Tales of the Cocktail 2016 concluded on Sunday in New Orleans, with over 10,000 in attendance and more than 200 seminars and events. This 14th annual gathering in the Big Easy brought together bar and restaurant owners, bartenders, distillers and beverage pros from as far afield as Australia and Iceland, Japan and Vancouver, Germany and Venezuela—as well as most of the 50 states—to taste, mix, learn and share ideas over five spirited days. Here’s an inside look at some top cocktail trends and takeaways from the conference.
1. Beer cocktails are the new Moscow mules
Beer cocktails are the hottest trend, agreed the panelists at "The Perfectly Poured Beer Cocktail" session, and everyone should have at least one on the menu. Beer cocktails are a smart way to transition beer drinkers into cocktail drinkers, using beer as all or part of the base spirit instead of bourbon in cocktails such as a julep, an old fashioned or, yes, a Moscow mule. For the latter, one panelist presented this recipe: 2 ounces bourbon, 3/4 ounces lime juice, a half ounce ginger syrup, four dashes Angostura bitters and 2 ounces IPA-style beer.
2. Hold the eggs, add the chickpeas
Cocktails including the pisco sour and ramoz gin fizz traditionally are shaken with an egg white to make them foamy, but strict vegans won’t drink them. And customers afraid of salmonella often stay away from these drinks. At NOLA’s Square Root restaurant, chef-owner Phillip Lopez and bartender Ian Clarke present a twist on a pisco sour made with aquafaba, or chickpea water. When shaken together with bourbon, lemon, honey and bitters, it froths up the cocktail just like egg white.
3. Historical favorites get an overhaul
The flavor of certain essential cocktail ingredients has changed over the years, said the panelists during a seminar on classic cocktails. Mixologists who want to recreate staples such as the Tom Collins and the Martinez (precursor to the martini) should take this into consideration and revise for modern tastes. Liqueur flavors are not as intense, limes have a different acid content and the cocktail formulas may be too sweet, they pointed out. Their advice: “Don’t copy historical recipes exactly; taste and adjust.”
4. Robots rock the bar
In a seminar titled “The Cocktail Crystal Ball: Drinking in 2116,” the panelists talked about the future of distilling, cocktails, staffing and the physical bar. Some of that future already is here, according to Jennifer Colliau, opening bar manager of The Interval, located at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. It’s surprising enough that a bar is the meeting place and idea generator for a nonprofit foundation, but The Interval also sports two robots—one behind the bar measuring shots and another writing chalkboard specials. As the minimum wage goes up and labor gets more expensive, Colliau sees more robots taking their place behind the bar.
5. Unorthodox ingredients see a rise
Vodka distilled from milk (actually, the whey) and gin made from Louisiana rice were some of the more unusual spirits on show, but New Orleans’ bars also were into some unique cocktail ingredients—and taste trumped novelty. At Café Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar, a brunch gin fizz incorporated Greek yogurt and yogurt-cucumber juice for a foamy, complex cocktail. At Touché Bar at the Omni Royal Orleans, the bartender mixes the jus from cooked prime rib into her bloody mary and garnishes it with olives stuffed with roast beef.
6. Cocktail pop-ups pop up
Just as chefs launch restaurant pop-ups to try out menu items and concepts, aspiring cocktail bar owners consider the same, especially in those smaller cities where cocktail culture is young. Oron Lerner, who operates several cocktail bars in Tel Aviv, Israel, first got the ball rolling with a pop-up. “The cocktail pop-up helped me figure out how to handle high-traffic times, refine my recipes and set the menu,” he told attendees. Every pop-up drink was priced at $7, although Lerner now sells cocktails for $12 to $14 at his brick-and-mortar bars that offer “a more experiential evening,” he said.
7. Classics remain a mainstay
As the craft cocktail movement matures, on-trend bars are opening in small cities with populations as low as 50,000. But the most successful begin with classic-heavy cocktail menus, said Shawn Soole, proprietor of Clive’s in Victoria, British Columbia. Once staff perfects the bar’s martini, old fashioned, bloody mary and margarita, for example, the bartenders can take a little leeway to riff on the classics, offer flights and play around with other ideas. And, warned Soole, don’t charge big-city prices—$8 or so is a good starting point in a smaller city. “Take a hit at first until you build a customer base,” he said.