We very well might be in the golden age of cocktails. Never before have so many talented, mixologists been at the helm of our nation’s bars and restaurants. But expert technique is only part of great mixology; there’s also a certain bravado and touch of playfulness that keep a bartender ahead of the curve. The visionary mixologists are the ones combining previously unpaired ingredients, or attempting new infusions. Right now, we’re seeing cocktails incorporating tea and coffee in unexpected ways, and the family of bitter Italian amari showcased to a degree of elegance not before seen. Mezcal is all the rage, as are Latin-inspired drinks more broadly. And the sherry comeback is full-force, backed by an appreciation for lower-alcohol tipples.
These and other surprising cocktail trends are driving our national drinking culture. We caught up with some of the trendsetters tasked with whetting our palates in delicious and intriguing ways to find out what they’re serving. Get ready to sample true art in liquid form at one of these forward-thinking dens of palliative chemistry.
Teatime Is Cocktail Time
The addition of tea to a cocktail holds several functions: It adds subtle spice notes, as well as tannins, and, when infused into a spirit, can lend delicacy and aromatics. According to Pam Wiznitzer of Manhattan’s Seamstress, 17th-century Europeans were fond of adding tea to their punch, she says, along with alcohol, spice, citrus, and sugar. The addition of tea “imparts various layers of flavor without being a high cost factor, caloric, or difficult to source,” says Wiznitzer. At Seamstress, Wiznitzer uses Earl Grey tea to accentuate bourbon, dressed up with almond milk, Benedictine, and honey syrup, serving it hot in the winter and as a cold, frothy latte in warm seasons.
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The mixology program at Oiji, a downtown Manhattan restaurant offering Korean cuisine with a contemporary twist, highlights tea as an infusion agent. Drinks at Oiji feature soju, a Korean rice distillate that is experiencing a comeback. Ryan Te, Oiji’s mixologist, comes from a culinary background and takes a playful approach to his cocktails. He infuses soju with tea to lend elegance and delicate savory notes to drinks, which he strives to make food-friendly and refreshing. In the Jasmine Negroni, Te riffs on the classic Italian aperitivo by adding slightly sweet Aperol to the usual Campari, and infusing soju with jasmine tea. He washes the tea first, so that the tannins aren’t overpowering. The result is a smoky, aromatic drink that’s not too bitter.
At New American gastropub Victor Tangos in Dallas, bar manager Matt Ragan decided to infuse all of his spirits with tea after a visit to an enormous Asian market inspired him to get creative. He loves the light touch of tannins that tea infusion adds to a spirit. At Victor Tangos, try Ragan’s “Suck My Kiss,” a spicy treat with Thai tea–infused rum, red chilies, a dash of lime juice, tamarind syrup to give it a warm orange hue, and ginger beer, served on the rocks.
In Las Vegas, Michael La Penna serves a Tea-Tini at the Mandarin Oriental using jasmine pearl tea, made with tender spring-harvested tea buds. This low-alcohol concoction is made with bourbon, apple juice, and agave nectar, shaken and strained into a martini glass, for a bright, lip-smacking, not-too-boozy drink. “I chose a white tea for the Tea-Tini because it has a neutral flavor, but the hint of bitterness really balances the sweetness of the agave and apple juice,” says La Penna.
Your Barista Is Now a Mixologist
One of New York City’s most endearing new bars is actually in a coffee shop, run by a multi-generational family-owned roasting company. You won’t find a syrupy espresso martini on the menu at Kobrick Coffee, but you will be able to try amazing drinks made with coffee or using barista equipment. There could not be a better precursor to going out dancing. Kobrick’s Three Hour Kyoto Negroni incorporates gin, sweet vermouth, and Campari with Kobrick’s bright, full-bodied single-origin Kenyan coffee, and is made cold-brew style in a Yama drip tower. Then there’s the Old Slip, featuring an Aeropressed Sulawesi Indonesian brew with bourbon, demerara sugar, and bitters from Kobrick’s partner, the Queens-based Hella Bitters.
Of course, there’s that ubiquitous caffeinated cocktail: the Irish coffee made with whiskey. Famed mixology den The Dead Rabbit, in lower Manhattan, recently brought on expert drink-maker and historian Dale DeGroff to upgrade their version of the Irish coffee. DeGroff’s version goes back to the original recipe, introduced to Americans by travel writer Stanton Delaplane in the 1950s. At The Dead Rabbit, owner Sean Muldoon opted for a dusting of nutmeg on the Irish coffee, and DeGroff protested. “The simplicity of [the drink] is important, but simple is never easy,” he says. They removed the nutmeg, and found a beautiful tulip glass to serve the drink in. DeGroff insists that the drink be made with hand-whipped, unsweetened heavy cream and un-aromatic coffee sweetened with demerara syrup; the result is one of the most incredible Irish coffees you’ve ever tasted.
Coffee’s potential in cocktails is evident at Filament, one of Dallas’s most talked-about contemporary restaurants. Bar manager Seth Brammer’s Good Morning Vietnam, inspired by classic Vietnamese-style iced coffee, is made with coffee and chicory-infused bourbon mixed with sweetened condensed milk, topped with spiced cream, and garnished with angostura bitters and charred cinnamon. “I couldn’t resist riffing on the drink for brunch by infusing bourbon with the coffee blend and topping it with a cream subtly spiced with star anise, allspice, and orange peel,” says Brammer. The smoky aroma wafts through the restaurant, a perfect pick-me-up on weekend mornings.
Even the espresso martini is being reinvented at Brandy Library, a lounge in Manhattan where “spirit sommeliers” curate a unique selection of sips. The Orange Espresso Martini comes with particularly elegant and smooth Bache-Gabrielsen Cognac, as well as Cointreau and simple syrup.
Amari, Above All
Bitter flavors have been trending in food and drink alike in recent years, as the American palate shifts from a long-held preference for sweetness and fruitiness to an appreciation of vegetal, savory flavors and digestive beverages. Amari, a family of Italian liqueurs made with herbs, roots, flowers, and bark, and often sipped neat as a postprandial, are versatile agents that lend depth and complexity to cocktails.
The lower Manhattan restaurant Contra is known for its edgy, seasonal tasting menu and stellar list of natural wines, but bartender Laura Carlson has brought the drinks program, as well, to new heights. Her Without Bases is the perfect after-dinner drink, comprised of the Italian herbal liqueur Strega, an artichoke-based amaro called Cynar, and more familiar players Fernet, Campari, and Antica Carpano bitters, with a pinch of salt and lemon twist to liven it up.
Sarah Boisjoli, head bartender at the new New York City restaurant Café Altro Paradiso, from chef Ignacio Mattos and partner Thomas Carter, has created a drink program emphasizing traditions, ingredients, and spirits from all over Italy. The Melagrana, served up in a coupe, is a lightly bitter drink made with Campari as well as tequila, with the bitterness balanced by a house-made pomegranate shrub, dry red wine, and lime juice. It’s perfect alongside a plate of fritto misto or beef carpaccio.
Abigail Gullo, the relentlessly experimental head bartender at the Creole restaurant Compère Lapin in New Orleans, finds many uses for amari in her eclectic cocktail menu. Her Gentleman Caller is a light aperitif cocktail consisting of Aperol, fino sherry, the herbal Alpine liqueur Genepy, and gin. “The bitter, full brightness of the Aperol and Genepy prepare the mouth and belly for food, opening up all your flavor receptors,” says Gullo. She also serves a drink called Letters of Transit featuring Grand Poppy, a new aperitif of Californian provenance. “While it uses many traditional European-style ingredients such as blessed thistle, dandelion, gentian, and artichoke, it also contains California poppy, bayberry, and peppercorns,” explains Gullo, adding that, “all of these ingredients were aids of digestion and other maladies before modern medicine.”
Latin Drinks Beyond the Tequila Sunrise
The trend in Latin cocktails is partly due to the rise of mezcal, the artisanal, sexier cousin of tequila. Mezcal is made in a more traditional and laborious fashion than tequila, and it often features unique varieties of agave, resulting in an overall more complex flavor profile. Bartender Ivy Mix was one of the pioneers of mezcal’s rise to popularity stateside and, having opened her Brooklyn bar Leyenda last year, she finally has her own roost from which to play with the enigmatic spirit. In Leyenda’s Lil Smokey, mezcal marries with the Brazilian sugarcane spirit cachaça, pineapple juice, and a sage-lime garnish, on rocks.
At one of Brooklyn’s most talked-about new restaurants, the neo-Peruvian Llama Inn, chef Erik Ramirez throws contemporary light on his Andean heritage. But the drinks alone are worth stopping in for—mixologist Lynnette Marrero’s concise menu of “culinary cocktails” (meaning they use actual food ingredients) delivers aesthetic and gustatory satisfaction alike. A must-try at Llama Inn is a punch called the Llama Del Rey, a fruity, refreshing mix of the Peruvian spirit pisco, grilled pineapple, and chef Ramirez’s grandmother’s recipe for chicha morada, a common sweet drink in Peru made of spices and purple corn. And no Peruvian restaurant would be complete without a variation on the pisco sour cocktail; Llama Inn’s version is the Flying Purple Pisco, made with puréed Andean potatoes that lend the drink an amazing violet color, and Peruvian Chuncho bitters, topped with nutmeg and a dash of angostura bitters, and served in a Tebineri glass tumbler. It’s like an alcoholic smoothie, refreshing but strong.
Over in Tribeca, underground bar Abajo has amassed an incredible selection of tequila and mezcal bottles, and mixologist William Aporih has created a list of refreshing drinks featuring these and other Latin libations. The Oaxacan Negroni combines reposado tequila with gin, Campari, and the unique digestif Barolo Chinato with cola nut extract, served with one large rock. There’s also refreshing options like the Agua Fresca, a blend of tequila and strawberry purée that comes in a coupe with a chili-dusted rim and parsley garnish.
Belle Shoals, one of Brooklyn’s newest watering holes, is a southern-comfort food bar based around the idea of a fictional town where the blues is a way of life. In Devil’s Music, mixologist James Palumbo combines tequila and mezcal with Mexican chile liqueur Ancho Reyes, lime juice, honey syrup, and fresh kale, resulting in a satisfying marriage of spicy and refreshing. The ingredients are shaken together and served on the rocks in a glass rimmed with Old Bay Seasoning.
The Bartender’s Choice Is Sherry
Sherry has earned favor among bartenders for its low alcohol level, robust flavors, and versatility. The sherry cobbler is the most classic use of this fortified Spanish wine, which can be made in lighter (manzanilla, fino) or heavier oaked (amontillado, oloroso) styles; many mixologists are now creatively riffing off this drink made with sherry, simple syrup, and citrus.
Oak + Rowan, a Boston restaurant opening this summer, will use sherry in its whiskey-based cocktail the American Pie. “Sherry has a lot of complexity, so it ends up acting as an ingredient that bridges other ingredients together,” says Drew Hart, house mixologist for the restaurant group. “Sherry has both fruity notes up front and a long finish where you will taste more of the wood, toffee, and spice notes.” In this drink he combines spicy rye whiskey with the house made ginjinha, which is a Portuguese sour cherry liqueur, and a cream sherry.
At Trifecta, a chic café in Portland, Oregon, try the smooth and creamy Sherry Flip made with oloroso sherry, amaro, and a dusting of nutmeg. Flips are a category of shaken cocktails made with egg whites. Bar manager Colin Carroll loves flips for their “amazing, silky mouthfeel,” and says that sherry is the perfect addition here. “Adding amaro to the sherry was the key in making this drink balanced,” he explains.
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Craigie On Main, chef Tony Maws’s critically acclaimed seasonal restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, features classic cocktails as well as an extensive sherry menu. Head bartender Rob Ficks serves the cobbler-style drink Apples to Apples with amontillado sherry, maple-roasted apple syrup, and peach bitters. The syrup is made from sauced winter apples combined with tea, honey, and orange oleo saccharum, a natural sweetener. The sherry component balances out the sweeter elements in the drink, as well as adding a wonderful oxidized note that meshes well with the fruitiness.