Vodka, once maligned by a wave of pretentious barkeeps who didn’t deem it as captivating as botanical-forward gin, is beloved yet again by open-minded drink slingers who discern its nuances and celebrate its versatility in easy-drinking highballs and boozy Vespers alike. Summer unabashedly starred the white spirit alongside such light, uplifting ingredients as elderflower syrup and strawberry marmalade. Although this revived interest in vodka will continue to dictate autumnal drink lists, perhaps melded with black pepper tinctures or in the form of spiced tea infusions, the cooler months promise more than vodka’s continued rebirth.
This year saw myriad whiskey releases—from the limited edition single-barrel expressions of craft distilleries to bold, high-proof ryes from well-known producers to luxe Scotches meant to be unveiled on special occasions. Highlighting these new bottles of whiskey, whether mixed in an imaginative libation or served neat, will certainly be a priority among bartenders appealing to brown spirits–loving patrons in the coming months.
But there is more to look forward to: At Whitechapel, the San Francisco bar from owners Martin Cate and Alex Smith, gin—the largest selection found in North America—takes the spotlight. Here, a concoction like the Flemish Purl (Tanqueray dry gin, Diep9 genever, Flemish sour ale, brown sugar, ginger, nutmeg, and clove) or the Von Dutch Cocktail (Bols Damrak gin, Bols barrel-aged genever, cinnamon shrub, unfiltered apple juice, black pepper bitters, and lemon) are apt fits for an October rendezvous. But the transition can also be more subtle than migrating to such a complex drink.
This fall, Smith also expects to see a rise in aged gins like California’s own Botanica and No. 209. “They have a nice warming effect when sipped or used in stirred, spirit-driven cocktails; they not only have the comforting vanillin of toasted wood but also the fruits and baking spices often found in gins such as orange, lemon zest, nutmeg, and cassia,” he says. Along with these rich barrel-aged gins, Smith expects to see more customers ordering cocktails flaunting smoky profiles. Undoubtedly many of these will embrace mezcal, tequila’s fast-rising, predominantly smoky sibling—like Whitechapel’s C.F. Pachuca (Rusty Blade gin, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, Noilly Prat ambre vermouth, and orange bitters). A number of quality bottles made on family-run estates were introduced to the U.S. market this year, boosting the growing category’s reputation. Spicy drinks (hot sauce fanatics are increasingly becoming drawn to creations that don’t shy away from punches of habanero and jalapeño) are also becoming mainstays on menus, like the Lamplighter’s Story, wherein Whitechapel unites Serrano chili with hibiscus-infused Plymouth gin, grapefruit marmalade, bitter orange soda, and lemon.
The hot toddy, a simple liquor-water-honey nightcap that purportedly helps quell colds, has emerged more refined and adventurous in recent years. Smith believes these seasonal favorites will only become more popular among experimental bartenders looking to transcend cocktails served over perfect cubes of ice. “Hot drinks are especially satisfying as the weather begins to get colder,” he points out. Chill-defying temperatures combined with a soothing slate of traditional spices, including cardamom and allspice that work well when paired with a number of different spirits, offer myriad permutations for bartenders.
Apple Brandy is a Top Pick
Just as chefs reflect the welcome shift from summer to fall by replacing chunky tomato gazpacho with creamy butternut squash soup and towering ice cream sundaes with sticky slabs of pecan pie, a thoughtful bartender will do the same with cocktails. Quenching Palomas and Gin & Tonics are put on the back burner until the next swimsuit season. Instead of breezy rum drinks, cucumber infusions, and fresh basil garnishes, the stage is set for brooding concoctions that feature ingredients like Mexico’s bitter Fernet-Vallet, candied ginger, and whole eggs for after-dinner flips.
Over the past few years, the surge of interest in cocktails featuring port and sherry has been remarkable, especially during fall when nutty flavors are craved. Whipping up drinks with these fortified wines is a pastime that continues to be in vogue. For instance, the autumn-perfect Lower King Street, on the menu at Eight Row Flint in Houston, is made with Rittenhouse rye, Malmsey Madeira, Amaro Lucano, apple cider syrup, vanilla, Fee Brothers’ Old Fashioned bitters, and orange oil. Likewise, Beaker & Gray in Miami is the place to settle in with a Super Vin Santo (Michter’s American Whiskey, Manzanilla sherry, and Faretti Biscotti Famosi liqueur) or an Inside Outside In (Santa Teresa Gran Reserva rum, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, and Madeira). In San Francisco, Whitechapel also integrates Oloroso sherry into the Bohemian Grove Accord, with No. 209 Cabernet Barrel gin, Bols genever, Becherovka, and orange curacao.
At Eight Row Flint, Morgan Weber thinks Calvados, the lush French apple brandy made in Normandy, resonates particularly well with the whiskey-beer-and-taco joint’s menu. Weber, the co-owner of Agricole Hospitality, which in addition to Eight Row Flint includes the local establishments Revival Market and Coltivare, explains, “Over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly obsessive about Calvados. Every time I’m in Paris, I hit the restaurant and wine bar Lavinia and put myself in their hands: ‘Here is the budget. Tell me about the Calvados with which I shouldn’t leave this country.’”
Fall, he believes, is the perfect time to introduce a wider swath of customers who may be familiar with products like New Jersey–made Laird’s AppleJack to the fresh, supple, fruity intensity of Calvados. “Calvados dovetails so easily with our American drinking culture—especially in New England, the apple-growing mecca of the country—and most certainly our autumn season, when they’re in primetime,” he says. “I totally understand the knee-jerk reaction of pairing an apple brandy with Christmas spices, but that notion is tired and puts me to sleep. I like to brighten apple flavors up and ride that line by adding citrus and a supporting clean liquor, a crossover drink that might be as at home in late summer as in October.”
Beaker & Gray’s bar manager, Ben Potts, also expects to see obscure Calvados selections from Normandy appealing to curious patrons, along with aged craft apple brandies made in California. “As always, fall flavors will stay pretty much the same: fig, pumpkin, cinnamon, and so on, but with America’s ever-advancing palate and the pursuit of the inventive and different, we should be seeing some interesting and exotic ingredients make their way into drinks,” he says. For example, he thinks imported nut liqueurs and high-proof Italian amari laced with rhubarb or artichoke—all of which add depth and intrigue to cocktails—will also be clamored for. “Advancements in preparation and production techniques, such as sous vide infusions and clever ingredient dehydrations, will be combined with any new produce bartenders can get their hands on,” he points out.