It's been about a week since the curtain came down on another Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. The fog has cleared, and it’s time to ask Miami bartenders and spirits professionals the burning question: What have they learned?
Tales, as the cool kids call it, is the world’s premier cocktail festival. Bartenders, distillers, brand ambassadors, and spirits salespeople converge on the French Quarter each year for five days and nights of educational seminars, tastings, competitions, and revelry.
In addition to enjoying the camaraderie and learning about new products and techniques, keeping up on emerging trends is important to “staying relevant," as several bartenders said. Here are a few current trends as distilled (pun intended) from conversations with several Miami bartenders who attended Tales.
5. More Science and Better Ingredients
“Techniques like cryovacing, buttering, and shrubbing have been borrowed from the kitchen. There’s more science than ever,” says John Lermayer, co-owner of Sweet Liberty Drinks & Supply Company, winner of this year’s Spirited Award for Best New American Cocktail Bar.
In addition to seminars on herbs, ice, water, and smoke, there was a seminar on air, its effects, and how the bartender can learn to manipulate them. Carla Rivera, director of cocktail development for Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits, a Miami-based distributor, quips, “We’ve had seminars on fire, ice, and now air. What’s next, dirt?”
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But better science goes hand-in-hand with better spirits and more readily available ingredients. “When I started [at the Shore Club], I had to order agave by mail. Now my suppliers bring me a dozen varieties,” Lermayer says.
4. Rum Is Hot, Vodka Is Not
It seems the rest of the national cocktail community is learning what Miami bartenders already know: Rum is an immensely drinkable and versatile spirit, if not the best-regulated. There was actually a seminar called “When Is a Rum Not a Rum?”
“Mojitos and daiquiris are easy to make and easy to drink,” says Ezra Pattek, a bar consultant and bartender at the Anderson. “Rum may be hot, but vodka still pays the bills.”
3. Mezcal Is Cool
There was a time when mezcal required an explanation to the average cocktail consumer, but those days are over. Rivera recalls developing a two-minute mezcal seminar for customers when she was behind the bar at Hakkasan at the Fontainebleau.” People wanted to understand the difference between mezcal and tequila,” she says. “I’d explain that mezcal is really a trust fall from tequila to Scotch.” Now, as she helps build custom cocktail programs for bars and restaurants across Miami, her clients are requesting mezcal cocktails, which satisfy growing customer demand.
2. Dialing Down the Proof
Bartenders are using wine including sherries and sparklings such as champagne to create cocktails that won’t knock you flat. “Some people believe wine cocktails are healthier. They are more in line with the European style of aperitifs, which are designed to open the palate before a meal,” Pattek explains.
1. Back to Basics
Several bartenders discussed a movement toward simpler executions of classic cocktails and three-ingredient cocktails. Some patrons may wax nostalgic for simpler times, when a drink was a drink. “There is a question of how far can we go with exotic ingredients and techniques?” Julio Cabrera, a nominee for Bartender of the Year at this year’s Spirited Awards, points out. “I remind the young bartenders that I mentor to keep it simple and learn the correct way to make the classics.”
Finally, a caveat about cocktail trends from Lermayer, who says, “Trends are measured in years, not months. Bourbon has been popular for years, and that doesn’t look to end anytime soon. The bottom line is the distribution and production of spirits has never been better in the history of bartending, and we’ve never had more to work with.”