The expansion of cocktails in new and unexpected directions is one of the most exciting developments in the world of American mixology. And while the most forward-thinking drinks used to primarily be the purview of the sort of craft cocktail establishments that specialized in them—and that guests would often go to for the specific purpose of either drinking at the bleeding edge of the industry or gaining a new sense of appreciation for the classics that made them fall in love with cocktail culture in the first place—today, those sorts of experiences are available across the drinking (and dining) spectrum.
This past summer, for example, I drank through a range of cocktails at The Standard, East Village, the beloved New York City hotel famous for both its generous, beautifully designed rooms, friendly staff…and its no-curtained bathrooms that offer guests a uniquely unobstructed a view of the city from the shower but, miraculously, no view of the guest from the denizens of the city.
Café Standard, NO Bar, and, across the lobby, the urban oasis of The Garden, are rare hotel establishments that manage to attract guests from both the rooms above and the neighborhood in general, and it’s no wonder: The food is beautifully calibrated to the smart-casual vibe and the character of the drinks—oysters with hibiscus mignonette are fantastic, and the rock shrimp poppers are electrified by the preserved lemon mayonnaise—and the drinks are both carefully crafted and reflective of the larger trends shaping the world of American cocktails.
Among the more notable trends I’ve seen recently is the tendency to incorporate fruits, vegetables, flowers, and herbs into both the drinks and the spirits themselves in new and unusual ways and combinations. There was a tequila drink on the menu when I visited called “Hitting Guac Bottom,” and its use of avocado in the cocktail itself—as opposed to just as a garnish—changed both the flavor and texture of each sip. And because of the richness of that particular ingredient, poblano liqueur and assertive lime were added to cut through it all, cucumber freshened it up, and the combination was energetic and delicious. The “A/S/L” cocktail was built on a base of apricot liqueur, Scotch, and amaro, complicated by the herbal kick of dry vermouth, kicked up with an absinthe rinse and lemon, and then, to my surprise, the addition of dill, which picked up on the vermouth and complimented the sweetness of the apricot impeccably. When I asked about the cocktail program there, and specifically the Homegrown Bartending Program, which focuses on working with existing staff, as opposed to outside consultants to create the cocktails, Peter Valentini, one of the three people leading the program alongside Pape Konte and Nikola Knezevic, told me, “We’re not doing run-of-the-mill.” That, it seems to me, is both an understatement and a glimpse at their secret sauce: Creativity is being employed not necessarily for its own sake, but in the service of making more delicious drinks. In that way, pretension is avoided, and guests are treated to cocktails that occasionally challenge in the best possible way, and that reliably and deliciously charm. Their current cocktail menu is being inspired by similar trends: The “Glory Coal” leverages black sage and fig leaf to add layers to the already-complex Botanist gin. The “Wheat and Greet” incorporates buckwheat in this Scotch-based sipper.
In Philadelphia, Ancient Spirits and Grille opened last month, billing itself as “America’s first Ayurvedic herbal restaurant and cocktail lounge.” As for the cocktail program, “The mixology team spent 18 months designing the cocktails and testing the herbs for evaluation on flavor profiles,” their opening materials explain. “The seasonal cocktails are designed to pair with the menu and also focus on herbal ingredients such as turmeric, brahmi, saffron, ashwagandha, cinnamon, and lavender.” The Turmeric Tide cocktail, for example, leans on turmeric-infused rum; the Divyagandha is built on a base of black-cardamom-infused gin, done in-house; the tequila-based Ayur Dhatu incorporates both organic oat milk and a falernum-papaya puree. The list goes on, and as the restaurant and bar continue to evolve, I expect to see more unusual and exciting ingredients and combinations like these.
For those who want to experience unexpected combinations from the comfort of home, there are a number of new and familiar spirits on the market that are worth incorporating into a home bar. Below are five of note:
Bimini Coconut Gin – Alongside grapefruit, coriander, and hops, natural coconut is infused into this excellent expression from Maine. The counterpoint of sweet and bitter (in the best possible sense) lends this an excellent sense of tension, and it casts even the most familiar cocktail, like a Negroni, in a new and fascinating light.
Bozal Guías de Calabaza – This vegetarian Sacrificio mezcal, part of the excellent 3 Badge lineup of spirits, is crafted entirely from Espadín agave in Río de Ejutla, Oaxaca. The first distillation proceeds as expected, but during the second one, pumpkin stems, plantains, oranges, pineapples, pumpkin seeds, and chepiche are suspended in the still, lending the final liquid a fabulously layered complexity, lifted and earthy and slightly vegetal all at once, with orange oils, woodsy spices, and subtle tropical-fruit flavors lingering through the savory, slightly saline finish. This is excellent.
Callisto California Dry Botanical Rum – This is a unique one, finding its footing somewhere between the aromatic complexity of gin—but without that spirit’s quintessential juniper punch—and the sweeter, slightly funkier character of certain rums. There is a subtle vegetal note here that serves as a lovely counterpoint to the floral and slightly woodsy flavors that linger through the long finish.
Coconut Cartel Special – The coconut notes here—from the addition of coconut water—are more assertive than they are in, say, the Bimini gin, but they work well alongside the distinct sweet and vanilla-tinged character of the Guatemalan dark rum. In a Dark and Stormy, this would be a solid option.
Maestro Dobel Pavito – This limited-edition bottling is being billed as “the world’s first pechuga tequila.” It’s a style more commonly associated with mezcal, but in this case, the incorporation of spices and fruits is both countered and amplified by the placing of a turkey breast towards the top of the still, which provides a haunting savory character. The result is a silky-smooth tequila whose distinct fruity sweetness is offset by the earthier, more savory notes of the turkey breast. It’s a wholly unique tequila that is just as successful on its own as it is in cocktails, where, depending on the other components in the drink, the fruitier or more umami-driven flavors in the spirit will be brought to the fore.