Nights on the Circuit: The next round

Experts dish on the taste of things to come

Xania Woodman

2006 was all about the pomegranate. Pomegranate martinis, juice, seeds and liqueurs ... In 2006, Stoli Blueberi made something like a thud when it first hit the market, and by 2007, it was seen more often in your Starbucks lemonade or iced tea than in your highball glass. But muddled fresh blueberries and, later, muddled grapes and strawberries did find their way into my Mojitos this past summer along with muddled watermelon, black  cherries and peaches, making 2007, I suppose, the year of the muddler.

So what will 2008 bring? Well, muddling isn’t going away. But it didn’t just arrive, either; this year merely brought it into our consciousness such that a 21-year old Midwesterner won’t recoil should she see Noir Bar mixologist/bartender Ken Hall whip out a wooden muddler for her blueberry cosmo.

Hall tells us, “The trends are basically based on bartenders.” On a recent trip to San Francisco he saw bartenders fawn over blood oranges and quince, a cute fruit master mixologist Dale DeGroff has been toying with for quaint-but-quirky Hendrick’s gin. And gin, along with absinthe, is a spirit Vegas’ Downtown Cocktail Room owner Michael Cornthwaite expects to see more of: “I also see a return to cocktails that showcase the taste and character of the liquors used in them instead of hide them.”

Hiding is one thing flavored vodkas do well. Anyone who says vodka itself has no taste has never tasted good vodka. That’s like saying all bottled water is the same. Hall predicts a trend away from simple postproduction flavoring and toward infusion, in which natural ingredients such as orange peels and vanilla beans are added during the spirit-making process.

Along with Hall, Downtown Cocktail Room bar manager George Sproule and Adam Rolfe, Nevada on-premise manager for Moet Hennessy USA, are of a similar mind that savory is the taste of 2008.

“The modern mixologist,” Sproule says, making inadvertent reference to the Modern Mixologist, Tony Abou-Ganim, a godfather of mixology, “now favors the floral ingredients, such as St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, Sonoma lavender syrup, Sence rose petal nectar and Voyant Chai liqueur.” And in turn, “the modern drinker,” he continues, “is becoming more educated and aware. Moreover, I think that people are starting to demand more and more as the lines between the culinary world and mixology domain blur.” They are getting rather blurry.

“Don’t be shocked if you see vegetable flavors,” says Rolfe, citing cucumber, tomato and basil as likely garden-variety flavors ambitious cocktail chefs like Tobin Ellis will employ in their so-called gastro-mixology. Ellis, a nightlife developer and beverage consultant, ups the ante, bringing molecular mixology to the table with his foams and other alchemical lab work like that he’s done with his client Leinenkugel Beer.

Another one to watch are the herbal liqueurs, such as Aperol and Campari. While the American palate tends toward sweet, the European palate leans toward bitter. “These ingredients are very flexible,” Sproule points out, “because you can create [everything from] something very simple, gentle and sweet, to something very bitter and challenging with several layers of flavors to experience. I see herbal modifiers being huge in 2008, because they don’t ‘attack’ the palate like the pomegranate and its other tart cousins.”

This is not to say that fruit will be left to rot. But traditional, homogenous flavors will get a leg up from contrasting elements such as in Absolut New Orleans (mango and black pepper). “Look for unusual or unexpected combinations that balance spicy with sweet, bitter with umami,” Ellis says, using the Japanese word for savory.

My own prognostication is for a move toward organic spirits, sustainably grown infused flavors and artisanal, boutique-style liquors like Square One vodka. Also, healthy cocktails, as Ellis calls them (“oxymoronic as that sounds”), which call into play wheatgrass, spirulina, phytonutrients and high-antioxidant-bearing fruits such as gogi and acai berries.

“We don’t reinvent anything in nightlife,” says Rolfe of our MTV generation. “We follow pop culture.” His bottom line, like that of many in the beverage industry, is simple: “Drink what you like, drink what you can afford, and don’t be afraid of anything new. There are a lot of options where a taste of luxury is not entirely out of reach.” I’ll toast to that.

Xania Woodman thinks globally and parties locally. And frequently. E-mail her at [email protected] and visit to sign up for Xania’s free weekly newsletter.

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