All hail the cocktail. The hero of the happy hour (and often the enabler of the hangover). The platform for magicians and experience. The host of theatrics, pushing boundaries, experiments and conversations and storytelling. If you look back through history, cocktails are engrained in every part of the drinking culture. But have we lost focus on its true identity? Are we trying TOO hard to be too experiential, too creative or too ‘out there’?
Let’s go back and strip it down a bit. What are cocktails? Well, quite simply, they are spirits, water, sugar and bitters. And the greatest ingredient: history. Originally thought as being an American innovation, they were heavily influenced by British punches (well done us) – classically a big bowl of spirits mixed with fruit juices, spices and other spices, consumed in the 18th century punch houses. The actual word ‘cocktail’ didn’t even make an appearance until published in a British newspaper (here we are taking the credit once more) in March 1798.
But it was actually 1806 that saw the word earn its first definition when The Balance and Columbian Repository of Hudson, New York, described it as “a stimulating liquor composed of any kind of sugar, water and bitters, vulgarly called a bittered sling”(a sling pre-dates the cocktail where it is essentially a replica minus the bitters).
But how did it all become so popular? Well there is one man to thank for this and he went by the name of Jerry Thomas (aka ‘Professor’ Thomas); a Connecticut-born prolific bartender who worked all over the word evolving the art of bartending. His book The Bartender’s Guide (or How to Mix Drinks), was basically a holy encyclopaedia of mixed drinks that ultimately became a standard-bearer for all bartenders.
It wasn’t just Thomas and his peers who were endlessly working on the art of a cocktail. Travel and education aided the constant evolvement of the cocktail culture, but perhaps the most pinnacle moment was the introduction of a vital ingredient: ice. Yes, imagine that. Pitching up to bar and ordering a Mojito served at room temperature (this was pre-bar fridges remember). Thankfully Frederic Tudor (otherwise known as “Ice King”) managed to succeed in creating the fastest ice delivery system in the world. As a result, the possibilities for cocktails and the worldwide cocktail consumption rates exploded.
But before we jump ahead too much, there was a slight damper call Prohibition. Not only aiding organised crime, alcohol consumption rates and quality took a drastic decline, where many bartenders sought work in new continents. The World Wars (as well as increased tourism) were often deemed as a glimmer of hope for the cocktail culture, where the Polynesian culture introduced us to the kitsch and barrels of rum; otherwise known as the Tiki culture. Here we saw the birth of Trader Vics – a self-name competing Tiki spot in San Fran in the 1930s.
We have Tiki to thank for everything really. It opened gateways for so many different cocktail cultures and it was the 1950s where we saw everything from Manhattans, Madmen upswing and Martini lunches. The 60s and 70s took us right into drug territory whereas the early 90s saw the revival of the classic cocktail, all led by New York’s famous Rainbow Room – where strict quality standards and historical values became a priority. It turned cocktails into a craft all precedented by Dale Degroff. This was when we saw sour mixes, bottled cocktails (the first one called The Pink Squirrel) and shooters like The Training Bra. The mixology renaissance quickly followed.. but has it ever ended?
A shot and soda squirt doth not a cocktail make. It has to have history. It has to create a memory. It has to have substance; it has to be made by someone to represent something.
The trends in the last five years have been nothing short of extraordinary. Liquid fire (which face it will never go out of fashion); nitrogen; rice paper garnish; branded lemons and cocktail bars hidden behind fridges. If you look at a timeline of the last few years, every limit has been pushed to be better, quirkier and more weirdly wonderful than ever before.
2015– The Rise of Latin Spirits
The Beginning of the Gin Boom, Fever-Tree, Spicy Cocktails, The Pineapple Muse
2016– The year of the classic comebacks and flavour
The clear front-runner being the Mojito (32% 18-35 year olds labelling it as their ultimate favourite)
Home cocktails, premium spirits, health consciousness
2017– Sustainability and Provenance
Escapism was the name of the game in 2017, as the drinks world brought us colourful unicorn drinks, Tiki galore and pop culture themes at bars. Everything was about Instagram-worthy drinks and secret bars.
2018– the true establishment of draught, Fermented Flavours and Fat-Washed Spirits
The international recognition of the takedown of the plastic straw
The demand for fast, consistent serves
The year of the sugar-free
The predicted top trends:
1. The grand elevation of Mocktail – keep an eye out for Seedlip (totally taking over the market) and their AEcorn aperitifs
2. Sustainability – the reduction of bar waste – more edible garnishes, adding bee-hives on site, room temperature cocktails and the use of fewer ingredients
3. Expect the Unexpected – blessed thistle, chorizo, anchovy (um…) and endive (I had to google it too) – look out for vegetable cocktails and unsual food and cocktail pairings – Latin cuisine and scotch, champagne and fried chicken.
4. Fungi-infusions – packed full of nutrients, a mushroom is the latest flavour to hit the menu: mushroom and thyme-infused vodka or mushroom team with sparkling wine anyone? Names include ‘Everyday I’m Trufflin’
5. Food inspo – flavour profiles involving savoury elements – beets, bacon and gravy. The line between food and drink is now almost transparent and as everyone grows more health conscious, sugar is being batted away.
Flavours of 2019?
Bartenders are renowned for ‘borrowing’ healthy flavours and putting artistic and creative twists on them for a cocktail interpretation. Keep an eye out for:
Turmeric – we have already seen this in lattes and smoothies
Rose – labelled unfamiliar and exotic
Drink of 2019?
The Aperol Frosé – a combination of frozen rosé and Aperol spritz – will come out on top in 2019 since it blends two highly popular drinks into one.
But this not the end. The cocktail culture has morphed into more of a cult. At London Cocktail Week last year, bars pushed every boundary (and budget) into looking the best, being the best and tasting the best. There has been so much importance slammed into beating your competitors that often, sometimes too often, the importance of the product is lost along the way.
As a cocktail lover, consumer, curator and creator I hope we find a middle ground. We must place importance on what matters and, for me, that is consistency, accuracy, professionalism and a little hint of magic. Because, let’s face it, without it, we would all be a little lost.