To augur the cocktail and spirit trends for 2016 is more like horoscopes, tarot and disembowelling lamb to check their livers for strange spots. It’s not hard science. So instead we take a look at what we saw in 2015 and what we would like to see in 2016, mixed together with what we could possibly see in the future. Also we’re talking mostly about Belgium here and not the UK or USA.
Cocktail bars are slowly shedding their retro vibe
So less bowties and suspenders walking around in 1930’s speakeasies or 1920’s flapper parties, chique American Bars or Café de Paris. I still love those bars, most of them are great. In my opinion it is exactly the same thing as the old Tiki bars, where they wanted to transport you to a Polynesian island and experience a tropical vacation without leaving town. The speakeasies and retro bars want to transport you back into time and serve you 19th century cocktails in a 1930’s bar. And we enjoy that very much.
It is logical that we took a few steps back into time to relearn what cocktails, hospitality and bartending are, considering the republishing of Jerry Thomas’ recipes and the beginning of the cocktail renaissance. But after these few steps back, we’re ready to lunge forward and actually interesting times are ahead of us to see and observe the new concepts of cocktail bars that are coming. The signs were already there for a while, like for instance the influence of star restaurants which introduced new techniques, products, textures, etc… or pre batched cocktails on tap or the “highballisation” of drinking culture. You name it. One thing remains definite: the future brings new things. Sometimes so fast that we start to wonder whether the greater public will be capable in keeping up. Or will it be reserved for the few who always remain hip & trendy? The question brings us to our next observing.
Less classy, more dive bars
Don’t get me wrong, classy is fun too. It doesn’t necessarily equals stiff and boring. I can really enjoy a classy bar with waiters and bartenders dressed in starched white bowing to you in humble servitude fixing your drink with ice-cold perfection like they were performing a hart surgery. On the other hand I also love the more upbeat bars, where everything is pleasantly chaotic and the bartender looks like a tattooed hermit covered in locusts, preparing your cocktail like an Italian chef would make his personal pasta recipe. As long as the drinks, the service, the atmosphere and the company are good, people will normally enjoy themselves. All the rest depends on moods and preferences.
Interesting to notice is the fact that three of the last bars that opened here in 2015-16 are a distinct move away from the “classy” ones. You got the Dirty Rabbit – former (classy) Josephine’s – a rock n roll cocktailbar, then there are the two side projects of Jigger’s: Pony’s and Ganzerik. Pony’s is a ‘no brand’ cocktailbar with about 8 cocktails on the menu – if I remember correctly – all of them 10€. And Ganzerik is more like a local pub with beer, local food and simple cocktails. It’s on my top to visit list. All three have one thing in common: they scream “cocktails are for everybody”! And they’re absolutely right.
Considering the cocktail renaissance it’s a logical step in my opinion. Before that cocktails were nothing more than spiked lemonades and we needed to convince ourselves and the public that there was more to it than that. That a bartender was more than an underpaid school dropout, but somebody with a particular set of skills and knowledge who can do more than just fix you sickly sweet shit. That bartending is about serving people and making a visit to a bar an entire experience. Actually an entire drinking-culture became reinvented and we brought back from America and the UK: Speakeasies, pre-prohibition bars, bowties, suspenders, tattoos and awesome drinks. Amazing concepts and experiences were created, we still love them all. (cf the first observing above)
Actually the bartenders and cocktailians did their best so hard that it scared some people away (apparently) who thought it was too classy for them or misunderstanding that most of those “bar rules” are written in great fun and mostly mere suggestions. (The bartender is not going to flip a shotgun from under the counter and shoot your head off when you start talking into your cell phone. He might do that in his mind, you see but he’s not going to spit in your drink. If the conversation is a hindrance to other customers he will ask you to continue your phone call on the terrace or something.) Some people got scared that they would misbehave in some way or another. Or think it’s just for the rich people, it’s too expensive (those people prefer to sip on their Malibus, Pisangs and Safaris somewhere else).
I actually remember one person who asked the oft repeated question: “where can I get a good cocktail?”, I answered by naming and describing a well known Belgian cocktail bar whereupon she interrupted me, gasping: “Oh, no! That’s the bar where you have to ring the door and then they put you in the cellar!” I replied: “Well you make it sound horrible, but it’s actually quite enjoyable. They’re the nicest people with the best drinks you can imagine!” Large hazel eyes stared at me in doubt and disbelief. “Am I not underdressed for the place?”, she squeaked. My turn to blink in disbelief at the late twenty-something lady, my eyes snapped 160cm down and back up again. “Look, you don’t have to worry about that at all, nobody has to, actually. You can walk in there sporting a mohawk, 21 different face piercings and a stench-core punk shirt and they will still serve you!”.
And I heard more comments like that on cocktail bars in general. These people are mistaking obviously, but it doesn’t stop the bartender/owner – creative as he/she is – to think about some solution. And the “solution” is simple: create a “normal” dive, beer, people, music bar and serve cocktails too, apply everything you’ve learned about hospitality and tada! I think Attaboy in New York was the first to come up with the idea one or two years ago and now it’s here. Here end the two most important observings, what follows are just a few points you should remember.
Low alcohol cocktails will continue
Yes they will. We’re practically forced to. Considering insane taxations on spirits and the delusional political opinion that when you’ve had 2 ounces of navy strength rum you’ll step into your four-wheeled killing machine and mow down an entire village. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against low alcohol cocktails, I love them, but I just hate the reason why people tremble in fear at high or even normal proof spirits. It’s not their fault though… money is. Anyways, there’s a lot of creative and exquisite low alc cocktails around now, so you can safely drink two or three.
Not another gin
I’m sorry, but I’m good with what’s on the market and frankly there’s so much derivative work that they’re almost making categories for it. Remember how we f***ed up genever?
In regards to gin, I don’t want a vodka that smells like bath salts or potpourri. I don’t want a miscreant distilled from the garbage they even wouldn’t dare to give to cattle mixed up with a dozen disgusting aromatic oils to – literally – cloud the bad base product in the first place. “Here’s shit covered in flowers, thank you for your 40€!”. I want juniper berries and a few other botanicals in a smooth distilled product made from quality grain. But that’s just my opinion… you know, Gin! Not something else. I love the few beer distillations that are going round, but please, stop calling them gin! It’s not. Invent another name, another kind of spirit, maybe?
They call it the new tonic, well f*** you, it isn’t. It’s ginger ale. And it’s good. And more and more companies are creating their own, which is good. But if somebody starts to add flowers or whatever to it to create “that very distinct and unique ginger ale” then please reconsider. Ginger ale is a fantastic product and you can make great cocktails with it.
Mezcal and tequila will keep their steady, slowly rise. There’s a recent book by Kobe Desmet and Isabelle Boons that introduces you to this spirit if you want to know more about it. Mezcal is amazing and a bartenders favourite for over two years now.
This is something I’d like to see in bars in the future. Just a single spirit, a little tweaked up regarding the taste of the customer. I started doing this with genever, stirred a few seconds over ice and served straight up with a lemon twist and a scrape of nutmeg. It’s amazing and you can think of thousands of variations using any spirit you have. It’s well worth a try.