What Defines the Cocktail Zeitgeist?
Is it possible to outline the zeitgeist of the current moment in cocktail history? We tried.
By poring over several dozen drink lists from top bars across the country and compiling a record of recurring trends, PUNCH was able to gain a bird’s-eye view of the national cocktail scene. Last year saw the entire industry forced to adapt and rethink their business model in the form of to-go cocktails and a return to comforting classics, and today’s menus reflect the lingering effects of a year unlike any other. Several familiar elements remain—spicy Margaritas and Cosmos aren’t going anywhere—while trends like aperitiki (aperitivo meets tiki) signal a growing taste for cocktail mashups. Naturally, after more than a year of limited recipe development, bartenders are eager to showcase their experimental side, whether in the form of pepita orgeat, a dollop of mascarpone or even Jolly Ranchers. Here are five trends that stood out, and the drinks that best illustrate them.
“Prickly pear adds electricity to cocktails,” says Chris Elford, of Seattle’s tropical-inspired bar Navy Strength. “It’s so craveable, and of course the color is compelling.” The cactus-grown fruit lends a distinct, highlighter-bright hue to drinks, but also imparts a singular flavor reminiscent of strawberries, raspberries and watermelon. Seen in Elford’s “eminently crushable” Del Estroibo, the sour template is sweetened with a combination of prickly pear syrup with an added tang from citric acid.
Elsewhere, prickly pear teams up with similarly desert-born agave spirits. At The International Bar in Philadelphia, where staff draws upon global ingredients in their cocktails, it’s paired with blanco tequila, citrus and desert flora honey. Leaning into prickly pear’s more playful side at the Broken Shaker’s Los Angeles outpost, it’s coupled with Aperol in the Spritz Me Away, alongside blood orange and a frothy crown of cava.
For the past few years, the concept of the cocktail mashup has been picking up steam. In 2018, Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Room debuted an entire menu of mashups, featuring drinks like the Daiquiriac (Daiquiri Sazerac), The Last Cup (Last Word/Pimm’s Cup) and the Cosmogroni (Cosmo/Negroni), to name a few.
The trend shows no sign of slowing. In fact, it’s evolved to the point where two discrete genres—tiki and aperitivo—have formed an entirely new mashup entity: aperitiki. It’s in this category that drinks like the White Negroni Piña Colada and the Zombie Spritz reside. Adding to the growing canon of cocktail mashups, the bar team at Dante NYC has introduced both the Cosmojito and the Cosmo Spritz to the spring lineup. At Sweet Liberty in Miami, meanwhile, the Mai Tai is made tall in the bar’s Mai Tai Cooler, a spritz-ified take on the tiki classic.
Like snap peas, avocado toes the line between slightly sweet and slightly savory, making it a versatile cocktail ingredient whether it’s concentrated in oil form to be shaken up in a Daiquiri, or its pits are roasted and turned into an orgeat-like syrup to add texture, as in Navy Strength’s Hass-ta La Vista, Baby and Llama Inn’s Corn cocktail, which also calls for avocado purée.
It works well paired with vodka, too, as seen in Alicia Perry’s Flor y Fauna, a citrusy mixture of elderflower, basil eau de vie and lemon, sweetened with an avocado simple syrup. But the lush, buttery ingredient has a particular affinity for agave spirits and shines in drinks like the Avocado Margarita from Houston’s Better Luck Tomorrow, where it’s blended with agave nectar, lime juice and salt to form a syrup that’s then shaken with tequila and the bar’s signature blend of Persian and Key lime juices.
The Fruit Map Expands
The use of fresh fruit has long been confined to what’s available (or reliably imported) stateside, though this season is seeing a more diverse crop of fruits from across the globe via fruit brandies, cordials and preserving methods. For example, soursop, a tropical custardy cross between strawberry and pineapple flavors, gets the cordial treatment for a pulque-inspired fizz at Boston’s Blossom Bar, while Omani dried limes from the Middle East are the bitter, twangy garnish of choice at Cane & Table.
In his Walking Papers, New Orleans–based bartender Scott Hicks looks to Tra Kal, made with Patagonian crab apple, for an unexpected bitter burst alongside cranberry and citrus. “Their sharp, almost bitter taste is a welcome change to the cocktail world, where most apple-based spirits trend more towards sweet,” explains Hicks. “The concept of such a bold eau de vie with original flavors drew me in right away.”
Spicy + Agave
It is hard to deny that the spicy Margarita is the drink of our times. Made with tequila or mezcal, and spiced with everything from muddled jalapeños to habanero tincture to a chile powder rim, the piquant mixture is, as PUNCH contributor Scott Hocker declares, “simultaneously safe, extreme, cultured and milquetoast.” In other words, it’s the ultimate anytime, anywhere drink.
At DrinkWell in Austin, their Chaps and Chanclas is spiced up with green chile liqueur tempered by dry vermouth; at Grand Army in Brooklyn, the Johnny Blaze pairs tequila with fiery habanero shrub and lime, given an extra kick courtesy of ginger; and over in San Diego, Polite Provisions’ Uncle Jalapeño—a mixture of tequila, jalapeño and pineapple soda—is so popular, they keep it on tap. As Ivy Mix explains in Hocker’s piece, the allure of the combination is its potency and punch. “It’s a sensation—not just a taste,” she says.