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Put down that tired martini, and step away from the bar. There are more interesting cocktails to try.
CNBC was in New Orleans this summer for the 12th annual Tales of the Cocktail, a convention for bartenders, distillers and restaurateurs. Over the five-day event, organizers said, nearly 11,000 bottles were opened for mixing and sampling in tasting rooms, seminars and other events. With that many drinks in play, it's not hard to see a few trends emerging—ones perhaps better suited for wooing dates, impressing friends and winning over business contacts. Or heck, just drinking better.
Keep an eye out for these 10 on menus and in liquor stores near you.
—By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant
Posted 2 August 2014
Maybe New Orleans' pralines were an influencer, but distillers seem to be going, well, nuts. There are several pecan-infused spirits (William Wolf Pecan Bourbon and Cathead Vodka Pecan, among others), as well as bitters (El Guapo's Chicory-Pecan) and nonalcoholic cocktail syrups (18.21 Bitters has a Georgia Peach + Salted Pecan).
Expect to find the unexpected in your drink, as more distillers and bartenders raid field and forest for cocktail ingredients. One we liked: Blowin' in the Wind, at a tasting room for Caorunn Gin (which itself is made with foraged ingredients). Bartender Craig Hiljus of Jimmy in Chicago mixed gin with fresh lemon, cattail juice and dandelion syrup, as well as bitters made from foraged ingredients. For a final touch, he added a so-called oyster leaf that tasted like its namesake.
Corn, barley and rye are still dominant, but a few distillers are looking to offbeat mashes, with distinct results. Corsair Distillery has a quinoa whiskey, and High West, an unaged whiskey made with oats. Koval even produces a single-barrel whiskey using millet. "It's a wonderful grain to work with," said a distillery spokeswoman at the Tales tasting event. "It's like vanilla frosting when you mash it."
If the drink is pink, odds are good there's hibiscus in it. The tropical pink flower is getting trendy, both in syrups, bitters and other tinctures made behind the bar, and those packaged for home use. (Cinch has one with hibiscus, ginger, almond and lemon, while Owl's Brew makes Pink & Black, with Darjeeling tea, hibiscus, lemon peel and strawberry). There's also Sorel, a hibiscus liqueur that's both spicy and sweet.
When promos tout, "Follow us to lose your baijiu virginity," you know you're in for a drink that's unlike anything you've tasted before. Pronounced "bye-jyoh," this popular Chinese spirit is starting to make its way into the U.S. market. It's high-proof, bold and an acquired taste for many folks—you'll probably want to try some before you're tossing some back as part of closing a business deal. But there's a lot of variation in the category. We were pretty enamored with the Luzhou Laojiao ($80), which has some pineapple notes to it.
American consumers don't usually pick the more expensive baijius—which tend to be smoother with more nuance in flavor—as a first try, which is why the category can have an intimidating rep, said Derek Sandhaus, author of "Baijiu: The Essential Guide to Chinese Spirits." Need to impress someone? Pick up a bottle of Kweichow Moutai (about $160). It's among the best-known brands, he said, and the one usually presented as a gift to visiting dignitaries.
Choices distillers make about aging—what kind of barrels, how long, and even whether to age at all—can be a big influence in the final taste. We saw some interesting choices with tasty results, including Distillery No. 209's gin aged in wine barrels, and New Holland Brewing's Beer Barrel Bourbon. On the cocktail side, more bartenders are experimenting with barrel-aged cocktails, too.
Recipes that call for, say, a pineapple or lavender syrup just got easier. Plenty of companies are introducing small-batch takes. Some takes, with a little seltzer, might sub in for the tonic water in your G&T (Cinch "Revival Tent Tonic" uses calendula, slippery elm, ginger, turmeric and pineapple). Others become a quick way to add flavors you're unlikely to easily incorporate otherwise (like Blue J Syrups' earl grey and lavender, or 18.21 Bitters' raspberry mint).
"It really adds a new dimension to cocktails," said Paul Tuennerman, a co-organizer for Tales of the Cocktail. "If you wanted to make these at home or at the bar, that would take you forever."
Drinking a glass of water between cocktails just became more than smart hangover-avoidance advice. Plenty of bartenders are putting some serious heat and spice in their creations. Look for muddled jalapenos, pepper-infused spirits, spice-laden bitters (Bittermens Hellfire) and other elements that ratchet up the Scoville scale.
One we liked: At The 86 Co.'s "Bar Brawl," Las Vegas bar Herbs and Rye made the El Ranchito with Tequila Cabeza, jalapeno-infused Chartreuse, lime, cilantro Riesling syrup and egg whites.
"As a consumer you're going to see a lot more single malt, and a lot more diversity," said Nima Ansari, spirit buyer and sales manager for New York City's Astor Wines and Spirits. U.S. single malts aren't necessarily trying to emulate Scotch, he said. Many of the distillers making them have beer backgrounds that bring a unique angle to the malting and fermentation. A few to try: Balcones Texas Single Malt Whiskey, New Holland Brewing's Zeppelin Bend, and Corsair's Triple Smoke.
Cocktails on tap? Check. Pop-tails and cocktail flights? Check, check. In a seminar on "For-Profit Consumer Education," bartenders talked about the importance of retail theater and unusual presentations in driving drink sales. Serve one drink out of a slushee machine, and it catches the whole bar's attention.