The fifth annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC) washed into the city on a wave of liquor. This year’s event had 25 percent more attendees than 2015 as well as a jump in the number of booze brands participating. More than 8,700 mixologists, brand representatives, and cocktail enthusiasts drank in information and binged on merriment at dozens of dinners and parties strewn all over town.
Notable industry experts like Houston Eaves of The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, Jessica Sanders of drink.well. in Austin, and Alba Huerta of Julep in Houston packed hotel ballrooms with bartenders eager to learn tricks of the trade and the hottest trends for 2016. The presenters at SACC certainly have their finger on the pulse of the most important trends in the industry.
As Jason Kosmos, co-owner of The 86 Co. put it, “We are the urban shamans. We deliver the medicine. We deliver the advice.”
What do the cocktail shamans say about the cocktail trends of 2016?
1. Beer is for cocktails
Jacob Grier, author of Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer, introduced a few hearty beer cocktails in his session with an academic approach to old-school drinks. In a “don’t try this one at home” moment, he superheated a metal rod to 1,000 degrees with a blowtorch to demonstrate how the earliest versions of flips were made. Rather than being a cold cocktail made with egg whites, historically, flips were made with beer, rum, sugar, and spice and served hot. Grier replicated it with a glowing red rod plunged into a malty beer, sending steam into the air and beer frothing over. The iron quickly heats the beer and caramelizes the sugars immediately. The result? A cocktail that smells like hot iron, tastes like scorched sugar in a smoky beer, and is oddly delightful.
For a safer way to make at home, and a really satisfying warm drink to fortify you against the cold, try his cognac and dark ale cocktail:
- 2 ounces cognac
- 12 ounces malty English ale like Samuel Smith Winter Welcome
- 2 tablespoons Demerara raw sugar
Mix winter spices like clove and cinnamon in the beer and cognac mixture, while heating it on the stove. Serve it piping hot in a mug.
2. Whiskey is still king
No fewer than five seminars were dedicated to the caramel colored king, whiskey. In addition, there were several parties where whiskey was the featured spirit or heavily dominant. The recent surge in bourbon sales isn’t the only thing driving industry interest. Demand for rye whiskey, scotch, and Japanese whiskey is also running hot, and skyrocketing prices reaching beyond five digits will continue. The diversity of options running from rustic to elegant offer the drinking public plenty to thirst for.
3. Mezcal is the next bourbon
For the past few years, bourbon has been the hottest selling spirit, leaving many popular brands in scarce supply. Now it’s mezcal’s turn to soak in the spotlight. Mezcal was featured in a seminar on its culture, and brands like Montelobos Mezcal, Wahaka Mezcal, and Ilegal Mezcal held events to help bartenders hone their palates on the agave spirit. This is one spirit we are sure to see topping many cocktail lists this year.
Get into the spirit with this twist on the Moscow Mule, the Wahaka Mule:
- 1.5 ounces Wahaka Mezcal
- 3 ounces ginger beer
Stir and add a squeeze of lime.
4. Service matters
Dushan Zaric, a driving force behind the infamous Employees Only cocktail bar in New York and co-owner of The 86 Co., thinks the most important element of cocktail culture exists outside the glass. “As we grow as a profession and a craft movement, we are forced to adopt hospitality. In the culinary profession, it’s the better ingredients, the better experience. In cocktails, the quality of our drinks won’t differentiate us anymore. It will be more of the human dynamic that will set us apart. It is all about better service.”
5. Fortified factor
Jessica Sanders, co-owner of Austin’s drink.well. and soon-to-open-cocktail den Backbeat, sees the secondary players taking center stage. “Certainly, base spirits like mezcal and rye whiskey continue to be at the forefront, but, above all, what you see is a very focused interest in education around modifier spirits and fortified wines — Madeira, sherry, and herbal liqueurs being particularly prevalent.”
6. Fun dominates
Travis Tober, who recently turned over the reigns as beverage director for Vox Table to become House Spirits Distillery's national director of education and advocacy, is drawing on his inner Cyndi Lauper. “The biggest trend I saw at SACC this year was ‘fun.’ Gone are the days of speakeasies and rules at the door. The common citizen is hip to cocktails and they want them without pretentiousness. The cocktail scene is starting to relax and enjoy itself. And I for one am relieved.”
If the predictions of the spirit soothsayers of SACC hold true, we are in for a year of beer, dark liquor, and excellent experiences at the bars around Texas.