Local ingredients and small-batch liquors are the new buzzwords among the sophisticated bar crowd in 2015. The best bartenders respect traditional recipes while still figuring out how to cater to their customers and show personal flair. As you contemplate what toddies you’ll be serving up at parties and what will be on your must-try list, here’s our report from around the United States of Craft Cocktails.
Custom-designed ice from JustIce: Chicago
Flowers on ice — one of the unique creations offered by JustIce (Photo: JustIce)
“Custom-designed ice for the right cocktail is a very big trend” in Chicago’s sophisticated mixology circle, according to city cocktail connoisseur Audarshia Townsend. Though several bars — including the Aviary and Luxbar — take this trend seriously, Mike Ryan of Sable Kitchen & Bar is really the leader; he supplies hand-crafted custom ice to most of the other Chicago bars. He started a business, JustIce, in 2013 to create “very cold water in a crystalline lattice structure,” and it’s no surprise that event designers often use the service as well.
Mix-and-match craft cocktailing at The Happiest Hour: New York
Choose your own liquid adventure at The Happiest Hour (Photo: The Happiest Hour/Facebook)
In the Big Apple, you can’t turn around without landing in another intimidating cocktail spot with “celebrity” bartenders and drinks that cost $20 and take 30 minutes to arrive. That’s why The Happiest Hour is such a breath of fresh air. It has a vaguely beach-tropical vibe and a menu that’s like a capsule lesson in craft cocktailing. Customers are able to choose the spirit they want as the base for each of The Happiest Hour’s signature cocktails: the Maid to Order, for example, is mint, cucumber, lime juice, and the customer’s choice of gin, rum, or tequila. This place makes Manhattan cocktail tasting accessible … and affordable at just $12 a drink.
Beer and shot combos at Republic: Metropolitan Washington, D.C.
A beer with a shot is a popular one-two punch at Republic. (Photo: TinkurLab/Flickr)
Long the bar industry’s favorite way to take a load off, this pairing is becoming popular with D.C. suits who want to knock back a painkiller the second their butts hit the bar stool and then sip a brew at leisure ‘til they’re ready for the next shot. At Republic in the Maryland suburb of Takoma Park, bar manager Brett Robison has created a range of beer/shot pairings — AKA “bingers.” For heartland politicos, there’s Johnny Blaze (Bulleit Rye whiskey and an American pale lager), while for Euros, there’s the Stranger (Pernod and a coffee stout).
Bottled carbonated cocktails at Ned Ludd: Portland, Ore.
The bottled treats at Portland’s Ned Ludd have pop, but they ain’t soda. (Photo: Ned Ludd/Facebook)
From Portland, we expect the utmost in twee-yet-earnest, hipster-yet-crunchy offerings. We also expect it to taste good and to be nowhere near Brooklyn prices. Ned Ludd delivers with a seasonally changing selection of bottled carbonated craft cocktails. It’s like the fizzy pops and juices of your youth, recreated with no sugar and plenty of bitters and a slug of liquor. To really complete the vibe, this venue was named and themed after the original industry-hating Luddite, so you’ll drink your fizzy, boozy nonsoda in a fire-lit setting surrounded by tree stumps and ceramics.
High/Low at Dirty Habit: San Francisco
The Purple Drank (Photo: dirtyhabitsf/Instagram)
While the Bay Area’s techies are notoriously self-important about “changing the world” (and making their next $10 million), one of Union Square’s coolest techie watering holes makes a point of poking fun at, while also catering to, the dichotomy. The cocktail menu at Dirty Habit combines impossibly precious ingredients like “grand poppy liqueur” with humble ones like sweet potato and then gives the final concoction an oh-so-S.F. moniker — in this case, Purple Drank. Because here, there’s a market for “craft” Purple Drank featuring garden-fresh ingredients and Pierre Ferrand 1840 cognac.
Winter fruits at Costa d’Este: Vero Beach, Florida
Fruity drinks: They aren’t just for summer anymore. (Photo: Costa d’Este Beach Resort & Spa/Facebook)
There’s something of an unwritten rule in cocktails: Fruity beverages are for warm weather and beach getaways, while spicier, more robust flavors come out in the winter. But in destinations like Hawaii and Florida that are warm all the time, mixologists are figuring out how to incorporate holiday flavor while still leveraging their enviable year-round growing season. Case in point: Costa d’Este’s special seasonal Costa Cranberry Rose Mojito, featuring fresh cranberries, fresh rosemary, and fresh juices from a nearby Florida farm. It’s South Florida’s favorite cocktail, in a wintry, berry-based style.
Drink like a sailor, from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the desert
Cruzan Black Strap Rum, a 19th century sailor’s favorite, is the active ingredient in a “Corn N’ Oil” (Photo: Reese Lloyd/Flickr)
Traditionalist liquor enthusiasts are reaching ever further back into the annals of distilling history, rediscovering long-forgotten pours to reintroduce to modern palates. It’s one thing when a hipster “craft cocktailian” invites you to try a 100-year-old pour of fernet (it’s actually kind of a scary thing), but the return of “navy-style” rum in recent years is another thing altogether because, guess what?: Sailors of 150 years ago apparently liked their rum to taste like thick, rich, yummy molasses. Cruzan Black Strap Rum, a “navy-style” rum produced over in the Virgin Islands, has become the rum of choice in hipster tiki bars, but we’re also seeing this rum lately on winter menus from Phoenix to Seattle.
Infusions at 3535 at the Linq: Las Vegas
Two great tastes that taste great together: espresso-infused bourbon. Yes, that’s a thing. (Photo: 3535 at the Linq)
Fruit- and herb-infused liquors have been the plaything of high-end cocktail lounges for the past 15 years, but the new boutique cocktail lounge 3535 at the Linq Hotel & Casino is tightly focused around a unique selection of 35 custom infusions. Ranging from savory (ancho and bacon-infused Jim Beam bourbon) to cookie- and candy-flavored (the mint Oreo Skyy Vodka martini and the Skittles-infused Skyy), the infusions can be changed to suit demand — which is perfect for a city where there’s a new crowd of visitors looking for a new flavor every minute.
Shrubs at Spoonbar: Healdsburg, Calif.
Toss back a shrub! (Photo: Spoonbar)
So you thought shrubs were stunted trees? Brush up on liquor linguistics, friend. Shrubs are also vinegars infused with vegetables — only available on cocktail menus where the barkeeps are dedicated to hand-crafting their own ingredients. At Spoonbar, where “handmade, fresh, and local” are the cardinal rules of the cocktail menu, there’s an entire “super secret” shrub menu available on request (or, not-so-secretively, on the website).