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.