Trending right now: The low-down on bar trends from around the world

Imbibe Editorial

Imbibe Editorial

09 April 2018

Want to know what the big trends are in other corners of the globe at the moment? We’ve pulled in experts from Sydney to Singers and San Fran to save you the plane fare

Australia: Sam Bygrave

Right around Australia, gin is certainly in. In fact, it has, in many bars, shot past vodka as the go-to light spirit and mixer of choice, and even in the bars in which vodka still dominates, gin is snapping at its heels. Increasingly, punters are preferring soda to tonic in their gin, too.

The big mover behind gin’s resurgence is the growing interest in Australian gin and spirits more broadly. Just 10 years ago, the Australian spirits industry was synonymous with the big Queensland special Bundaberg Rum and perhaps a handful of micro distilleries. These days each state and territory has its own homegrown distillers, many of which have national reach. And what do they make first to get cash coming in the distillery doors? Gin.

The thriving local spirits industry will enable the opening of bars with a deep focus on Australian spirits too, with bars in both Sydney and Melbourne dedicated to stocking local spirits slated to open in 2018.

L-R: Sydney’s Victorian-inspired Duke of Clarence; Cocktails worthy of a viking at Mjølner
L-R: Sydney’s Victorian-inspired Duke of Clarence; Cocktails worthy of a viking at Mjølner

Behind the bar and on cocktail lists around the country, sustainable practices and anti-waste techniques are becoming standard in the country’s best cocktail bars. This is being driven by bartenders who give a damn, and customers who want something they can’t get anywhere else, and is perhaps a simpatico partner to the local sourcing of spirits.

In 2018, driven by a need to stand apart from the pack, bars with a deep focus on a theme or spirit category are very much in vogue. These span from gin bars to Victorian-era drinking taverns, and even Viking-inspired whisky dens.

This quest to stand out is also driving bartenders’ presentation of their drinks, so much so that the best bars are taking cues from the design and packaging industry. We’re seeing custom labelling on pre-batched cocktails not just in high-end establishments, but in local pubs too.

The quest to stand out is seeing bars take cues from the design and packaging industry…

Sustainable techniques are not just becoming de rigueur for drinks either. In a bid to retain quality staff in a competitive environment, operators are starting to implement wellness programs to look after their best people in both body and mind.

It’s not 100% good news in Oz, though. It’s getting ever harder for bartenders to transition into bar owners. Whether it’s the increasing cost of living in Sydney and Melbourne, or simply a case of the low-hanging fruit of cheap spaces having been picked, we’re seeing fewer bartender-owned and -operated bars opening. However, a number of those who got in early during the ‘small-bar boom’ have prospered and gone on to open additional venues.

Key trends: Gin, locally made spirits, sustainable practices and branding, wellness.
Key venues: Mjølner (Melbourne), Duke of Clarence (Sydney), Heartbreaker (Melbourne), Kittyhawk (Sydney).

Singapore: Emily Seow

Rather than paying tribute to the US Prohibition era or Europe’s grand traditions, bars in Singapore are building their own concepts to better express their Singaporean and Asian heritage. The current leader of this movement is Native, which uses only spirits and ingredients indigenous to Asia Pacific. The regional focus has led to the use of traditional spirits and Asian-Asian flavour combinations that push boundaries, such as the intriguing strawberry and kimchi.

In a similar vein, Nutmeg & Clove’s latest menu is inspired by William Farquhar’s 19th-century botanical drawings of species native to Singapore. Drinks like King & Queen, made using durian and mangosteen, which are considered royal fruits in Asia, and Oh My Jasmine, a floral twist on the Scotch Sour, effectively highlight Singapore’s vast biodiversity.

Origin Bar, which opened recently in Shangri-La Hotel Singapore, pays homage to the different neighbourhoods in Singapore, like Orchard, Little India, and Boat Quay. The Little India cocktails, for example, contain ingredients typical of Indian cuisine, such as sandalwood, jasmine, curry leaf and cardamom, while the Orchard cocktails incorporate ingredients from the Orchard Road district’s original plantations, such as pepper, nutmeg and cocoa. It is too soon to tell if bartenders will be able to keep going local, but for now, consumers seem to be clamouring for more.

L-R: Opening its sixth venue: the Jigger & Pony Group; The Miss Joaquim cocktail at Origin Bar
L-R: Opening its sixth venue: the Jigger & Pony Group; The Miss Joaquim cocktail at Origin Bar

The genre of restaurant-bars has evolved from cocktail pairings and merely complementary cocktail programmes to convivial spaces that showcase the food and the craft of cocktails equally. The trend took a couple of years to latch on and is now gaining momentum. Early movers like Lucha Loco and Sugarhall have been doing extremely well – the former now has three outlets in Singapore, while the Jigger & Pony Group is opening its sixth in March. Caffe Fernet will be a 130-seater contemporary Italian restaurant-bar on the waterfront with a view of Marina Bay Sands.

Catchfly bar once put a low-abv section on the menu ‘for the people who have meetings in the morning’, according to its ex-bar manager Liam Baer. Because alcohol is so expensive in Singapore, it has become almost second nature to see more value in a cocktail with a higher abv, but we are now learning to appreciate a well-made 0% proof drink – as long as it has all the flavour and complexity of an alcoholic cocktail.

An intriguing merger of the first three trends is 1826, which is opening in late March this year. Housed across two levels of two shop houses, it will spread the gospel of Straits Settlement cuisine, pairing the robust flavours linked to the Peranakan community, who were descendants of early Chinese migrants to the area, with low-abv cocktails made with fortified wines, particularly using the likes of sherry and vermouth.

Bars are building their own concepts to better express their Singaporean and Asian heritage…

The trend for organic and natural wine is possibly a result of the global #eatclean trend, the increasing number of wine festivals in Singapore, and how the funkier flavours and textures of natural wine enhance food experiences. In 2017, established local distributor Straits Wine Company set up Peace of Vino, a microsite dedicated to the category, and notable fine-dining restaurants like Burnt Ends, Cheek by Jowl, and Nouri all have organic and natural wine offerings.

The increase in consumption of natural wine will probably lead to a new wave of wine bars specialising in the genre in 2018. Pioneer RVLT – real wines, tasty food and raw energy – seems to have realised this, having moved its wine bar to a more prominent neighbourhood in the central business district last year. Hospitality giant The Lo & Behold Group is also slated to open a natural wine bar this year.

Key trends: Natural wine, low-abv cocktails, and drinks created with Singapore’s culture and heritage
in mind.
Key venues: Lucha Loco, Sugarhall, Caffe Fernet and restaurant-bars in general.

USA: Kat Odell West Coast

The Californian cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco lead cocktail culture and the slew of burgeoning beverage trends on America’s West Coast. Following the eco-conscious state’s ever expanding farm-to-table food movement, health and wellness-hinged tipples have emerged as critical endeavours in the last year, along with efforts toward waste reduction and environmental sustainability in bars. So too has the notion of a more research-intensive menu that tells a story or centres on a theme. And that thoughtfulness carries through into the realm of hospitality – the once rude, pretentious service guests may have encountered has become passé.

Back in the 70s, California became America’s first state to champion wholesome, local, and seasonal cookery. Now, half a century later, the Golden State is pioneering a similar drinks movement, creating healthier libations built with fresh juices, some of which are spiked with buzzy superfood ingredients.
Daniel Parker Guidry, general manager of Bar Casa Vale in Oregon, Portland, points to ‘cocktail ingredients inspired by health-conscious diets’ at places like Kindred in San Diego. There you can drink a mix of gin, tequila and chilli liqueur, stained midnight black from activated charcoal.

L-R: Shaking things down at The Walker Inn; Trick Dog’s Trumptail
L-R: Shaking things down at The Walker Inn; Trick Dog’s Trumptail

Jason Eisner, beverage director for Gracias Madre and Café Gratitude outlets in Los Angeles, was one of the West Coast’s first bartenders to not only experiment with a vegan egg-white replacement called aquafaba, but he was arguably the first to drip cannabidiol – a muscle-relaxing, non-psychoactive compound derived from cannabis – in boozy beverages. In the last year, he has likewise experimented with ‘medicinal modifiers’, including activated charcoal and chaga mushrooms, which have a high antioxidant content.

But the theme of sustainability and social consciousness extends beyond finding an animal-friendly egg replacement. Bar manager Benjamin Wood at Chicago’s Beatnik applauds San Francisco’s organic restaurant and bar The Perennial as a leader in sustainable practices. The year-old boîte has nixed plastic straws and other single-use ingredients – a recent effort mirrored by many other West Coast operations.

As for trends in creativity, Los Angeles bartenders Tobin Shea of Redbird and Aaron Polsky of Harvard & Stone agree that menu storytelling is becoming more of a thing. It’s being championed at local haunts The Walker Inn and Honeycut, and up north at the San Francisco Bay Area’s Trick Dog. Operators’ keen interest in scheming a more detailed drinking experience ties into another timely topic: hospitality. The ‘over-it-all too cool for school bartender’ is out, according to Polsky, while ‘service with a smile’ is in.

The over-it-all, too cool for school bartender is out…

For years, mezcal has been the West Coast’s darling spirit – and still is. But now, thanks to the growing importation of premium, yet affordable grape-based spirits – from brandy to pisco to singani – compounded with America’s own burgeoning brandy scene, bartenders, like The Walker Inn’s Devon Tarby, can upgrade the classic distillate to fit modern tastes.

Key trends: Mezcal, grape-based distillates, health-tinged tipples, sustainable practices, menu storytelling, service with a smile.
Key venues: The Walker Inn, Trick Dog, Gracias Madre.

East Coast

As America’s ongoing culinary epicentre, New York City has proven itself to be not only a leader in cuisine, but a commander of cocktails too. Countless trends form in the Big Apple, then slowly leak to nearby states.

Most notably, the East Coast has seen a movement toward no- and low-alcohol tipples, the latter bolstered by the country’s newfound fondness for apéritif and digestif-style liquors. In general, drinkers are keen on experience-driven, technology-enhanced drinking engagements, and count mezcal and rum in the hot-spirit category. Highly sought after Japanese whisky is likewise all the rage, with Japanese-inspired bars and cocktails de rigueur.

LR: Science Club at The Aviary; Tiki-tastic at Three Dots and a Dash
LR: Science Club at The Aviary; Tiki-tastic at Three Dots and a Dash

‘Low-abv cocktails are [becoming] less of an afterthought,’ says The 86 Co. founder Simon Ford, who credits Julia Momose at Chicago’s Oriole and Naren Young at New York’s Dante for leading the movement. And the growing availability of sherry, vermouth, and the Italian herb liqueur amaro has only helped boost the quality of these mildly-spiked elixirs. Ford also credits newbie Seedlip with setting the stage for non-alcoholic drinks.

Innovation in the cocktail world is in. Bars like Chicago’s The Aviary, which expanded to New York last year, continue to inspire with science-based, high-concept cocktails, according to Danny Shapiro, partner at the Windy City’s Scofflaw Group, as does culinary-tech whiz Dave Arnold, the innovator behind New York’s temporarily shuttered, forward-thinking drinks den, Booker & Dax.

There’s a proliferation of Japanese-style bars, tools, service, aesthetics, and spirits…

Arnold is responsible for a new gadget called the Spinzall, which aims to simplify centrifugal clarification and make the technology more affordable. Meanwhile, Leo Robitschek of New York’s NoMad considered 2017 ‘the year of bespoke drinking vessels’ with distinct glassware becoming ubiquitous and social media-worthy efforts from hometown heroes ZZ’s Clam Bar and, again, The Aviary.

Destinations around the world, such as Mexico, the island of Tahiti and Japan, are hot topics. New York’s Ghost Donkey and Leyenda, in addition to Chicago haunts Quiote, Mi Tocaya Antojería, and Masa Azul are advancing the agave game. Meanwhile, sotol, bacanora, and raicilla – all relatives to mezcal – are also gaining awareness and placement on back bars, according to Christy Pope of Dallas’ Midnight Rambler.

Chicago’s Paul McGee might have put rum on the map years back when he opened tiki retreat Three Dots and a Dash, and his lastest effort Lost Lake continues to reinforce the Polynesian, rum-rich theme. Down south in New Orleans, tiki enthusiast Jeff ‘Beach Bum’ Berry’s Latitude 29 takes the cake, while back in New York Thomas Waugh explores neo-tiki at ZZ’s Clam Bar and sleek newcomer The Pool.

NYC’s Japanese hub, Bar Uchu; Quiote’s Ode to All Things Agave
NYC’s Japanese hub, Bar Uchu; Quiote’s Ode to All Things Agave

And then there’s Japan. Death & Company head bartender Matthew Belanger mentions the proliferation of Japanese-style bars, which acknowledge varying degrees of influence from the country, like tools, service, aesthetics, and, of course, spirits. Japanese whisky – and gin, thanks to Nikka’s recently-released sansho pepper- and yuzu-imbued distillate – continues to be highly in demand.

While New York is the hub for Japanese-accented bars, championed by Bar Goto, Karasu, and Bar Uchu, Chicago is upping its game with Jim Meehan’s newly-minted Prairie School, and Momose’s hotly-anticipated Kumiko.

Key trends: All things agave, rum, Japanese chic, low/no alcohol, behind the bar tech.
Key venues: Oriole, Dante, Uchu, The Aviary.

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