It’s one thing to be a rock star bartender. It’s another thing to have your own tour bus.
Catherine Manning, chief drink slinger at The Yachtsman, the tiki-meets neighborhood dive bar on Frankford Avenue in Fishtown, is one of only eight bartenders who traveled to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans aboard a sweet 40-foot ride usually reserved for bands headlining at the Wells Fargo Center.
Founded in 2002, Tales of the Cocktail has grown from a tightly knit conclave of cocktail lovers and makers into the world’s premier festival celebrating all things shaken and stirred, drawing 16,000 attendees in 2015. Superstar bartenders and brand managers toting spirits mined from around the globe converged in steamy New Orleans July 19-24 for a week of seminars, tastings, networking events and parties – Tales is the place to set and catch craft cocktail trends, bar none.
When Manning got the call to join the party, she didn’t hesitate. “Eight days on a tour bus, doing parties, talking cocktails – I’m in heaven!” said Manning, who also serves as the president of the United States Bartender's Guild (USBG) Philadelphia chapter.
This year’s Tales program overflowed with intriguing classes like Talking Rot: Rancio, Scotch and Madness and Cosmic Cocktails, a discourse on booze in space.There were marketplaces touting new concoctions, bitters and garnishes, a Tales bookstore and a Shop Local pop up retail outlet to source that perfect muddler. Narberth native Alon Shaya, whose restaurant, Shaya, claimed this year's James Beard best restaurant award, led Pizza and Porchlight, one of the popular Spirited Dinners.
“Tales is where you go to find out everything and anything,” said Manning. “The industry talent and knowledge that comes together in New Orleans is amazing.” Most of the conference is focused on practical topics for folks in the biz, but all cocktail geeks are also welcome.
With all this spirited brain trust in one place, trend-casting at seminars like The Cocktail Crystal Ball: Drinking in 2116 was bound to happen. While looking ahead a century might be a bit of a strong pour, here is what some of Philly’s best mixologists as well as other experts behind the bar are predicting for this summer and beyond.
1.Classics get twisted. Look for evermore variations on a theme, like what happened to the Moscow Mule, the official drink for the 14th annual Tales week. Dating back to 1941, this effervescent ginger-forward cocktail, traditionally served in a copper mug, is no one trick pony. More than 400 bartenders from re-imagined the Mule. The winning bartender, Angel Teta from Ataula in Portland, Oregon, created El Burro Catalan, which incorporated Manzanilla sherry into the mix, a slightly dry note that brought a coy salinity to the bar.
2. Smoking and drinking
Master mixologist Papi Hurtado only smokes when he drinks, and we’re not talking tobacco. Hurtado, who created the cocktail program at the Library Bar in the Rittenhouse Hotel, likes to fire up spices, including cinnamon and nutmeg, to add smoky dimension to drinks like his raspberry and chile powered Humado. The smoldering spice is enhanced by the drink’s foundation, mezcal. “Everybody is crazy for Mezcal right now, which adds smoke to any drink.”
3. Here a tiki there a tiki
The retro resurgence of all things tiki is still going strong. “People want more communal drinking,” said Manning, who shakes up all kinds of fruity island-centric concoctions behind the bar at the Yachtsman.
4. Cognac rising, brandy is back
As whiskey prices rise, bartenders and drinks lovers are increasingly turning to other long-aged spirits including brandy and cognac. “An old fashioned made with cognac is the new fashioned,” said Jesse Dureka, mixologist at the Library Bar at the Rittenhouse. “Historically, before distillers were prominent in the 1800s, colonial drinks were made with familiar spirits including brandy, so we’re actually taking the drink back to its roots.” There’s even a new U.S. brand, American Oak from Bache-Gabrielsen, the first cognac to be aged in American Tennessee oak barrels.
5. Punch-drunk social
Dust off your grandma’s cut glass bowl because punch is back. At his whiskey-centric bar The Twisted Tail on South Second Street in Society Hill, George Reilly finds that patrons are hugely interested in the social experience of drinking. “Big batch cocktails shared by a group sparks conversation, changes the social dynamic at the table.” Reilly features a gin and a rum punch, built with fresh juices and fruit and spirits like Campari and Pimms.
6. Local still rules
And not just local, but super local. “What we’ve been noticing in Philly is that the craft distillery movement has blown up,” said Daniel Kulisek, bar supervisor of Square 1682. “Philadelphia Distilling started it all in 2006 with Bluecoat Gin. Here at the hotel we always spotlight local spirits.” On his radar? “Social Still out of Bethlehem, their rye whiskey is spectacular. And Stateside Urban Craft Vodka in Kensington is doing a very smooth product.”
7. Bitter is better
Umami has never had such a bite. From spirits and drinks built around more savory flavor notes to homemade and small batch bitters in a wild array of flavors, the drinking public is opening up to more complex and challenging tastes. “Currently we have 15 different bitters on our bar,” said Kulisek. “Our house blend is similar to an angostura, we have root beer bitters and I’m about to make some peach.” Bitters are a staple element of Tales, with small-batch, artisanals like Bittered Sling out of Vancouver offering bottles with flavors like the French Quarter, with its blend of chicory, anise and lavender.
8. Crafting at home
Just as chefs have inspired the home cook to experiment, the bar chef does the same. “I see people exploring their palates and really paying attention to how drinks are made. People are fascinated with all the bottles and tinctures the bartender uses,” said Kulisek. “Philly is a foodie city and that has translated into the cocktail side of things.” If you feel the urge to muddle some thyme into your gin and tonic or whip up a fresh peach puree for your daiquiri, there’s no going back.