There’s always something to pick up at food-service industry conferences, if you just look around. Last week, at a culinary-focused event in Southern California, populated with corporate chefs, R&D culinarians, food and beverage chain managers and independent operators, as well as a host of food-industry suppliers, the most striking fact to me was the group’s combined thirst for cocktails.
Folks inside the cocktail world might be forgiven a little for their blasé attitude when outsiders get excited by new drinks and even the concept of cocktail drinking. But when the evening reception crowd at a conference predominantly food-focused gets deep and stays that way around the cocktail bars while the wine and beer pourers are struggling to stay awake, it’s a reminder that something’s up and that the market for tasty, creative and refreshing beverages has only started to open up. The food and beverage manufacturers who sponsor such events are keenly aware of changing American drinking trends, and many former spirits pros have moved over to these giant producers to help them find a way into or to expand their presence in the drinks market.
Why is that important to any bartender reading this? Because it’s yet another career path once unavailable to folks who labor behind the bar. For those who are beginning to realize that only so many consultants can make a living creating bar menus, launching beverage programs, organizing and staffing spirit launch parties and catering events, it’s a heads up to get outside the tight-knit circle of colleagues more often to see what’s happening in the rest of the vast food service and hospitality industry in this country. I don’t necessarily mean that there's a lot more work for advisors on programs that help, say, strawberry growers get more Americans to make freckled drinks, though that IS another way to be a bartender and not pull four shifts a week. You only need to look around at the array of so-called “skinny” pre-packaged drinks now available to understand that there is a new market for all sorts of beverages every day. Yeah, I know, “booooo” on prepackaged anything; that’s just what a fine-dining chef might say about frozen meals until the night he returns home after a long day to find only a commercially made burrito in the otherwise empty freezer.
Different occasions demand different solutions, which might have inspired Chef Wolfgang Puck when he shocked the culinary world in the 1990s and put his celebrated California-style pizzas in boxes meant for the deep-freeze. A friend of mine with infant twins likes her drinks light, citric and vodka-ish, and she recently raved about a brand of low-cal Margaritas she tried one night. Working mothers with twins barely have time to eat and, of all adults on earth, probably need and deserve their drinks to be served expeditiously when the appointed hour rolls around.
If the next line of thin cocktails or other mass-market-minded beverage alcohol product gets input from a bartender with craft or culinary cocktail experience, chances are the selection available at liquor stores will be just a little bit better tasting than it is now. You can be sure the food suppliers at this culinary conference were wondering about how to get into the skinny niche as well as share with their mass-market customers more Asian flavors, street-food trends and micro greens. Was I the only person in the crowd thinking about how well a yuzu-spiked cocktail might have paired with shiso leaf wrap served one evening? Maybe, but the enthusiasm that greeted cocktails prepared last week by Cathy Casey, David Commer, Phil Raimondo and other familiar names suggests plenty of light bulbs were lit in Southern California last week. "Culinary" has come to mean kitchen-driven when it comes to cocktails, but there are other ways to think about how to connect the drink revolution with what full-time culinarians do every day, which is bringing guests great flavors in formats and styles they understand. That's something every bartender needs to keep in mind.