The ’90s were dominated by sugary-sweet, disco-hued drinks. The 2000s? We leaned on classics from cocktail history — Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds, and other precisely-made drinks. Over the last few years, something has shifted, and we now want our drinks savoury cocktails, salty, packed with umami, or even pulled directly from the vegetable drawer.
A quick glance at the World’s 50 Best Bars list for the past year confirms this hunch. Barcelona’s Paradiso took top honours, boasting fermentation-focused drinks like On Fire — a smokey Calvados and bourbon cocktail accented with tahini, sweet potato, and smoked milk — and Cronos, inspired by time and highlighting tequila, mushrooms, and spicy corn. Double Chicken Please (home of a ‘Cold Pizza’ cocktail) and Two Schmucks (a melon, cheese, and pepper drink) also made the top ten with their firmly food-focused menu. Ingredients like mushrooms and seaweed topped 2022’s top food trend predictions and in 2023, the New York Times forecasted that diners will ‘embrace the brine.’
It’s all about savoury cocktails
Of course, savoury-forward sips like Bloody Marys, spicy Margaritas, and dirty Martinis are nothing new. “People have always been attracted to savoury drinks,” says James Nowicki, the bar manager of Savannah’s Common Thread. “We probably sell more dirty Martinis than any other off-menu drink.” The classically briney and umami-packed drink is persistently popular eternally iconic in the hands of everyone from M.F.K Fisher (a gibson fan) to Sarah Jessica Parker (dirty, with olives) to mid-pandemic Meryl Streep (with a twist). Even though the martini has never really fallen from fashion, their popularity is reaching a fever pitch, low-ABV drinks be damned. There are handbags, trending t-shirts, and earrings that sell out in seconds, all dedicated to dirty martinis. Dirty martinis are also brinier than ever — look at the popularity of Bonnie’s MSG martini or Bar Moruno’s salmon martini.
“I’m seeing a shift — a demand in the market towards more savoury flavours,” says Moe Aljaff, the founder of Two Schmucks, Schmucks, and The Schmucks (Aljaff’s new project). Lines regularly form outside the Barcelona bar for the French Soup Manhattan and Tom Kha, a fish sauce-spiked coconut milk punch. “The mainstream hasn’t completely caught up yet, but in modern cocktail bars, savoury cocktails are dominating,” he adds. These savoury cocktails can be spicy, briney, umami-driven, or simply putting sweetness on the back burner in favour of richer flavours.
At his Portland bar Sousòl, Gregory Gourdet is serving drinks like the zero-proof Bwè Lèt Bannan, a creamy banana and coconut milk cocktail with dates and 5-spice, and the Tamaren Toune, a savoury-sour tequila drink made from Haitian clairin, tamarind, jerk, and a hint of lime. “While the classics will never go out of style, many modern drinkers are looking for new flavours. The realm of savoury cocktails is just the place to explore,” he says.
“It’s almost a requirement to have a savoury or spicy drink on your menu these days,” notes Braden Williams, the bar manager of Noko Nashville. “Just a few years ago, it would be bold to put something vegetal, salty, spicy, or savoury on a menu, but like art, music, or film, what we’re drinking is always evolving.”
Kevin King will charge up an already-brothy Bloody Mary at Minero Mexican Grill & Cantina with more curious ingredients. “I’ve used beets, mushroom pellets, seaweed, and soy sauce,” he says. “It’s also a great way to test the waters with guests who are expecting something savory when they order a Bloody Mary.”
But even the classics are evolving, with bartenders responding to guests’ requests by amping up the salt, brine, and overall umami. Kelso Norris’ Datu Datu martini — a salty, earthy Martini featuring garlic powder, vinegar, and fish sauce — was a huge hit at her now-shuttered bar Genever. “I think it’s close enough to a dirty Martini to be a crowd-pleaser and it also has flavours that most people are familiar with and enjoy.” She’s also served an adobo-inspired G&T made with soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, calamansi, black pepper, and bay leaf. “People are more open to trying cocktails inspired and influenced by food,” says Norris.
Tanner Ager of Apothecary has been able to move not only spicy agave drinks (“a must-have on Dallas menus”) but more offbeat options, like a pozole soup cocktail. His current menu includes a Kimchini (Kimchi Martini) and The Peking Tom, an Old Fashioned made with duck confit, absinthe, and lapsing tea. “Beyond spice, other savoury flavours are on the rise as people get more adventurous and are willing to look beyond fruit and herb and into cheese, mushrooms, and kimchi.”
“Keep in mind that a cocktail is only successful if people want a second one,” says Ager. He tries to stick to classic recipes (“Daiquiris or Manhattans, for example”) then adds a savoury swagger, maybe in the form of smoke, a salted rim, or garnish.
Remember the rise of IPAs? That mezcal moment a few years back? “Our minds are continuously opening to bitterness, smokiness, and other flavours that have long been polarising,” says Williams.
There’s been a vibe shift — an about-face away from saccharine flavours and towards savoury, smokier, brinier, and sometimes spicier sips. Look at wine — in the last decade or so, subcategories like Sauternes, Tokaji and other sweet wines have fallen from favour as drinkers gravitate towards drier styles. “The number one thing I’ve heard over the last year from drinkers has been ‘….but don’t make it too sweet,’” says Williams.
Massimo Zitti, the proprietor of Mother Cocktail Bar, has long been a fan of food-ish drinks. “I served my first mushroom cocktail seven years ago (it was a dried-porcini re-distilled spirit) and the response was awesome.” Now more than ever, he’s found drinkers at his Toronto bar are down to get freaky, ordering and reordering things like a Gibson spiked with smoked onions, a Last Word with za’atar and caraway Chartreuse, or a Ramos Gin Fizz fluffed up with lemongrass and chai. “Consumers are intrigued,” says Zitti, “and if you make the flavours work, what’s not to like?”
Which leads to the question, with all these sans-sweet, slightly zany drinks on the rise, are sugary cocktails done for?
“Sweetness isn’t going anywhere,” Ager argues. “Less experienced drinkers will continue to lean in that direction.” But while saccharine will stay, he finds “we’ll trend away from candy-sweet drinks and head towards truer flavours. This will help prepare those sweet-loving drinkers for more savoury cocktails in the future.”
This story first appeared on www.foodandwine.com
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