July 2, 2008

For Summer, Cocktails Get Freshened Up

If anyone is in any doubt about the continued rise, and rise, of the cocktail phenomenon in American culture, or at least in those parts of it where the consumption of liquor is taken seriously, he need only consider the recent announcement that the Museum of the American Cocktail will open the doors of its "spectacular" new home in New Orleans this July. Can a Cocktail Hall of Fame be far behind?

As Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States [DISCUS] points out: "It's just amazing what has happened over the last five years in the cocktail world. You have high-end mixologists [the term itself is the result of the cocktail phenomenon] gaining the same kind of status that chefs received 10 years ago; they've become celebrities."

And it's not limited to upscale bars in New York and San Francisco -- it's happening in major metropolitan areas across the country. For Mike Bernstein, director of media and communications for Bahama Breeze, a chain of 23 family restaurants run by Darden Restaurants (DRI), it's about moving cocktails upscale, and continually looking for ways to provide variety. "Without a doubt we are seeing an increasing interest in new and innovative cocktails amongst our customers."

"The Resurgence of the Classic Cocktail" Hard numbers to support these observations are not available because it's not possible to count the number of cocktails shaken, stirred, and poured, or to separate out a true cocktail from a mundane Scotch and soda, but there is a vast amount of anecdotal evidence, and even some pretty good surrogate numbers.

As Steve Walkerwicz, vice-president for on-premise customer marketing at Pernod Ricard USA, enthuses: "The resurgence of the classic cocktail is extremely refreshing for the industry. It's happening and it's happening in a big way."

This is most clearly shown in the numbers for flavored vodkas, which are primarily used as cocktail ingredients. For Walkerwicz, "The growth of flavored vodkas has reshaped the category, and, for the most part, flavors have driven the growth of the overall brand." He is referring to Pernod Ricard's Stolichnaya, flavored versions of which account for more than one-third of the brand's sales -- even more in the on-premise channel.

This trend applies across the whole industry, with DISCUS numbers showing sales of flavored vodkas rising from 8% of the category in 2000, to 14% in 2007.

Mixing with Swizzle Sticks For Michael O'Donohue, a corporate director at Starwood Hotels' (HOT) Luxury Brands Group, which includes the St. Regis and W hotels, it's all about ice. This may sound bland, but talk to any serious bartender and he'll soon begin to wax lyrical about the good ice, especially large, cold cubes of the stuff. "Ice plays such an important role in the cocktail," explains O'Donohue. "If you have very cold, inch-and-a-quarter cubes, they keep the drink colder and it doesn't get watered down as fast." Ice plays such an important role, in fact, that he has plans to introduce new ice machines at all his properties.

Then there's the revenue aspect of the cocktail phenomenon. Spirits have always commanded a higher markup than food, wine, or beer but, as O'Donohue points out, "When you're making a wonderful, handcrafted cocktail, you're going to be able to get more money for it than you were five years ago for a drink that had maybe just two ingredients."

When I asked Philip Ward, head bartender at Death & Company, a trendy bar in New York's East Village, what's hot in cocktails at the moment, I expected a list of ingredients or a discourse on a particular method of backhanded shaking, but what I got was considerably more philosophical. For Ward, the hottest trend is: "People are making more good drinks. Every year we get more bars making good drinks, and even bars that aren't making real good drinks are making a little better drinks. More places are pushing the envelope."

This summer his envelope-pushing involves playing around with swizzles -- large, tall summer coolers over crushed ice. These are classic Caribbean drinks made in tall glasses, but instead of shaking or stirring the ingredients he mixes them with a swizzle stick. Whether his wooden swizzle sticks, specially imported for him from the Caribbean, will make it to the Museum of the American Cocktail remains to be seen, but his two concoctions included in the accompanying slide show would be worthy Hall of Fame contenders.

See our slide show for 10 of the summer's best cocktails.