This past July marked my eighth time attending the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans, not all of those in a row. While hot, sticky July isn’t my favorite time to visit NOLA, Tales remains a must-visit for me. It provides a few more pieces that fit into the puzzle, showing where the cocktail and spirits industry may be headed. Based on what I saw, talked about with industry insiders and of course, sipped, here are five trends to keep on the radar in the year ahead.
The Instagram-able cocktail: How cocktails look matter more than ever. At Tales, drinks were served in branded coconut shells, copper squirrels and faux prescription bottles, then topped with fancy garnishes and spritzed with elaborate scents. Drinks are heading in a more baroque, conceptual direction. There is pressure to wow a jaded younger audience, who came of age when the cocktail revolution had already unfolded. It’s no longer enough for drinks to be good; a “wow factor” is now a mandatory element.
Fast, faster, fastest: Discussion about speed and efficiency dominated industry seminars, ranging from a talk about cocktail robots to assemble drinks while bartenders handle the hospitality to martinis pre-aged in bottles. At industry events, Jungle Birds and other fancy cocktails were dispensed on tap and in pre-batched bottles and cans. In the age of instant gratification, these pressing questions rang clear: How fast can we get that drink to you? How much faster can we all make money?
Rum is still hot: Any seminar or event that featured rum seemed to sell out first, by a wide margin. Enthusiasm for tiki bars and tropical drinks is still going strong.
Sustainability in focus: An organization called Trash Tiki threw a rooftop cocktail bash, serving drinks made with upcycled scraps, like spent lime hulls brewed into “lime cordial,” and leftover peach puree fermented into “peach beer.” The event followed the first-ever Sustainability Summit at Tales, a full-day session aimed at helping bartenders and bars reduce their collective impact on the environment. Look for the conversation around sustainable cocktails to continue.
Wellness and “healthy” drinks: While some will chafe at the perceived intersection of alcohol and wellness, the two concepts intertwined more than ever before at Tales. Seedlip, a non-alcoholic distillate, had a strong presence at the conference, while seminars and events promoting low-alcohol aperitivos and spritzes proved popular, and a Spirited Dinner hosted by William Grant focused on plant-based dishes paired with gin cocktails.
Meanwhile, numerous seminars and events urged bartenders to find work-life balance. Novo Fogo cachaca sponsored a morning “zen den” featuring bike-powered blenders to churn out smoothies; a late-night bartender boxing-themed event celebrated the sporting life. Will these initiatives result in healthier bartenders? Possibly. On the other side of the bar, will consumers embrace more moderate alcohol choices? That seems like a harder sell. Unless, of course, that low-alcohol drink arrives in an Insta-worthy copper squirrel vessel.