Tales of the Cocktail Barchef Competition
My first trip to the wildly popular “Tales of the Cocktail” event in New Orleans last weekend was an eye opener.
Not surprisingly, there are some hard-core drinkers at this event. New Orleans and its legendary bar culture couldn’t have been a more suitable backdrop for an event when you start sampling cocktails at 10:30 a.m. (during the seminars and tastings, of course), and not concluding until late in the evening. I couldn’t keep up.
I arrived in New Orleans on Friday in time to attend a barchef competition, then bought a day-pass for Saturday. My favorite seminar was “Regional Trends in American Cocktails,” hosted by a panel of bar consultants, writers and journalists.
Here are some takeaways:
- “Culinary Cocktail” is the the new catchphrase for today’s sophisticated cocktails. As with food, consumers are becoming more informed and discerning and adventurous in their cocktail choices.
- California is seeing a strong Asian influence in cocktails.
- The SF Bay Area is experiencing “market-driven” mixology, referring to the abundance of local ingredients found at farmers markets.
- Hyper-seasonal cocktails. Bartenders are getting in more touch with local, in-season ingredients and how to use them in their cocktails.
- Given the focus on culinary cocktails, the area behind the bar is looking more like a kitchen than a traditional bar. Skills with a saute pan and chef’s knife are become more and more valuable among mixologists and barchefs.
- Cocktail and food pairings: Like wine and chocolate have been paired with foods in recent years, cocktails are now getting more pairing attention among restaurants wanting to offer something new. Cocktails made with tequila, absinthe and rye were mentioned among those spirits being paired with certain foods.
- Micro-distilling: Artisinal spirits from small, regional distillers (often using locally-grown grains) are all the rage, particularly among bartenders willing to experiment with new products.
- Rediscovery in “regional pride” for cocktails. Cocktails typically associated with specific parts of the country (i.e. The Manhattan) are finding new life among mixologists who want to make the classics the very best they can be, or with their own twist.
- Innovative garnishes: natural and edible flowers, dried and dehydrated fruits, pickled foods, locally grown herbs, smokey garnishes were among those mentioned.
- Wine as a cocktail ingredient. Wineries are beginning to hire mixologists to create coctktails using their vintages.
- Innovative bar snacks that complement cocktails are growing in popularity, in some cases as an alternative to a full meal.
- Yesterday’s trends. Several flavors and ingredients got the “thumbs down” as drink trends that may have run their course. Among those mentioned are cucumber/mint, anything mixed with Red Bull, pomegranate-flavored drinks and sparkling cocktails.