What Defines the Cocktail Zeitgeist?

We pored over dozens of drink lists to determine what’s 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 nearly 50 drink lists from top bars across the country and compiling a record of recurring trends, PUNCH has captured a bird’s-eye view of the national cocktail scene. While last year saw bartenders reaching for spirits and ingredients from farther afield—Japan, Scandinavia and beyond—this year, cocktails continue their slow cruise ship turn away from sweet, away from bitter, and toward savory, with a host of umami-packed ingredients including nori and miso. Here are five trends that stood out, and the drinks that best illustrate them.

Banana

Though hardly a new flavor in the history of cocktails—banana liqueur has existed since the late 19th century—banana has been making its way into a growing number of recipes in every form imaginable: fermented, roasted, macerated.

“It allows us to produce something savory, but also super interesting,” says Nathan McCarley-O’Neill of The NoMad, where a banana-infused oloroso sherry appears across several drinks on the menu, offering subtle undertones rather than overwhelming richness to drinks like the Banana Stand and the Powder Keg. In New Orleans, Kirk Estopinal of Cane & Table deploys a macerated banana liqueur in his Banana Spider to amplify what is essentially a Pisco Sour riff. In the Donkey Kong, at Broken Shaker New York, the softer flavor of fermented banana ties together rum, rye, crème de cacao and other tropical-leaning flavors like coconut, pineapple, as well as mole.

Re-Used Espresso Grinds

As sustainability becomes a driving force of bar programs across the country, bartenders have employed creative techniques to give old ingredients a second life. At Hunky Dory in Brooklyn, for example, Claire Sprouse makes “old brew coffee” by infusing spent grounds into water for the rum- and amaro-based Stop and Stay. Broken Shaker L.A.’s Christine Wiseman, meanwhile, employs spent espresso in a cordial inspired by Trash Tiki’s Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths. “I’m always looking for ways to reuse ingredients that we use throughout the hotel,” says Wiseman. “It helps with your liquor cost on that cocktail, and it’s a win for the environment.” But beyond the anti-waste sentiment, she prefers second-use espresso in her Pebble Rebel, for its lighter, less intense coffee flavor compared to traditional grounds, which pairs with Fruity Pebbles–infused vodka, cold-brew liqueur and sunflower seed milk.

Not-Spicy Peppers

As essential components in spicy Margaritas or bold Bloody Marys, hot peppers, from ancho to jalapeño, have long been part and parcel of the bartender tool kit. But recently, milder peppers have stolen the spotlight to lend a different dimension to drinks.

At Donna in Brooklyn, poblano pepper offsets earthy rum, bittersweet Italian amaro, and Scandinavian fernet in the rich, herbaceous La P­­­laya Cubana. The Crocodile Rock at Death & Co., on the other hand, employs yellow bell pepper to round out the savory, vegetal notes of the rum-like Haitian clairin. Shannon Tebay, head bartender of New York’s Death & Co., notes that the saffron-based aperitif Strega further “seasons” the sweeter bell pepper with its herbal notes.

Lychee

No longer relegated to the ’tini craze of the ’90s, lychee is having a moment. “The addition of lychee brings delicate, floral high notes that tease out other floral aromatics,” says Tebay, who uses lychee liqueur in the Queen Snake, a stirred mixture of grape eau de vie and herbaceous Douglas fir eau de vie. Similarly, at Dante, Naren Young’s Rose Petal mirrors a Lychee Martini, drawing out the fruit’s floral qualities with aromatic rosewater.

Umami

As flavors like shiso and umeshu have become commonplace menu items, the proliferation of Japanese ingredients only continues to expand well beyond Japanese-style bars. In the latest iteration of this movement, umami-packed foods—miso, nori, tomato dashi—have seen a surge, reflecting a larger movement toward savory cocktails.

At Raised by Wolves in San Diego, Erick Castro calls for a dash of barrel-aged soy sauce in the Cat’s Paw to further enrich the intense nuttiness of its sesame oil–washed whiskey. Similarly, at New York’s Mister Paradise, the Dr. Angel Face calls for tomato dashi to complement an earthy barley shochu. In his vodka-based Coqtail #4, meanwhile, McCarley-O’Neill incorporates a nori-infused vermouth. “We wanted to bring in an element of salinity that was different to just plain old salt,” he explains, though it likewise enhances the fruit flavors—apple, apricot, yuzu—employed elsewhere in the drink.

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