Relaxing massages accompanied by Hendrick’s Gin. Monkeys marketing Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur. A Rube Goldberg contraption putting together the perfectly timed Negroni. Cutty Sark available in pouches, a la Capri Sun.
Indeed, the 2018 San Antonio Cocktail Conference, held January 10-14, had its share of flair and fun theatrics, but education and the customer experience were the biggest themes among professionals in the bar and beverage-making industries. Many of the conference’s experts say the craft cocktail revolution is entering a new phase, and revealed some of the trends to be on the lookout for in 2018.
Rick and Theresa Hobbs, owners of The Last Word restaurant in Livermore, California (not to be confused with local barman Jeret Peña’s joint of the same name), declare that the craft cocktail culture is dead in a sense. “We have to think differently,” Rick Hobbs said. Now, says Hobbs, is the time to focus on the classics and providing a great overall experience where the patron is engaged, educated, and excited.
T. Cole Newton from the New Orleans bar Twelve Mile Limit, and Sam Halhuli from the Tacoma, Washington-based Mule Tavern, say reworking former neighborhood dive bars is one way to make cocktails more accessible for a new generation.
With careful considerations, as well as some interior and exterior design work, careful menus, and the right personalities, a cocktail dive bar can help to break up that cult of exclusivity and pretense that has surrounded the industry for years. The key, Halhuli said, is to make your venue as personable as possible.
Newton and Halhuli gave up other tips that could help make a new cocktail dive bar truly open to everyone. These are relatively effortless things, such as carrying popular brands of spirits (as well as beers and wines), allowing substitutions, having understandable menus with easily executable beverages, and fulfilling all drink requests — even if the bartender thinks they are cliched. That way, Newton said, your bar can be more accessible than even previous incarnations of that same physical space.
Even modernist bar techniques — the use of centrifuges, laser cutters, CNC (computer numerical control) machines, liquid nitrogen, and 3-D printers — can help any bartender enhance their skill set, and allow bars to be more approachable for patrons.
Dave Arnold, founder and president of the Museum of Food and Drink, and software engineer-turned-mixologist Don Lee highlighted venues such as Manhattan’s Pouring Ribbons. The upscale lounge is renowned for its creative, oft-amusing menu designs (a recent '80s theme night featured the drink list printed on a floppy disk) with explanations for every cocktail offered.
They even have a Venn diagram-like guide to show patrons which type of cocktail that customer may like the most. Want something comforting and boozy? Or something refreshing and adventurous? The drinks list will guide you through. All menu listings have ingredients publicized, along with prices. “[New York Times restaurant critic] Pete Wells wrote that ‘a menu should answer more questions than it creates,'" Lee said.
Arnold said while some conceptual menus can be successful at sparking conversation between a patron and mixologist, that may not work so well in a high-volume, fast-paced bar. Therefore, the right type of menu is essential to the right venue.
What matters in the end is the ability for a bartender to understand what they are mixing, to communicate that to the patron, and for that guest to easily digest the information and enjoy the drink. From there, the customer could be inspired to be creative in ordering or with their in-home bar. “The patron can evolve with you,” Lee said.
Sharing stories about the lively personalities and histories surrounding spirits, and being transparent about production, are also increasingly appreciated by customers. Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum brand ambassador Daniel “Gravy” Thomas explained that a large part of his job is talking about the spirit’s namesake, the late Norman Collins.
Thomas explained that bold, intense individuals such as “Sailor Jerry” Collins influence art, drink, travel, and music. They are to be championed through dynamic storytelling — no different than how mixologists and interact with guests at a bar.
In order to be more creative and flexible with their drinks, consumers more than ever welcome that level of education and engagement from industry pros, said Twin Liquors marketing director Sandra Spalding. People want to know exactly what goes into the spirits or wine.
Spalding said increased education is especially good with the rising number of craft spirits, wines, and beers coming onto the scene. Staff at stores such as Twin Liquors aim to fill in the gaps for consumers who want to build up their personal bar or feel even more confident about a brand or style of liquor when ordering out and about.
“We start by making relationships with our customers. I want to know you, what do you like, what are you doing this weekend, what are your eating? That’s where we start,” Spalding said. “We get to know you and there’s the trust factor.”
It was a sentiment shared by many at the conference. The cult of the mixologist is over. Whether as the curator of their own liquor cabinet or the driver of the next generation of cocktail trends, these days the customer is king.