2010 Year in Review

The noted and extremely simple Sazerac.

The noted and extremely simple Sazerac.

It is a very exciting time to be in the bar business. There have been few times since the repeal of Prohibition that cocktails have been at the forefront of the media and the public conscience, backed by bartenders who are now considering themselves Mixologists and Bar Chefs.

Classic cocktails are back in a big way across the country. Led by great cocktail bars from the St. John Alehouse in the east to Clives Classic Lounge in Victoria on the left coast, passionate mixologists are taking a fresh approach to cocktails. It’s not just in the privately owned cocktail bars either. Major chains across the country are adopting new (and old) cocktails, techniques like muddling fresh fruits and herbs, and looking at their beverage programs differently than we did when big juicy martinis were all the rage.

Much of this change is driven by pop culture, with the success and popularity of shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, guests are looking for the same kinds of classic cocktails that they see in these shows. Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and Sazeracs were all but forgotten until recent years, but the public palate is changing. Portion sizes are becoming smaller. Spirit forward cocktails are rising in popularity, post-mixed juices are being used less and less, and are being replaced by hand squeezed juices, house made syrups and hand crafted bitters.

The use of “bitters” is on the rise. That bottle of Angostura bitters that has been sitting on the back bar beside your Tabasco and Lea and Perrins is actually getting used in beverages; and it doesn’t stop there. Flavoured and house made bitters are becoming staples in many beverage programs. If you’re reading this and dont know what bitters are, check out www.feebrothers.com or www.the-bitter-truth.com . Great bartenders are assembling cocktails with the same degree of passion that a chef would use in preparing a dish; and the results are equally impressive.

Old school spirits are appearing on cocktail menus again. Ingredients like Absinthe and Genever, Velvet Falernum and Fernet Branca are not only being experimented with, but are now being used in mainstream cocktail preparation. Bartenders are demystifying spirits and creating beverages from decades past, and the consumers are embracing them. This leads to the public becoming more involved and intrigued by more complex flavour combinations and the potential that until recently has been largely untapped in most bars.

Artisinal Liqueurs and Home made Syrups are becoming commonplace. When bartenders are looking to add unique flavours to their cocktails, they are looking to new flavour profiles. Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur is extremely popular, as is St Germaine Elderflower Liqueur, and those bartenders who dont have access to these products are finding ways to make house made syrups which mimic the flavour profile at minimal cost.

Perhaps leading the charge is Toronto’s Bar Chef listed in Food and Wine’s Cocktails 2010 as one of the top 100 bars worldwide. Frankie Solarik’s seasonal cocktail menus incorporate infusions, and molecular mixology techniques that mirror some of the Molecular Gastronomy techniques practised by the world’s top chefs.

As more and more bars in major urban centres begin to take a balanced, spirit forward approach to their beverage programs, the ripple effects can be felt in the smaller towns. Cocktail competitions are rampant across the country, forcing working bartenders to come up with new and exciting ways to present their creations to their guests. These competitions create community among creative bartenders and are helping to fuel the growing fire that is Canadian Mixology.

Working behind a bar is a profession that is slowly becoming honourable again. No longer are guests willing to tolerate shot and pop drinks, served over watery ice, with a bruised lime garnish, and while it’s not likely that guests will completely stop ordering Vodka and Sodas, much of the population is curious about cocktails because they haven’t tried them before. If your bar is still reliant on a Cuba Libre as the mainstay of your cocktail program, perhaps it’s time to look at some more hand crafted offerings. It may not be right for your bar today, but all the trends are pointing in that direction; having a few well made cocktails on your list might just open the door to bigger profits in 2011.

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