars across the country and compiling a record of recurring trends, PUNCH was able to gain a birds-eye view of the national cocktail scene. While last year saw bartenders reaching to the kitchen for inspiration and techniques, they’ve since shifted their focus farther afield, drawing on spirits and ingredients from Scandinavia, Japan and beyond. Here are five trends that stood out, and the drinks that best illustrate them.

Umeshu

Characterized by high levels of craftsmanship and attention to detail, the Japanese approach to cocktails has long influenced the techniques, tools and ingredients used on this side of the Pacific. With a spate of recent Japanese-inspired bar openings—from Katana Kitten to Hidden Pearl to Tokyo Record Bar in New York alone—the affinity for the Japanese approach shows no signs of slowing.

Most recently, umeshu, a Japanese plum liqueur, has landed on a number of menus across the country. “Umeshu has particular resonance given its ties to the Japanese perception of the seasons,” explains Matthew Belanger, head bartender at New York’s Death & Co. “The fact that umeshu is made once a year, coinciding with the ume harvest, and that it can take almost a year to fully extract, speaks to the level of patience and craftsmanship at work in creating the spirit.” At Death & Co., Belanger deploys the stone fruit-notes of umeshu to complement the botanical character of Dorothy Parker gin in a Martini variant called the Hummingbird. “A well-made umeshu can bring bright acidity and almost floral fruit notes to a cocktail,” he says.

Fat-Washing 3.0

Since PDT’s Benton’s Old-Fashioned put fat-washing on the map in 2007, the technique has become a fixture on cocktail menus across the country, evolving over the years to encompass a range of infusion techniques from milk-washing to effleurage with ingredients as diverse as foie gras, peanut butter and blue cheese. 

An off-shoot of the now-commonplace overlap between kitchen and bar, it’s only fitting that one of the most called-upon ingredients in the latest evolution of this trend is perhaps the most ubiquitous kitchen staple: olive oil. For Christine Wiseman of Broken Shaker Los Angeles, olive oil-washing is critical for the mouthfeel of certain drinks, particularly Martini variants, or other stirred drinks that can risk feeling thin. “The olive oil-washing is going to add the necessary fat into a cocktail and have every sip have the same mouthfeel,” says Wiseman, referring to the Audrey 2, an olive oil-washed vodka Martini brightened with basil eau de vie.

House-Made Cordials

“As a compound ingredient that contains both sugar and citrus, cordials have become a useful tool in the bartender’s arsenal,” explains Lauren Corriveau of New York’s Nitecap. Though hardly new, the current popularity of these hard-working sweeteners, from Nitecap to Normandie Club, owes equally to their usefulness as a cocktail ingredient and a means of reducing waste.

“Rather than throwing out our day-old juice, we process it into flavorful, more shelf-stable cordials,” says Corriveau, who deploys a number of house-made cordials in original cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks as part of Nitecap’s sustainability program. In her Mantra-Rock, a grapefruit cordial built from the scraps of the daily garnish prep, complements blanco tequila, Cocchi Americano Rosa, lime and rhubarb. “The flesh from the grapefruit adds a fresh burst of brightness, while the zest and pith contribute to a pleasantly bitter element.”

All Aquavit, All the Time

A traditional Scandinavian spirit flavored with caraway and dill that dates to the 15th century, aquavit has only recently experienced a boom in the U.S. market. “Such a moment is overdue,” declares Chaim Dauermann of the Up & Up. “It’s an exciting and rewarding spirit to work with.” In the Animal Vegetable Mineral, Up & Up owner Matt Piacentini presents aquavit in a play on the Gin Sour that also sees the addition of raspberry syrup and cucumber. “Since [aquavit] lacks any classic ‘signature drink’ of its own… it’s inspired bartenders to stretch their creative muscles and try to leave their own stamp on the heritage of the spirit,” Dauermann says.

At Pinewood Social in Nashville, this creativity has led bar manager Chris Vicic to the creation of Champan’s Haven, a Gimlet variation that relies on aquavit to drive the vegetal character of the drink, which he highlights with muddled cucumber and celery bitters.

Gentian Fever

Gentian is probably the most common and versatile bittering ingredient used in spirits,” explains Dan Smith, beverage director of Chicago’s Queen Mary Tavern, who cites it as the main bittering agent in a number of familiar backbar products, like Campari and Angostura. In liqueurs like Suze, Salers and Aveze, it becomes the star. 

“Suze and other gentian liqueurs deliver [bitterness] in abundance, while at the same time being light, crisp and almost floral,” says Dauermann. “This brings bitter drinks out of the dark realm of the Negroni and into [the] taste profile that easily appeals to many.” The aptly named Bring June Flowers, highlights these characteristics in Suze by way of a jasmine syrup meant to pump up the liqueur’s inherent floral notes, and muddled cucumber that plays on the liqueurs more vegetal tones. 

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