I’m fortunate to be invited to many distilleries, bartending contests, and cocktail conferences around the world. At every locale, I visit the local bars to see what’s happening in each city, and while the Internet is bringing bartenders and their recipes closer together, there are still many regional trends to discover with each trip.
Just as cities across the U.S. are at different stages of embracing the cocktail renaissance, so, too, are different parts of the world. In some countries, there isn’t any cocktail culture to speak of, while in others, consumers are just as cocktail crazy as they are in New York City and San Francisco. So, whether customers are cocktail novices or the seen-it-all type, bars afar teach lessons that bartenders can apply here at home.
Variations on a Theme
Over the last decade, Spanish bartenders and drinkers have gone mad for the Gin & Tonic, with even small neighborhood bars carrying a large selection of both ingredients. The drink there is typically served in a big, stemmed goblet glass, with tons of ice and more tonic than we’d typically use here in the States (great for the hot weather), and with a range of garnishes from cinnamon sticks to grapefruit peels to fresh herbs that often echo the botanicals found in each individual gin. Sometimes Spanish bartenders will place five or more garnishes on one Gin & Tonic, piling them up like pickled vegetables on a Bloody Mary.
Spain has never had a strong tradition of cocktails, yet its Gin & Tonic trend has spread throughout the world. Spanish restaurants and other cocktail bars in the U.S. mimic this trend with great success—often including homemade tonic water, which is more a movement Stateside than in Spain. All over the world, customers love an easy-to-understand cocktail that’s made fancy.
Another popular trend is the one drink with multiple variations. This model for cocktails is highly adaptable, even when it’s extremely silly. Take the bar Lebowskis in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland, for example, which has a menu of around 25 variations on the White Russian in each location. It’s pretty amazing the bar can get so much mileage out of a cocktail with milk in it.
In Tokyo, the art of bartending has been nearly perfected, with hand-carved ice, elegant mannerisms, and consummate professionalism among the bartenders. Mixology there, however, is in its infancy: Japanese bartenders tend to perfect and tweak classic recipes rather than create new ones. Their version of Spain’s Gin & Tonic craze is the Whisky Highball, made with Japanese whisky, good-quality soda water, and delicate little garnishes that differ from one restaurant to the next. In one bar, the bartender presented us with a jewelry-style box of garnishes in separate trays, so we might choose one or several to sit atop our highballs. It was a beautiful, personal, memorable touch that required no special skills and would be easy to execute anywhere with waitstaff.
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, there is a strong connection to Italy and its tradition of bitter digestif beverages. The Buenos Aires take on Rum & Coke is a Fernet-Branca and cola, which locals consume in vast quantities everywhere from cafés to nightclubs. But interestingly, many of the bitter liqueurs also show up in Mint Juleps; nearly every quality cocktail bar in the city has a Julep section on the menu. Rather than the traditional bourbon, these drinks are made with a bitter liqueur base like Cynar, along with a splash of citrus, and the standard crushed ice with mint garnish. Everything about it seems odd until you drink one in the summer, and then you wonder what you’ve been doing wrong your whole life. Give it a try.
Simple Steps Up
As for Italy, the country is mostly known for its aperitif cocktails like the Americano and Negroni (and, of course, its wine), but along its beach resorts and inside chic bars the big drink is the Aperol Spritz. The low-alcohol cocktail consists of the namesake liqueur with sparkling wine and soda water, for a seaside refresher. The drink has spread to European beach towns and jet-set party places like Ibiza, but it hasn’t quite had a major impact in the U.S., yet. For bars that do unlimited Mimosa specials and afternoon cocktail programs, this could be a distinctive, upscale, European-inspired specialty.
In Lima, Peru, you’ll find the Pisco Sour in every bar, of course, but I also noticed a big attention to indigenous ingredients. The bar ámaZ features jungle ingredients in the cocktails, while other bars had rows of pisco infused with local fruits, herbs, and spices—all used in the Pisco Sours.
In the U.S. we often see local ingredients on cocktail menus, with some bars selling drinks in which all the ingredients are sourced within the smallest radius possible. The New Easy in Oakland, California, runs farmers’ market cocktail specials on Saturdays, with ingredients sourced that morning from the nearby market. This serves both as a weekly special and as an inspiration to customers for what to do at home with their just-purchased produce.
In Vancouver, Canada, many bars feature ingredients influenced by the local pan-Asian population, but that clearly are not sourced locally. I saw all kinds of exotic herbs and spices in cocktails that mirrored those in the wonderful Asian-inspired cuisine at restaurants. Thinking local doesn’t have to mean local produce.
But the city liquor companies consider to be an emerging market is Moscow, as drinkers are moving up from vodka shots to other types of spirits. The transitional spirits for Russian drinkers seem to be rum and Irish whiskey, with both Jameson and Bacardi making big pushes there. If your restaurant is full of vodka cocktail drinkers, those might be good directions in which to lead them, and Moscow Mule drinkers can easily be tempted to try the rum-based Dark ‘n Stormy or a Jameson and Ginger.
London is home to the world’s most exciting and advanced cocktail scene, and I’ve visited members-only cocktail bars, one bar that serves only house-bottled cocktails (no garnishes, no ice), and another with an upstairs members’ room that changes themes and cocktail menus every month. Two bars voted among the best in the world are there, Artesian at the Langham Hotel and Nightjar, both known for over-the-top garnishes decorating cocktails that are delicious even without the garnish.
Nightjar’s elaborate, gorgeous garnishes are prepared in advance of service (otherwise you’d never get your drinks), and include things like citrus peels cut into different shapes and attached to the glass with miniature toothpicks, peacock feathers, and seaweed. At Artesian, several drinks come in specialty glassware, like a ceramic skull bowl that wears a sombrero and is filled with scented smoke. My favorite, a drink inspired by the Oscar Wilde story “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” is placed behind a mirror with a hole through the middle for the straw. Thus, you look at yourself while you sip the cocktail, and the more you drink, the younger you look. Genius.
From abstract concepts to easily executable adaptations, we can take inspiration from bars around the world to give cocktail menus here at home a global perspective.