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What Ingredients Define the Current Cocktail Zeitgeist?

By poring over several dozen drink lists from top bars across the country, we were able to gain a birds-eye view of the national cocktail scene. Here are the five new trends defining it.

Cocktail Recipes

Two decades into the current cocktail revival, today’s bartenders have long-since mastered the classics, even modernized them. But in this second Golden Age of drinks, in which molecular, neighborhood and restaurant bars stand shoulder to shoulder, is it possible to outline the zeitgeist of the moment?

We tried.

By poring over several dozen drink lists from top bars across the country and compiling a list of recurring trends, we were able to gain a birds-eye view of the national cocktail scene. It revealed a shift not only in the types of ingredients being used in drinks everywhere from Nashville to San Francisco, but a shift in technique, with many bars continuing to borrow directly from the kitchen. Here are five trends that stood out, and the drinks that best illustrate them.

Unexpected Vegetable Use

The crossover between kitchen and bar isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, thanks, in part, to Leo Robitschek of the NoMad Bar and Eleven Madison Park, who set a trend of leaning heavily on the kitchen for syrups and techniques while developing the drinks program at the latter. “Ten years ago, there was such a tense interaction between chefs and bartenders,” says Robitschek, “it was an uphill battle for those parties… to ever work together.”

Today, however, bartenders are incorporating ingredients that had, up until recently, no place at the bar. The unorthodox application of black trumpet mushrooms in the New York bar Angel’s Share’s Into the Woods, for example, or the black trumpet mushroom tincture in the I’m Ya Huckleberry at Chicago’s Billy Sunday highlight the increased crossover between culinary traditions and contemporary drink-making. “Black trumpet mushrooms [are] like…the shoe laces in the shoe of that cocktail,” explains former Billy Sunday head bartender Lee Zaremba of the combination of mushrooms, white rye whiskey, gin, huckleberry syrup, madeira and lemon juice, “it creates a sense of structure.”

Carrots have also been adopted en masse by bartenders for their ability to bring both a brightness and a subtle savory quality to drinks. The Jessica Rabbit at The Gin Joint in Charleston, for example, sees carrot juice complement the botanicals of gin, pineau des charentes and yellow Chartreuse while the Chuck Jones at Houston’s Anvil Bar & Refuge pairs carrot juice with white rum, white port and egg white. And down in Nashville, Pinewood Social infuses white rum with carrot for their General Woundwort.

cocktail zeitgeist ingredients

The Full Chocolate Spectrum

“[Chocolate’s] role in cocktails has been fairly limited to dessert cocktails or Choco-tinis until relatively recently,” explains Joaquín Símo of Pouring Ribbons, “New infusion techniques like fat-washing,” he goes on, “have helped bring ingredients…that were once strictly relegated to the kitchen into the front of house.” This is particularly evident in Pouring Ribbons’ My Dear Unfortunate Successor, which features chocolate-milk washed mezcal—a technique that, Símo says, enhances mezcal’s chocolate undertones—alongside green Chartreuse and absinthe.

While mole bitters and crème de cacao continue to feature prominently on cocktail menus with a growing number of new bottlings, a less traditional source of chocolate flavor is also on the rise. At Billy Sunday, carob—a common cocoa substitute—features in several cocktails, most notably in their New Orleans Milk Punch. “It creates a sense of depth,” says Zaremba, “there’s this great dusty, earthy quality to it that just makes it interesting and… not as sweet as chocolate.”

New “Dairy” and Dairy Techniques

“Using dairy changes mouthfeel,” says Trick Dog’s Morgan Schick, who credits his interest in employing dairy directly to his culinary background. “If all you have is sweet and acid you are very limited from a palate sense.” Of late, bartenders have experimented with everything from yogurt to nut milk—a step that often requires additional attention to technique. To integrate the yogurt into his Sakura Maru cocktail without it curdling, for example, Robitschek adds a heavy, stabilizing tea syrup that allows the yogurt to fully incorporate into the complex pisco and genever-based cocktail.

In a simpler approach, some bartenders are substituting dairy-like products, such as corn, rice (horchata has become a common sight) and soy milks to avoid the complicated technique altogether, while yielding a similar texture. The Optimist at Trick Dog, for example, adds soy milk to a blend of vodka, coffee, earl grey tea syrup and lemon. While the NoMad and Pouring Ribbons have both incorporated corn milk—which is generally made by pureeing raw corn with water, and then straining out the solids—into cocktails on recent menus.

Beer Syrups

Proximity to the kitchen has enabled bartenders to adapt flavor-extracting techniques for more creative applications of beer, for drinks that go beyond the shandy and the radler.

A sour-triple threat, the Ronnie Buders at Trick Dog includes a sour beer gastrique alongside sour mash and a sourdough tincture, while Daniel Shoemaker, owner of Teardrop Lounge in Portland, creates a fig-porter reduction to achieve a darker, richer flavor that complements the dried fruit notes of cachaça in their Witching Hour cocktail. “It offers a multi-dimensional accent unlike anything else,” he says of the beer-reduction, which has since become a recurring feature in his repertoire when conceiving new menu items. In a playful high-low juxtaposition, the team at Montana’s Trail House has deployed similar techniques in the development of their Budweiser syrup—a fixture in the sherry-based Buddy System.

Eaux de Vie

“People, in years past, didn’t really drink eaux de vie in cocktail bars,” explains Robitschek, “it was sort of a waste of backbar space.” Within a restaurant, however, eaux de vie are a common after-dinner drinks, allowing restaurant bars access to the versatile, and often cost-prohibitive ingredient. The growing availability of craft producers—like Austria’s Reisetbauer and Portland’s Clear Creek Distillery—in recent years has encouraged the wide use of fruit and vegetable spirits in both classic and contemporary cocktails. “Either you can make a Daiquiri with rum, lime and sugar,” says Robitschek, “or you can make a Daiquiri that’s enhanced… with maybe a little pear eau de vie.”

At New York’s Death & Co., carrot eau de vie complements a base of amontillado sherry and adds a layer of freshness to the ginger and honey syrups in Strange Encounters, one of several drinks on the current menu that incorporates everything from sapin to Japanese whiskey to eau de vie.

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