Make this a Summer of Change for your Cocktail Menu

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It got summertime hot rather unexpectedly in the East last week, and most bars are still rolling out their springtime menus. It’s a common issue in the East and Midwest: what we think of as spring weather can last only a couple of weeks, bracketed by rainy, windy April and sultry, hot late May.

But wherever you sell drinks, summer means long, tall, refreshing, crisp, thirst-quenching, lower alcohol, sessionable beverages worth ordering a second time. Specifically, what’s trending within each beverage category changes over time, even if the style remains the same. Now’s the time to take those changes on.

For beer, that now means not only wheat/wit beers, with their frothy tang, but now the fruit-zipped radlers and the lighter, crisper ciders. There are even tea-spiced radlers entering the market, and many craft brewers are looking to expand into the seasonal style. Beer cocktails have faded a bit but many summer menus still employ beer, along with sparkling water and wine, as toppers for long drinks, and some styles, like Kölsch or even pilsners, fit this model well.

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For wine, it’s long been sangria, and the contemporary twists – white and sparkling sangrias, mainly – have become patio- and brunch-service mainstays. With the growth of rosé wines becoming more a trend than a fad, they are perfectly poised (especially rosé Cavas) to be a compelling attraction this summer alone or in rosé sangrias. So, too, more sparkling wines by the glass and carafe, and as mentioned above, as toppers for long drinks meant to be quaffed.

Spirits and cocktails get seasonable adjustments, too, as strong and stirred yield to long and tall, but also the spirits featured change a bit. Gin sales soar, as does white rum usage, although the rum business these days could take a trick from the gin world, where volume is mostly flat but the higher end and newer brands are making inroads among younger legal drinking age consumers. American whiskey’s growth has become such that it’s now a year-round spirit, although hotter weather means fewer Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans and more Juleps and highballs.

Housemade or custom-made tonics make the Gin and Tonic experience something special, as does the Spanish style of service: large goblets of ice, spiked with a selection of garnishes and the gin and tonic selected for their impact on one another. Piscos, tequilas, mezcals and other light spirits shine in lighter, taller, fruit-juiced drinks. This year, expect to see more vermouth- and sherry-focused concoctions, alone or with other low-impact ingredients, as more bartenders look to create drink menus that allow many different levels of potency to be featured.

The one area even the most creative bars fall down on the job in is non-alcohol options. Summer is the best time to make a stab at adult flavor profile versions, like housemade or commercially provided sodas with lower sweetness and more tartness and bitterness. Smart twists on the Arnie Palmer, or drinks made with mint, cucumber juice or other herbs and vegetables, fit neatly into the “drinking healthy” trend, and potential waste is easily managed by crafting cocktails with alcohol that uses the ingredients as well.

Just a few suggestions, mind you. Some operators are perfectly happy to do the same old, same old, year in, year out, and good for them if they can stay relevant that way. For the rest, look to a summer of change.

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