After-dinner drinks, Japanese whisky, New York City’s first cider bar—so much to talk about.
Last fall I was in Portugal, waiting for friends at a fashionable restaurant overlooking the Douro River when a waiter handed me a drink. “A White Port and Tonic,” he said with a smile. And so I sipped. Made with the lighter cousin of the country’s acclaimed red dessert wine, it was a crisp, delicious prelude to the evening’s forthcoming seafood feast; by the time my windswept pals arrived from their boat ride, I had drained my glass. Luckily, I won’t have to always high-tail it to Europe the next time I desire one of these goes-right-down concoctions, because bartenders around the country are embracing the White Port & Tonic as an alternative to the classic gin rendition, even gussying it up with the likes of ginger and vermouth. Relegated to the after-dinner slot, Port’s sweetness has long been savored beside salty slabs of Stilton. To see this more obscure—and less complex—white grape version get the spotlight in aperitif form is a welcome, quenching surprise.
Delightful drink developments such as this one are among the snapshots I plan to share with you as the new spirits editor of FSR. By perching on barstools around the country—and given my insatiable wanderlust, across the globe—poring over thoughtful menus and chatting with passionate drink-slingers at neighborhood watering holes, fancy restaurants, and craft cocktail lairs alike, I will uncover new trends and share insights from both the nation’s top, and rising, barkeeps. I’ve been writing about—and geeking out over—spirits and cocktails for years now, and it is my privilege to share my industry discoveries, whether a resourceful bar technique or an intriguing bottle, with you along the way. To celebrate this new gig, unfolding in a new year, I thought it fitting to highlight a few observations, like the burgeoning appreciation for White Port, that I am all the more glad for and expect to see take center stage in 2015.
The rise of once deemed stodgy Port (and to a smaller degree, Madeira) in cocktails owes much of its fanfare to last year’s ascent—or as some eye-rolling folks in the biz are quick to point out, oversaturation—of that other fortified wine darling, sherry. Bartenders latched onto sherry’s versatility, weaving it into Spanish-inspired cocktails, and now customers hooked on old favorites like the Adonis are discovering the joy of Port’s presence to boot.
While I am excited about the newfound aperitif possibilities that a growing interest in fortified wine cocktails signals, I’m especially hopeful about its mirror image, the oft-neglected after-dinner drink category. I love ending my night with a Grasshopper, albeit, a properly made one, but these drinks so often get a bad rep because of the one-time prevalence of cloying liqueurs, they are shunned. When made correctly, now happening in spades, they are desirable. Bartenders like Naren Young, at New York’s Bacchanal, for example, are making balanced interpretations with quality ingredients—his liquid Tiramisu is exquisite—that could stand in for dessert. An affinity for low-proof cocktails led to lively, civilized aperitif hours becoming common pre-dinner rituals. Now, I would relish seeing meals morph into similarly classy postprandial affairs. With one well-made Stinger at a time, it’s possible.
I’ve loved seeing underappreciated, offbeat bottles of hard cider find their way into earthy cocktails of late, as is the case at Saint Honoré Bakery, in Portland, Oregon. In the evenings, cranberry and hazelnut bread makes way for lovely cider libations, like sangria uplifted with raspberries, orange, pineapple, and honey. On my own home turf, I can’t wait for husband-and-wife team Jennifer Lim and Benjamin Sandler to open Wassail, New York’s first cider bar and restaurant. Others, surely, will follow suit.
Last year, the Negroni was an especially popular tipple, and while the Campari-forward classic will never go out of vogue, it’s my hope that it’s helped turn on a wide swath of drinkers to the joys of a bitter taste profile. This will encourage them to more widely explore the world of amari and the depth that this Italian digestif lends drinks—or solely sip it on its own.
Bottles that were embraced in 2014 will only get more love—although Fireball’s long-term appeal remains debatable—this year. Quality Japanese (and Taiwanese) whisky will continue to give Scotch a run for its money. More imbibers will realize that sipping on aged rum is just as heady an evening finale as whiskey. Cognac will star in more aromatic cocktails, proving the old-fashioned snifter should, perhaps, be relegated to the back of the cabinet. China’s new-to-the-U.S. national spirit—white, powerful, sorghum-distilled—baijiu, will make deeper impressions among curious drinkers. Of course the allure of vodka, at the top of the spirits heap, will never wane, with fearless newcomers determined to make their mark on a cluttered category. Many will succeed with this thirsty, loyal market.
Now that tequila has successfully shed its frat boy image of yore, customers have a particularly robust infatuation with the sophistication and intricacies of Mexico’s agave spirits. The big brands may have spawned their interest in Jalisco-made tequila, but it’s those of a more artisanal and interesting bent that will keep them prowling around for new finds this year. Along the way, they will also delve more deeply into its smokier sibling from Oaxaca, mezcal, taking note of the nuances of those made in different villages. There are other Mexican spirits to become acquainted with, too, and this is the year they will start to leave stronger imprints stateside. Lesser known grassy sotol, once-illegal bacanora, and moonshine-like raicilla are also sure to become bartender favorites in 2015.
In recent years, bartenders have shied away from introducing upscale speakeasy-style cocktail bars, instead making customers feel at ease amid pretense-free environments where beer sipped out of a can is smiled upon as much as an egg white tipple dressed with a few dashes of bitters. In New York, for instance, we saw the arrival of the low-key Boilermaker, where barman Erick Castro elevates the art of pairing a shot and a beer. That same level of comfort is on display across town at the Happiest Hour, in which guests get to choose among several spirits to star in their cocktail, giving the customer the last word, not the bartender.
I expect to see more of these unfussy establishments sprout, but casual and inviting, thankfully, still leave ample room for creativity. A few months ago, my evening consisted of two back-to-back events: one was for a pop-up of the Midnight Rambler, a fantastic Art Deco-meets-rock ‘n’ roll bar at the bottom of the Joule Hotel, in Dallas, where I had the good fortune of spending several nights lingering when it first opened. Christy Pope and Chad Solomon, who run the bar, play with seemingly simple mineral water in a number of their cocktails, such as the gin (or vodka) Silvertone, with French dry vermouth, orange bitters, and house-pickled onions. Afterward, I wandered into a cookbook party for an acclaimed London restaurant, Duck & Waffle, where samples of its Roast Cosmo flaunting a bone marrow infusion circulated. It’s always heartening to glimpse innovation in such clever and subtle fashion, and I look forward to regaling you with more as the year adventurously evolves behind the bar.