From mezcal mania to Japanese-style highballs, the cocktail and spirits trends that will make a difference in 2018.

Story: Robert Simonson | Illustration: Natalie K Nelson | December 26, 2017
You’d think the bar world, full of ports in a storm and happy hours, would be insulated from the troubles of the world. Not entirely. Yes, in 2017, drinks and spirits were still served and happily consumed; new bars opened, old bars closed; and the media still wanted to know what was new on the menu and what bartenders thought of the latest hot trend. But, as with much of the world, the past year was a tumultuous one in the world of drinks, with the industry looking inward, struggling to confront issues such as diversity, sexism, sustainability and sobriety.

2018 will likely bring more of the same, as every new business current seems to bring with it a new political or social aspect, from our love of mezcal to Big Liquor’s love of pricey bottlings. Nothing’s quite so simple anymore. Which is probably all to the good.

Here are my predictions as to the issues and changes that will shape drinks, drink sellers and drink makers in the coming year.

The Cocktail Book Bubble Bursts

Not since the Repeal of Prohibition have so many cocktail books been published in such a short period of time. It began with seminal books like David Wondrich’s sprawling histories, Imbibe! and Punch, in 2007 and 2010, respectively; Jim Meehan’s The PDT Cocktail Book, in 2011; and Brad Thomas Parsons Bitters, also 2011. After that came the deluge. Every bar of any renown (Death & Co., Dead Rabbit, Canon) netted a book deal. Each niche topic was given its own tome (ShrubsSpritz, etc.). Whole volumes were devoted to single spirits or single cocktails. But we may have reached capacity. After the sales of a few titles disappointed in recent seasons, the publishing world has begun to turn off the spigot. Expect fewer cocktail books in the years to come, and even fewer devoted to glorifying specific bars, however famous.

Cocktail Convention Diversification

Tales of the Cocktail, the annual New Orleans booze convention around which the cocktail calendar revolved, was unmoored after its founder, Ann Tuennerman, and her husband, Paul, were forced to step down this past September. Paul had initially exited the organization the previous March after displaying what was seen as  racially insensitive behavior during a Mardi Gras parade. When Ann unexpectedly reinstated him, the reaction within the industry was so negative and so swift that both were gone within 48 hours. Since then, questions have swirled about whether Tales will continue in 2018. If it does, it will certainly be in an altered, and probably diminished, form. Moreover, it’s no longer the only game in town. BevCon, the well-liked, two-year-old, Charleston-based drinks conference, announced a move to Los Angeles in 2018; an increase in size will likely accompany it. And Bar Convent, the powerful and increasingly popular spirits convention held every fall in Berlin, announced it would launch Bar Convent Brooklyn in June, 2018. Events that have vied to compete with Tales in the past have been weak and ineffectual. But if any conclave could supplant it, it’s Bar Convent.

Mezcal Mania Continues (with an Asterisk)

America learned the word Mezcaleria in 2017. Bars dedicated to the ancient and versatile agave spirit sprung up across America, meeting a nationwide thirst that has rocketed over the past few years. At the same time, many began to worry whether this was too much of a good thing. Since agave plants take years to mature, mezcal is the very opposite of a quick-turnaround, mass-production spirit. As large liquor conglomerates like Bacardi and Pernod Ricard begin to wade into the mezcal market, advocates and protectors of the spirit worry about undue stress being put on a fragile and limited ecosystem. There will be more proud parents of new mezcal bars in 2018; there’s no bucking a trend so strong. But those parents will even more protective of their bottled babies and their future.

Highball Hour

Once considered beneath the attention of serious-minded bars, the highball is suddenly everywhere, newly appreciated for both its simplicity and low-alcohol status. Highballs of all sorts are now offered on the best of menus, but none so much as the Japanese-style whiskey highball, versions of which can be had at bars as diverse and far-flung as Bar Moga in Greenwich Village, Pacific Cocktail Haven in San Francisco, Tongue-Cut Sparrow in Houston and Prairie School in Chicago. Suntory, the Japanese liquor behemoth, has done its bit to spur the trend along, installing its custom highball machines, filled with precisely measured ratios of chilled Toki whisky and water, in bars and restaurants in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. In 2018, we will see a greater density of both the drinks and those trusty machines.

Sustained Sustainability

The bar world recently opened its eyes to the fact that you can sustain a buzz at a bar, but not much else. From paper napkins and plastic straws, to the emissions released into the atmosphere just to get a bottle from the distillery to the tavern, bars leave a substantial carbon footprint. Certain members of the global community have stepped up as sustainability thought-leaders, including London’s Ryan Chetiyawardana, who has strived to create zero-waste bars and “closed-loop” cocktails. Trash Tiki, an itinerant pop-up created by Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths, also from London, hit the road last year on a 28-city tour, spreading its gospel of anti-waste. And #banthestraw became a popular hashtag on Twitter. These issues will not go away in the new year any more than climate change will stop making headlines.

Pop ‘Til You Drop

The bar world has become addicted to the pop-up. This past year has seen famous watering holes stage pop-ups at other famous drink dens for a day, a week, a month. Holiday-oriented pop-ups multiplied tenfold this December. The Washington, D.C., spaces that once contained the Derek Brown and Angie Featherton bars Eat the Rich, Southern Efficiency and Mockingbird Hill are now basically non-stop pop-ups, shedding their skins every few months. When will the madness stop? When our thirst for pop-ups die and they no longer make money.

Pouring One Out for the One Percent

The new tax bill recently passed by the Senate is not the only thing catering to the one percent. Liquor companies big and small also desire the attentions of that tiny but powerful demographic. In bourbon, rye, Scotch, Japanese whisky, Cognac and tequila, the buzzwords are “limited,” “rare,” “ancient” and “vintage,” and the prices start at three figures and only go up from there. These bottlings are not for the everyday consumer, but for the deep-pocketed collector. In the barroom, this translates to high-priced cocktails made of rare spirits from the past, such as those found at The Office in New York and the Milk Room in Chicago. As the income gap grows between the haves and have-nots, those haves will be courted even more.

Canned Cocktails

Meanwhile, for those of use down in the 99 percent, there will be more canned cocktails. Bibulous American travelers have long noted that England and Europe are way ahead of the U.S. in terms of getting their favorite drink in a tin at the local market. Well, the States are now catching up. Already fairly ubiquitous are Slow & Low’s Rock and Rye, Novo Fogo’s Caipirinha, and the Cutwater Spirits line of highballs (Gin & Tonic, Rum & Ginger, etc.). If you can’t find your favorite drink in can form now, just wait a bit. It’s likely already in development.
The Cocktail and Spirits Stories That Will Shape 2018
Punch, December 26, 2017