One of the primary roles of the bar is to be a place of refuge—a retreat and respite from the stress and strife that lay just beyond the saloon’s swinging doors. As the daily news continues to trouble souls and hearts, bartenders have stepped into the breach again. Patrons are escaping into the Polynesian fantasy of tiki bars, tropical and Cuban-themed bars; they’re wrapping themselves in the tireless holiday cheer of Christmas pop-ups; they’re sinking into the formal and calming ways of Japanese-style drinking; and they’re asking cannabis and alcohol to team up to provide a more complete liquid release from reality.
Welcome to 2019, where the entrance to the bar is also the exit from the world. Here are a few predictions about what the coming year might hold.
Two Highs in One
Think your cocktail is a sufficient stimulant? The CBD business might disagree. This year, CBD (short for cannabidiol, a non-psychotropic compound in the cannabis plant) suddenly went from obscure to everywhere. People were—or were aiming to—put it in food, candy, coffee, seltzer and, of course, cocktails. The compound received a stamp of legitimacy in cocktail circles when Eben Freeman, a celebrated mixologist, joined forces with Ron Silver of Bubby’s restaurant fame to turn out a syrup made from hemp and sold under the product name Azuca. (Freeman has since struck out on his own to develop a CBD syrup.) As larger beverage companies continue invest heavily in cannabis, we’re bound to see more of this in the future, even if there’s still a lot of debate about CBD’s ultimate value and healing properties.
High on Low-ABV; Yes to No-ABV
The low-ABV and no-ABV cocktail trends of the past couple years show no sign of abating. Rather, bars and brands are doubling down on it. Fancy watering holes, like Existing Conditions in New York and Kumiko in Chicago, are showing a new conscientiousness toward the virgin sections on their menus, endeavoring to make those drinks as tasty and complex as their boozy brethren. Meanwhile, Seedlip, the British non-alcoholic distillate that launched in 2015, has since signed a deal to serve its drinks on board all Virgin Atlantic flights, and recently announced a new line of non-alcoholic aperitifs, called Æcorn Aperitifs, meant to be drunk with food. To sell these ideas, Seedlip recruited top-tier brand ambassador Claire Smith-Warner, who previously peddled Belvedere vodka.
Brandy Finally Gets Its Moment
The spirits and cocktail worlds have been promising brandy its moment in the glass for years now, but most drinkers would still rather go for almost any other brown spirit. That may finally be changing, with thanks to American brandy. Heaven Hill revamped its Christian Brothers line a few years back, putting out the well-regarded Sacred Bond. Domestic brandy giant Gallo followed suit in seriousness, launching a premium line of American brandy called Argonaut, while also buying Germain-Robin, the vaunted California brandy distillery. Chip Tate, formerly the distiller at Texas whiskey-maker Balcones, is now in the brandy business. And Joe Heron, the man behind Louisville’s Copper & Kings, continues to gain traction with his line of various brandies. The newest kids on the block are noted bartender Jeff Bell (PDT) and sommelier Thomas Pastuszak (The NoMad), who launched their stab at a premium American brandy, Bertoux, this fall. Expect others to follow suit.
Holiday Pop-Up Bar Mania
Cocktail Kingdom, the company behind all the Miracle and Sippin’ Santa bars, franchised a total of 95 holiday pop-ups this year. And that’s to say nothing of the many more saloons that copied its example, from Leyenda’s Sleyenda in Brooklyn to Lost Lake’s Jingle Bell Square in Chicago. These holiday mirages aren’t proliferating because of some sense of good will toward men. They are virtually guaranteed money-makers in an industry where profits are often razor thin. So, expect to see even more manufactured cheer in 2019. And don’t be surprised if the trend branches out. If Christmas gets an entire month and more, why should Halloween last just one day?
Escapist Drinking Cont.
Last year saw plenty of new bars that emphasized an escape from daily reality. There was Bon Voyage! from the Trick Dog folks in San Francisco; Palomar, a Cuban-themed bar in Portland, Oregon; Manolito, another Cuban-style bar, in New Orleans; The Flamingo, a Miami-inspired bar and Pearl Diver, an “island lounge,” both in Nashville; as well as various new tiki bars like The Polynesian in New York, Shore Leave in Boston and The Inferno Room in Indianapolis. With national and world politics sure to remain anxiety-inducing, don’t expect this trend to diminish.
Japanese distillers, not content with having conquered the world whisky market with their sought-after bottlings, ventured into the vodka and gin business this year. Both Suntory, and its main rival, Nikka, released one of each spirit into the market. This comes at a moment when the number of new Japanese-style cocktail bars is growing in tandem with the public fascination with the simple Japanese whisky highball. Now that East has met West and they’re getting along so favorably, don’t expect them to part company soon.