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Whisky heats up summer cocktails

IMG_0080_Gray_Drinks Show_Cocktails_8_Spicebox Sour

Prairie 360 is crowded and Winnipeg mixologist Marc Tessier is busy with Al Capone.

By Davin de Kergommeaux

That’s his balsamic/rosemary/pomegranate whisky cocktail, and it’s a huge hit at this marketing event. Tessier is confident his colleagues across the country will be reinforcing this year’s trend of innovative and popular “restaurant originals,” drinks that indulge the patron’s desire for unique, customized beverages.

These new trends are built on established formulas, says Beam Global’s  whisky ambassador Matt Jones. “Creative mixologists add their signature to old favourites, and Tessier’s creation is a variation of the Mata Hari from Employee’s Only in NYC.” Rich and complex with its premium Canadian whisky, sweet vermouth and balsamic vinegar, the Al Capone is potentially as dangerous as its namesake.

Innovative mixologists are muddling and infusing spicy and savoury ingredients of all kinds into their cocktails like never before. Their quest may be to satisfy a customer’s desire for something out of the ordinary, but these taste trends are not short-lived fads. According to a 2013 study by Brown-Forman, trends emerge slowly and grow steadily. “Trend watchers know real trends are around for a long time,” it explains. So, mixologists need not worry they’ll be caught by surprise.

The same study also found that bars and casual dining restaurants are the top channels for cocktail consumption. Two out of three people who drink cocktails order them on-premise at least once every two to three weeks. Guests prefer basic drinks at bars and nightclubs but expect more diverse and complex creations in restaurants.

Whisky cocktails are flourishing

Sales of whisky cocktails are up 50 per cent since 2009, opening the door to even more whisky cocktails on menus. “On the rocks” presentations are also on the rise, thanks to increasing interest in classic-style cocktails.

“Price, mixability, and innovation have more and more drinkers embracing Canadian whisky,” says Pernod-Ricard’s Ryan Powell. Canadian whisky remains a great value compared with other high-end spirits. It also helps that the millennial generation perceives it as both “hip” and retro, and much more mixable than Scotch.

Enquiring consumer minds create opportunities for premises offering flights. These appeal in particular to the “merit badge” crowd, those studious drinkers with wine and spirits certifications, and even more so to the “explore-and-discoverers” who want a little learning alongside their tasting experience. It’s all about presentation, with tasting glasses and custom mats.

Craft cocktails can more accurately be described as “crafted.” They also highlight presentation with every ingredient and each element of their presentation prepared specifically for the individual recipe. Forward-thinking bartenders now extend their range far beyond vodka, adding fresh ingredients to whisky, rum, gin, tequila, and even sake.

The future is still retro

Those well-established whisky classics such as Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Boulevardiers are spreading from premium bars into the mainstream. For a summer twist, rather than the traditional fall flavours of red vermouth and Angostura bitters, Ryan Powell suggests a lighter bianco vermouth with orange bitters for a Manhattan – and high-end whisky, of course.

Cocktail aficionados dismiss the 1950s as the Dark Ages of mixology with its mass-produced vodka, powdered mixes, and kitschy paper umbrellas. Today, bartenders focus on that era’s recipes, not its presentation styles, recreating cocktails with only the finest of ingredients. 

If the right choice of spirits makes a cocktail shine, a well-crafted mixer makes it soar. Today, small-batch, flavoured, organic tonics and locally produced artisanal sodas are bubbling up behind bars. Some establishments assemble their own bottled cocktails, barrel-aged for a week or two beforehand. Uncapped tableside, they tell guests they are in for something special.

The Mad Men effect may be overplayed in the media, but it is certainly reviving the art of the after-dinner drink. Classic pre-Prohibition cocktails are popular again and the ready availability of high-quality spirits has people trying new things.

It’s all about flavour

“Flavoured whisky has brought people who thought whisky was too strong for them into the category,” says Powell.

Brown-Forman’s Brad Fletcher agrees. “Hard-core aficionados may question whisky in spiced, honey or maple varieties, but for novices, flavours are an easy introduction to whisky,” he adds.

Watch that whisky, suggests Powell. “As taste buds evolve the next step is whisky.” Maple flavours are especially popular this year, with brands such as Crown Royal Maple and Tap 357 leading the way.

Rye whisky is also soaring in Canada where distillers are crafting whiskies with up to 100 per cent rye content. It’s a natural way to ensure spiciness. Popular in the US as long ago as the 1700s, rye whisky is seeing its revival in Canada led by notable new bottlings like Lot No. 40, Masterson’s, Dark Horse, Collingwood 21 year old, and Wiser’s Legacy.

The bottom line? Flavour! The majority of drinkers say flavour is the most important element in a cocktail, even more than the spirit used. Powell agrees, “In the end it’s all about the liquid. Do you or don’t you like it?”


Whisky cocktail tips


Use high-end whisky and the freshest ingredients prepared for the individual recipe.

Create a restaurant original that your guests can get only from you.

Mind your presentation. From garnishes to glassware, consumers appreciate the finishing touches.

Be adventurous. Consumers are seeking new flavour combinations and taste experiences.