Two reports out in the past few weeks were interesting to read and worthy of review.
First, the National Restaurant Association for the first time added bartenders to their annual survey of chefs, and find out what trends nearly 200 members of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) thought would get bigger in 2013.
A few of the most popular predictions – culinary cocktails and regional signature cocktails - bode well for fans of drink creativity. Others – beer-based cocktails, locally produced beer and an increased number of cicerones (beer sommeliers, essentially) – encourage me that bartenders are realizing that the American craft beer explosion deserves serious attention even if you don’t work in a brew-focused house.
But the top two predictions - onsite barrel-aged drinks and pairings between food and cocktails or spirits – don’t thrill me. I’ve shared before that I think aging cocktails in bottles can yield some interesting if ultimately insignificant results (I’ve yet to sample one substantially superior to what a good bartender can make a la minute). Barreling drinks, however, is an experiment that threatens to undo a lot of the good the contemporary cocktail renaissance has created.
Put aside for the moment whether barside drink barrelers know enough about what makes one collection of small oak staves better for maturing a drink than another – although given that the major whiskey companies of the world spend as much money on their barrels as they do on their spirit tells you something about how important they think it is to establish exacting standards to judge the suitability of their oak. But, as I say, put that aside, if you like.
For me, the major factor is unpredictability. I’m suspicious of the skills of wheel-reinventers, and prefer to leave the introduction of tannin and vanillin to the professionals in the wine and spirit business, those who actually have a good idea of what will happen while the liquid rests. While in oak barrels, two major factors affect wine and spirit: contact with oxygen, and the emergence from the wood of a variety of aromas and flavors - vanilla, caramel, coconut, clove, etc. But how these emerge is barely predictable, and many barrels of wine and spirit are annually put aside as having changed too much to be useful in blending. Oh, and there’s the little thing of blending; for the most part, bottles of wine and spirits are mergers of many different barrels, giving the blender a chance to create from an array of flavor profiles. Not the drink barreler; open the tap and serve, and let the chips fall where they may, seems to be the concept. I pass.
As for spirit or cocktail and food pairings, whenever I attend one of those multiple drink dinners, I regret it, wanting nothing more than a tall, hoppy pilsner or a silky Chianti to cut through the sludge of citrus and vermouth and strong spirit that’s been sloshing around with the fats and sugars and spices and the rest of the texture/flavor amalgam left behind by the meal. Bloody Marys and brunch, yes. Brandy milk punch with eggs sardou, lovely idea. Aquavit and smoked salmon, of course, Margaritas and coctele de camarones, make mine doubles. But beyond the sip of watered down Scotch with smoked meat or a well-melted rocks glass of bourbon with corn pudding and rib tips - in other words the obvious, unforced, terroir-driven food and drink ideas – most “paired” glasses of strong drink are anything but. Less, not more, please.
Full list below of the NRA survey below:
1. Onsite barrel-aged drinks
2. Food-liquor/cocktail pairings
3. Culinary cocktails (e.g. savory, fresh ingredients)
4. Micro-distilled/artisan liquor
5. Locally produced spirits
6. Locally sourced fruit/berries/produce
7. Beer sommeliers/Cicerones
8. Regional signature cocktails
9. Beer-based cocktails
10. Locally produced beer
Meanwhile, the research firm Technomic released their 2012 BarTAB (Trends in Adult Beverage), finding sales at the bar are growing in dollars and volume despite the rocky economic environment. Sales of spirits, wine and beer in restaurants, bars and other licensed on-premise locations increased 4.9 percent to reach $93.7 billion in 2011 and projections call for continued growth in 2012.
"The on-premise dollar growth is driven by a combination of price increases and consumers once again calling for premium and above-premium brands at the bar," said Donna Hood Crecca, Senior Director at Technomic. "Cost remains a factor for some, but as they come back to restaurants and bars post-recession, consumers are satisfying their pent-up demand for favorite drinks and exploring new adult beverages.”
Most notable findings: About one-third of consumers say that a restaurant or bar’s adult beverage offerings influence their decision to visit a particular concept; spirits generate one-third of total on-premise dollars; and more than three-quarters of consumers order food with their adult beverage.
Along with bartenders in the NRA report suggesting that more customers are opting to eat at the bar, there’s a message buried in the BarTAB report for craft cocktail bars – make sure your food is up to snuff. Just as brew pubs learned at the turn of the century that without good food, customers leave to spend the bulk of their money elsewhere, cocktail spots risk falling behind trend without the advantage of a solid if not spectacular food program. Keeping your customer well fed and watered always pays dividends, and as likely, profits.