Mark Ludmon looks ahead at some of the trends in spirits and cocktails in 2016
For the past two years, the team behind Discount Suit Company bar in east London have been championing poitín – the traditional unaged Irish spirit. In December, they introduced monthly poitín masterclasses at their other east London bar, The Sun Tavern, taking consumers through the spirit’s dynamic flavours and strengths under head bartender Ciaran Ó Dubhthaigh. While a small category, poitín is part of growing interest in Irish spirits that is set to grow in 2016 on the back of new brands and new marketing in the UK.
Alongside continued support for Jameson, Pernod Ricard UK is stepping up activity on boutique and single-pot whiskeys from the Midleton distillery such as Redbreast, Yellow Spot, Powers John’s Lane and Midleton Barry Crockett Legacy. Halewood International tapped into this opportunity with the launch of The Pogues Irish Whiskey, a blend of grain and 50% single malt whiskey from West Cork Distillers and the legendary Irish band. In 2016, it is set to launch a new mainstream range under the West Cork Distillers name comprising a blend and a 10-year-old single malt. Through Lightbox Brands, Irish craft distillery Glendalough is developing its spirits in the UK including a range of poitíns, a single-grain whiskey aged in former bourbon and sherry barrels, and two single malt whiskeys aged for seven and 13 years.
Sam Fish, drinks innovator and educator for Mojo bars in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, says she has seen a huge amount of interest growing towards Irish whiskey. She believes some of this is down to British bartenders seeing how Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon have championed Irish whiskey at The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog in New York City. “It’s been popular with bartenders and consumers alike and we’ve seen our sales increase in this area,” she says.
Irish whiskey is poised to become the new “trendy” drink for discerning drinkers thanks to its premium taste and Irish heritage, according to Protégé International which owns The Wild Geese range. “As Japanese whisky supplies dry up and Scottish whiskies fall out of favour, Irish whiskey will increasingly appeal to the astute drinker,” believes chairman André Levy. Quintessential Brands launched The Dubliner, suitable for sipping and cocktails, and The Dubliner Liberties Oak Devil, with more bite at 46% ABV, through Marblehead Brand Development at the end of 2015. “Irish whiskey is the fastest-growing spirits category in the world but has long been dominated by a single player,” says Sinead O Frighil, international marketing manager for Irish whiskeys at Quintessential. “We believe there is a great opportunity in this category for growth – Irish whiskey is still relatively smaller than other whisky categories and it has a great consumer appeal with its smooth and accessible taste.”
Other emerging categories to watch in 2016 include Canadian whisky and China’s strong-flavoured rice and grain-based baijiu which is the world’s biggest-selling spirit but little known in the West. London restaurant Nam Long le Shaker launched a special baijiu bar and cocktail list in November, picking up on a “hot trend” in New York City at bars such as Lumos. Royal China restaurants in London are promoting baijiu’s more exclusive expression, Maotai, while several London bars are mixing up cocktails with HKB, a baijiu designed for Western palates. London bars and restaurants such as The Hide, Opium, China Tang, Bo Drake, and Demon, Wise & Partners will be celebrating SeeWoo Foods’ Baijui Cocktail Week from February 5 to 14.
Another spirit largely unknown in the UK is aquavit – a leading category in its native Scandinavia – but, after activity targeting leading London bartenders, 2016 could be the year it becomes more mainstream. At Scandinavian-style bar and café KuPP in London’s Paddington, aquavit is proving popular with customers and is used in twists on classic cocktails such as a Tom Collins and a Bloody Mary, says chief executive Steve Cox. “The potato vodka-based spirit, with caraway and fennel, is growing in popularity, partly due to the inquisitiveness of our guests in addition to the demand for more interesting, inventive and flavoursome drinks.”
Amathus is the leading supplier of aquavit in the UK, with brands such as Linie from Norway and Aalborg from Denmark, all produced by Arcus. Generally drunk neat chilled or at room temperature in Scandinavia, it has potential in the UK in mixed drinks, says Jon Anders, aquavit brand champion at Amathus. “Neat 40% alcohol could be a little heavy for the English palate and, with the fennel and caraway taste it carries a lot of character, but surprisingly aquavit works extremely well in cocktails, and its combination of spices makes a very elegant cocktail.” He recommends a twist on a Presidente, mixing Linie Aquavit with Dolin dry vermouth and Clément Créole Shrubb liqueur with an orange zest garnish, or the simple serve of ice-cold aquavit poured into a glass that has been coated with a few drops of bitters.
Amathus is also shaking up the mixers segment with the newly launched Doctor Polidori Tonic Waters alongside Ferdinand’s Dry Vermouth from the owners of Ferdinand’s Saar Dry Gin in Germany. With a lower sugar content, its Dry Tonic offers herbal notes of basil and thyme combined with spicy cubeb pepper and juniper while an extra twist is added with its Cucumber Tonic.
Consumers will continue to look for more interesting tonics to go with their spirits, says Raissa de Haas who launched Double Dutch mixers with twin sister Joyce in 2015. As well as an Indian Tonic Water and Slimline Tonic Water, Double Dutch offers unique flavours through its Cucumber & Watermelon and Pomegranate & Basil mixers.
Also new is mixers in the Franklin & Sons soft drinks range from Global Brands, including Natural Indian Tonic Water, Original Ginger Ale and Sicilian Lemon Tonic. They join Sicilian Lemonade & English Elderflower with crushed juniper, Wild Strawberry & Scottish Raspberry with cracked black pepper, British Dandelion & handpicked Burdock with star anise, Cloudy Apple & Yorkshire Rhubarb with cinnamon, and Ginger Beer & Malted Barley with a squeeze of lemon. “Franklin & Sons is perfectly placed to take advantage of the trend for natural, more premium and grown-up soft drinks,” says marketing director Simon Green.
Gin has been the hero of 2015, with an ever-growing range of brands coming onto the market and more bars choosing to stock broader selections. “We’re experiencing a gin renaissance in the UK on-trade which shows no signs of slowing down as we enter the new year, with the gin category currently growing by 6.6%,” says Tim Homewood, brand ambassador for Diageo Reserve’s Tanqueray. “In 2016, we’ll continue to see a wide variety of new and exciting gins come to market, with an increasingly broadened audience seeking out opportunities to experiment with these different styles in a range of serves and cocktails.” Tanqueray added to this diversity at the end of last year with the launch of limited-edition Tanqueray Bloomsbury based on a 19th-century recipe, with powerful juniper notes and a savoury finish.
In December, Pernod Ricard UK brought back Beefeater Crown Jewel which incorporates the classic dry gin’s nine classic botanicals plus grapefruit, adding crisp notes of citrus. Global brand ambassador Tim Stones points out that gin is becoming more drink-specific due to the variety of styles from London dry through to those using “weird and wonderful” botanicals. “As a benchmark London Dry gin, it’s important for us at Beefeater to remind people of the London style and the role it continues to play. Granted, there can be massive variations within this style, but for the most part, London gins are incredibly versatile and can be used in many styles of cocktail.”
Targeting the luxury market, Allure Spirits has introduced Givinity in a cognac-style bottle printed with 11-carat gold and featuring a neck label wrapped with gold aluminium and a gold-plated bottle closure. One of the stand-out gins launching towards the end of 2015 was the classic-style Silent Pool, inspired by ancient pools in the Surrey Hills where the distillery has been built. It is made with 24 botanicals, with a juniper-driven recipe featuring floral layers of lavender and camomile, fresh notes of citrus and kaffir lime leaves and subtle sweetness from using honey. The brand has been launched in the UK through leading premium spirits specialist Cask Liquid Marketing.
A new push is planned for Bulldog Gin in 2016, supported by the imminent appointment of a new UK brand ambassador. “Our brand ambassador will work closely with the on-trade to help educate consumers that Bulldog is smooth enough to drink neat on the rocks – we like it with a slice of orange – and bold enough to perfect the gin and tonic and versatile enough to shake up a cocktail,” says CEO Anshuman Vohra. “We are now seeing tastes develop and consumers look for more choice from the back bar and those heavy traditional gins.”
While consumers have been turning to spirits full of flavour, vodka has been making a comeback through a steady flow of premium new brands. Some have come from gin producers such as the grape-based Chilgrove Vodka and Holy Grass Vodka from Dunnet Bay Distillery in Scotland – a vodka flavoured naturally with holy grass similar to Poland’s bison grass. Many come with local provenance such as Scottish potato vodka Arbikie which marked its first birthday with the launch of a Chilli Vodka made with Scottish-grown chipotle chillis.
Mal Evans, co-director of Mojo bars, hopes to see more emphasis generally on provenance in 2016 instead of “just shiny new labels created by marketing teams”. He adds: “Since we have only so much real estate on the back bar and we are more than ever spoiled for choice, I would like to see the trade lean more to brands with good provenance. I see vodka fighting to claw back some of the ground lost to gin, with interesting brands like Konik’s Tail and Black Cow.”
The newly launched Our/London vodka is part of a project in cities around the world, developed by Åsa Caap and four entrepreneurs from Great Works in Sweden and initiated by spirits group Pernod Ricard. Despite being global, each of the vodkas has its own individual characteristics as well as name to root it in its locality. Our/London is produced at London’s first dedicated vodka distillery in Hackney by well-known industry figure Clive Watson with leading music PR Neil Chivers. It is a smooth, fresh vodka with fruity notes and a natural sweetness, with ABV of 37.5%, in 350ml bottles.
Interest in provenance is creating a niche for high-end craft producers, says Daniel Szor, owner of The Cotswolds Distillery which produces Cotswolds Dry Gin, made with nine botanicals include Cotswolds lavender. “Today, the back story and experience of drinking are just as important as the product. A big focus continues to be on local provenance and terroir.”
In the past five years, 73 new distilleries have been registered in the UK, and there is no sign of this slowing down, points out Alex Wolpert who founded East London Liquor Company (ELLC) in 2014. “Since the recession, consumers have chosen to patronise local brands, giving smaller distilleries the opportunity to take on the larger established players. We expect to see these smaller distilleries diversify in 2016.” After success with its gin and vodka, ELLC is launching a barrel-aged gin programme and is ready to release its first rye whisky in 2018.
But the fastest-growing mainstream category in the UK on-trade isn’t gin – it is tequila which last year grew sales by 27% year on year, according to CGA Strategy figures. “Consumers are expected to embrace premium tequila brands in 2016,” says Marc Plumridge, head of trade advocacy for Patrón tequila in the UK at Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands. “This will be driven by the way in which the spirit is served in refreshing, thought-provoking and disruptive serves that capture the imaginations of cocktail lovers.”
Tequila is growing because it has become an increasingly respected spirit by bartenders and consumers, says Matthew Sykes, marketing director for Patrón in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “What was once seen as a drink that was slammed with a wedge of lemon and salt to mask the flavour is now rightly seen as a sophisticated drink that can be enjoyed in a number of cocktails or can be sipped over ice. Bartenders are constantly experimenting with different ingredients, finding new ways to surprise savvy consumers that have a taste for innovative serves. Classics have been reinvented using brands like Patrón – using Patrón Añejo in place of a whiskey in an Old Fashioned puts a contemporary twist on a classic serve.” Alternatively, a Negroni can be twisted by substituting the gin for Patron Reposado (pictured below).
In the UK on-trade, it is led by 100% agave tequilas, with a connoisseur segment developed through brands such as Clase Azul which has been relaunched in the UK by Spirit Cartel. Packaged in hand-painted decanters, the range starts with a white Plata retailing at around £95 and goes up to Ultra Extra Añejo, aged for five years in small sherry casks, with a retail price tag of £2,399.
Spirits with flavour
Flavoured spirits are adding growth in many categories from whiskey and vodka to gin and tequila. Diageo Reserve continues to expand its super-premium Cîroc vodka range, adding Apple in December after the success of Pineapple earlier in the year. “Flavoured spirits have grown significantly in recent years as consumers have become more willing to experiment with new flavour profiles and serves,” says Diageo Reserve brand ambassador Dan Dove. “In fact, over half of white spirit drinkers choose flavoured white spirits. This number is likely to increase throughout 2016 as on-trade venues will inevitably increase their flavoured variant range, developing a selection of bespoke and enticing serves to reach out to even more consumers.” He adds that the consumer trend towards sipping neat spirits including Cîroc flavours continues to gain traction.
With more than one in five on-trade outlets now serving cocktails in the UK, the market is set to continue growing in 2016, according to research by cocktail mix brand Finest Call and its UK distributor Cellar Trends. They predict theatre will remain a key trend in presentation alongside molecular mixology, disco cocktails, low-calorie and aperitif-style drinks, and less common ingredients such as vegetables, vinegar-based shrubs, and smoked fruit.
Espresso-based cocktails are also set to continue in popularity after the dominance of the Espresso Martini in 2015. Growing consumer interest in coffee is driving brands such as Mr Black, a high-quality Australian liqueur made from single-origin Arabica coffee beans from Ethiopia, Brazil and Papua New Guinea. As well as espresso cocktails, it can be used to twist classics such as a Negroni or White Russian.
The trend for finding unique ingredients through foraging is set to continue, supported by brands such as Islay gin The Botanist. It ran a competition at the end of last year for bars to develop cocktails using foraged ingredients in special infusers (pictured below), with a prize of a trip to Islay and to keep the infuser. “Foraged mixology is really exciting for bartenders as it enables them to reconnect with local surroundings,” says brand ambassador Abigail Clephane. “It’s often the case that, while you discover a range of new flavours, there is also a huge array of flavours you would usually associate with a foreign or tropical environment right on your doorstep.”
The flavour to watch in 2016 is charcoal, according to bartender Julian de Feral of leading consultancy Gorgeous Group. “First seen in London bars as a garnish, for example a powdered charcoal rim, it has now moved into the glass, adding dramatic colour and interesting mouthfeel without affecting the overall taste of the drink. Adding to the story is its traditional use in Asian cultures as a digestive aid and for all-round good health.”
Pip Hanson, new head bartender at The Langham hotel’s Artesian bar in London, was an early adopter of barbecue charcoal for “filtering” a cocktail. Gorgeous Group has also been running experiments using Binchōtan charcoal sticks for alcohol maceration in place of water. “Binchōtan is a refined Japanese charcoal traditionally used to filter water,” Julian adds. “It gives incredible mouthfeel very quickly, is cheap, is naturally pure, and is sexy to boot.”
Julian also predicts pre-batching of cocktails, demonstrated by the likes of Craft Cocktail Company and White Lyan in London, will continue to go from strength to strength in 2016. “Barrel ageing, bottle ageing, clay ageing, light ageing, leather ageing, kegging, even slushie machines: all innovative forms of what is essentially batching. Bars have discovered that batching cocktails in the correct way doesn’t have to compromise on the quality of the end product, and means that consistent cocktails can be put together on the busiest of nights. There’s an argument that batching might take away from the theatre of cocktails, but theatre can be added through garnish, glassware or even the production of batching itself. A major plus is improved service: less time mixing drinks can, and should, convert to more time for bartenders to chat to guests and tell the stories behind their drinks.”
Originally published in the January 2016 print edition of Bar magazine.