Long, cool and sophisticated, the mixed drink is back with a vengeance as bars up the ante with quality cocktails. By Ben Canaider
You can tell when a particular area of the hospitality business is booming because it starts to specialise. It starts to carve out a well-defined, professional niche. Wine has done this spectacularly during the past 15 years with the rise of the sommelier. Sommeliers might cost more to employ than waiters, but they (hopefully) add value to your wine list and help you sell more wine at better mark-ups. In the coffee game baristas have done a similar—and some would say even more spectacular—job at adding more profit to coffee, both in volume of sales and quality of product. Now it’s the turn of the bartender, or the mixologist, because serious cocktails are making a big comeback.
Two factors are driving this emerging trend.
One is liquor licensing. States such as Victoria and Queensland run more straightforward and affordable liquor licensing protocols, enabling a greater number of small businesses to start up, set up, and run bars. The proliferation of small bars in the CBD of Melbourne, for example, has been quite staggering over the past decade. Growth shows no sign of stopping. It has been a case of ‘build it and they will come’. And they have; but not just customers, also the liquor companies.
Spirits and other liquors have had a pretty easy ride in Australia up until now. Long and mixed drinks have been recognised only generically—brandy and dry, gin and tonic, or the bartenders most loathed default drink, the vodka, lime and soda and the “professionally’’ labelled vodka. With the growth of smaller and more professionally run bars, and the rise of the well trained bartender, the spirits companies have had to do a bit more work to ensure their spirits and liqueurs stay on pour. Cocktail competitions, brand ambassadors and educational sessions have helped the entire mixed drink section of the hospitality business become more vibrant and sophisticated. And the flow-on effect has been good. Customers might now know rum is not just Bundy or Bacardi; they might understand that tequila can be a refined white (or dark) spirit that deserves better than being shot; and they might now expect a mixed drinks and cocktail list in a bar or licensed premises to offer more than a badly made Cosmopolitan.
To wit, there are a few things you should be doing on the drinks list to bring some contemporaneity to your cocktails—the theory being that if you sell more posh cocktails containing better quality spirits, it will add to your bottom line.
Tequila: tequila is not about slamming or worms in the bottle or being a drunk college student. High quality and very refined tequilas now exist, as do some barrel-aged versions. The people of Jalisco (the main tequila region in Mexico) certainly don’t drink it in a silly manner. It’s sipped. The brand doing the business in Australia now is Cuervo. The Especial is American oak aged. It’s the rounder, smoother, golden version. Tradicional is a step up on this, with greater complexity and subtlety. Rested in oak, it is a 100 per cent blue agave cactus. Each bottle also comes with a year of manufacture marked on the label. It’s serious stuff. Try the Tradicional in a Cadillac—not the vehicle, but the drink. Rim the edge of a Margarita glass with lime, then pour in the shaken result of 50mls tequila, 15mls Grand Marnier, 30mls lemon and lime juice, and a dash of sugar syrup.
Proper gin: Miller’s gin. The water used in this gin’s production comes from Iceland, from an old glacial aquifer. Water purity, combined with the sort of distillation usually associated with top-hole single malt whiskey levels of excellence, means that you get a very pure spirit. The flavourings—or botanicals—in this gin are also a little different. Orange and lemon peel, coriander, cassia and nutmeg, to name a few. Miller’s reckons it has more than 100 different flavourings in the finished drinks. But you wouldn’t know it. It’s a gin that has a very confident presence, without any flavour being too outlandish. Try it as a Miller’s Martini. This requires the following: half part elderflower cordial and three parts Miller’s gin. Pour them over ice in a shaker, shake, then pour into a Martini glass. Add a lemon wedge as a garnish. Very British.
NZ vodka: 42 Below is a vodka craze that’s adding real value to the white spirits sector. Distilled three times, this New Zealand brand has a high level of purity, once again, thanks to the distillation process and the pure water used therein. It also comes with some South Pacific credibility and local nous. Anyone can sell Stolichnaya, but who can offer their customers a Kiwi vodka? Try 42 Below in a South Pacific Zombie: one part vodka, one part apple juice (or feijoa juice), one part pineapple juice; shake all of this with ice and the juice of a lime and a knife-point of finely diced ginger. Strain into a short glass.
Muddling: Long mixed drinks that will sell this summer will be drinks built on muddled lime and other botanicals—such as mint, lavender water, ginger, lychee, and coriander. The key to muddling these flavours in the bottom of a glass is simple: subtlety. Good cocktails and good, long mixed drinks need only one real quality—balance. The botanical flavours, the alcohol, the sugar syrup, the mixers—everything needs to come together to make a balanced drink, not a loud statement. Use sugar syrup in mixed drinks and cocktails—but use it sparingly.
And remember one more thing. Silly names really do help sell a new cocktail. ≤