Top 10 cocktail trends

Alex Farnum From craft ice to local spirits, Rickhouse in San Francisco is elevating the cocktail to new heights
Our expert guide to keeping up with cocktails in the West

Cocktail? Remember when that was a simple question? (Correct answer: “Yes. Gin and tonic, please.”)

Over the past decade, the simple cocktail has morphed into a product of almost rococo complexity. Some cocktail menus practically require translation. (Bonal Gentiane-Quina? Xocolatl Mole Chocolate Bitters?) And the selection of obscure spirits, small-batch bitters, and arcane mixers gets mind-bogglier by the moment.

Good news or bad? No matter how you view it, the cocktail landscape has been permanently altered. It’s a world of new spirits (many local and small-batch), of ever wilder ingredients, of dusky new bars staffed by young faces making drinks with a disarming earnestness. In an era of fast food and snappy service, craft cocktail bars are places where drinks take time and the end result is about quality.

Navigating this brave new world of cocktails is easiest with a highball glass’s worth of knowledge. (Gin and tonic, you say? Would you like that with Fentimans old-fashioned tonic and Rogue Spruce Gin from Oregon?) Here’s how to drink your way through our increasingly complex but always lively cocktail landscape.

1 | STARTENDERS

Tending bar is no longer a way station between acting jobs. These days, it’s an honorable career. The new generation of bartenders is committed for the long haul, having built followings that move when they move. They know how spirits are made, how they mix with other ingredients, and they’re creating a new cocktail ecosystem.

Where to find them:

  • Los Angeles. Zahra Bates is a rising star in the world of culinary cocktails, creating celebrated drinks at two-Michelin-star restaurant Providence. The Pina y Pina, made with a pineapple reduction and a hint of smoky mezcal, is impossible to forget.
  • Denver. Ryan Conklin is both an inventive bartender and cicerone (beer expert) at Euclid Hall. He combines his interests when mixing spirits with beer in concoctions like his Beer Fashioned, a favorite among regulars.
  • Portland. Junior Ryan of Clyde Common is a master of elegance and simplicity, making perfectly balanced, straightforward drinks, like his impeccable old-fashioned.

2 | CULINARY COCKTAILIA

Kitchen and bar once maintained separate kingdoms, eyeing each other warily. No longer. Bartenders today raid the larder for veggies, herbs, even meat (in the form of bacon-infused bourbon) for added depth and intrigue.

Where to find it:

  • Las Vegas. The Peppered Leguas at Sage in the Aria Resort is made with roasted poblano, kiwi-infused blanco tequila, and just enough lime juice and agave nectar.
  • L.A. Chartreuse-soaked tomatoes for the Seriously Dangerous are roasted barside on a tiny brazier at Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s Library Bar.
  • Seattle. Canon creates arty duskiness with their brandy old-fashioned, made with cognac infused with black truffle.
  • Boise. Roasted beets are the star of the vodka-based Coquette, a seasonal drink at the superb Modern Hotel and Bar.

3 | HAUTE ICE

Cracked, cubed, crushed, hand-chipped, flaming, spherical—ice is to drink what a stove is to cooking now. Better cubes determine the rate of dilution and should complement the particular drink you’re having.

Where to find it:

  • San Francisco. At Elixir, the $25 Jimmy Mac cocktail (built around an 18-year Macallan scotch) is accompanied by Gläce Luxury ice, a single ice sphere—for slower melting—crafted from bubble-free, double-distilled water.
  • Portland. Laurelhurst Market’s Smoke Signals cocktail (Tennessee whiskey, lemon juice, sherry, pecan syrup) is served with a large shard of smoked ice—made by melting ice in a smoker, then refreezing. This yields a coarse and layered smokiness that plays well with the whiskey.
  • Boulder. The Out with the Flame cocktail, made with flaming ice, was created to celebrate Oak at Fourteenth’s reopening after a 2011 fire. A handcrafted ice sphere is first “tempered” with green Chartreuse, then set aflame. Yes, it’s for show, but what a show! After being doused with aged rum, Chartreuse, Bénédictine, and bitters, it’s ready for sipping.
  • Seattle. Custom chipping ice from a huge block isn’t uncommon at craft cocktail bars nationwide, but Rob Roy takes their ice uncommonly seriously, with hand-chipped ice to fit your glass and whatever it is you’re drinking.

4 | NEO TIKI

Hipsters started a tiki revival, mining the past for camp and kitsch, but it’s spread to cocktail purists who’ve elevated these historic drinks, now made with artisanal rums and hand-crafted syrups.

Where to find it:

  • San Francisco. There are more than 300 rums at Smuggler’s Cove, as well as a rum club for serious fans.
  • Denver. At the city’s newest tiki incarnation, Adrift updates classics with as many as nine ingredients. Plus, there are luaus on the back patio.
  • Portland. Keep an eye out for the fall 2012 opening of Hale Pele, a new bar from serious tiki geek Blair Reynolds.

5 | TERROIRISM

Terroir isn’t just for wine nowadays. Particularly in the Northwest, distillers are foraging in fields and forests to impart flavors from the land to their spirits. Think thimbleberries, lavender, spruce, and pear.

Where to find it:

  • Near Roche Harbor, WA. San Juan Island Distillery makes a glorious Spy Hop Harvest Select Gin. It’s distilled from Washington apples and flavored with botanicals like nettles, lavender, and thimbleberries foraged on the island.
  • Newport, OR. Rogue Spirits makes Rogue Spruce Gin, flavored with the Northwest’s native spruce.
  • Kelowna & Vernon, B.C. Okanagan Spirits makes a delightful Poire Williams eau de vie from two dozen perfectly ripe local Bartlett pears per bottle.

6 | APOTHECARYISM

Cocktails have roots in the early-19th-century patent-medicine era, and today’s top bartenders love to borrow old methods and ingredients to create new flavors. Look for housemade tinctures (single infusions of herbs, barks, and the like), bitters (blends of infused ingredients), and syrups (sugar, water, and flavorings) that produce modern cocktails brimming with two centuries of tradition.

Where to find it:

  • Vancouver, B.C. Startender Danielle Tatarin is the sly wizard behind the Chinese apothecary–themed Keefer Bar in Chinatown. Herbs, barks, and fungi from local markets are infused into syrups and tinctures, making these cocktails good for what ails you.

7 | MEZCAL

Meet tequila’s lesser-known but more engaging cousin. Both are distilled from agave and made in Mexico, but mezcal has a rougher, smokier character—more Marlon Brando than Hugh Grant.

Where to find it:

  • L.A. Las Perlas is like a wormhole with direct access to southern Mexico. Sample dozens of hard-to-find mezcals and tequilas (up to $48 per shot, but most much less), or get more creative with a cocktail like the Disco Mariachi, which melds Chartreuse, pine­apple juice, and orgeat with mezcal.

8 | DIGESTIVISSIMO

Amari (Italian for “bitters”) were designed to stimulate digestion following a meal. Italian Aperol and Fernet-Branca have muscled onto the scene, and now we’re seeing domestic amari lending a New World touch of bitter—off­set with a touch of sweet—and making cocktails more intriguing.

Where to find it:

  • Denver. Leopold Brothers’ unmistakable Fernet Leopold is a mintier, American version of Italian Fernet (an intensely potent—some say medicinal—bitter liqueur). It makes for a great after-dinner sip, or throws a curveball into a classic cocktail like the 1920s Hanky Panky. 

9 | BARS-IN-BARS

Call it a micro-micro-trend: small craft bars hidden within larger, busier bars and restaurants. Bar owners peddle the high-volume beer and highballs to the masses up front, while quietly catering to a more demanding cocktail crowd in private. Fewer people means bartenders have more time for your perfectly crafted drink.

Where to find it:

  • Vancouver, B.C. There are bars within bars all over the West—at the Varnish in L.A., the Hideout in San Francisco, Citizen R+D in Scottsdale, Arizona. But the shining example? The Diamond in Vancouver. Order a drink at the handsome public bar, then quietly inquire about the Elk Room—if the stars align, you’ll discreetly be shown down a dark hallway, ushered into a compact room, and read the rules. (Rule #1: “There is no Elk Room.”)

10 | DISTILLANDIA

In Portland, the headwaters of the West’s craft distilling movement, 12 microdistilleries make everything from apple brandy to vodka, and the real action is a cluster on Distillery Row in Southeast Portland.

Where to find it:

  • Portland. Four distilleries within a few blocks of one another in Southeast Portland coordinate weekend hours and tout themselves as Distillery Row. Don’t miss House Spirits Distillery for Aviation gin made with juniper, cardamom, lavender, sarsaparilla, and orange peel. You can visit individually or buy a $20 Distillery Row passport. Leave the car behind with a bike-powered pedicab tour with PDX Pedicab.
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