The Mixology Talk Podcast, Episode #170

It’s still (kind of) the beginning of 2020, which means it’s as good a time as any to talk about this year’s industry and cocktail trends! Full disclosure: Chris and I haven’t done any official research on these topics, but we did ask our fabulous Craft Bartender Community Facebook group about the trends bartenders have been seeing at the end of 2019 and looking forward into 2020. 

So today, we’re making predictions based on the topics that kept coming up in our Facebook group as well as on industry standards we’ve been noticing ourselves. Some are new movements, while others are continuations of what we’ve been seeing over the last year or two. 

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Want to Skip Ahead?

Looking for something specific? Here are timestamps to help you get to your favorite cocktail trend topic:

  • 2:21– Recapping the trends of 2019
    • 2:39– Resurgence of Brandy and Genever 
    • 4:27– Sustainability in the industry
    • 5:07– Savory flavors in cocktails
    • 6:02– CBD cocktails
    • 7:58– Focus on the guest and hospitality
  • 9:00– Cocktail trends & predictions for 2020
    • 9:20– Death of “craft”
    • 11:23– Resurgence of 80s/90s cocktails
    • 14:09– Low ABV and spirit-free cocktails
    • 18:27– Fancy cocktail ice
  • 20:53– Industry trends & predictions for 2020
    • 21:13– Sustainability
    • 24:21– Local sourcing
    • 27:11– Career development + mobile bartending
    • 30:52– Mental & physical health of bartenders

First Thing’s First: Recapping 2019

Alright, how did we score with our predictions for 2019? We’re actually about half-and-half on our guesses for what would trend big last year (not too shabby, if I do say so myself). Let’s recap:

Resurgence of Brandy and Genever

It’s a bit unfair to put these two in the same bucket because they’re such different spirits, so let’s look at Brandy first.

Back in the day, Brandy had a bit of a reputation for being a cheap spirit. Furthermore, it didn’t have much play on cocktail menus because the number of affordably priced high quality options available in the USA were fairly limited. Thankfully over the last ten or so years we’ve seen more high-quality American Brandies appear on the market at a much more approachable price point. More affordable (and better quality) = more exposure. (As a brandy lover, I think this is great news!)

OK, I’ll admit that this one may have been a bit of wishful thinking on Chris’ part. He was definitely hoping Genever would make more of a splash in 2019. Although we’re seeing its presence on cocktail menus here and there, it’s far from mainstream. While there are more brands available today than ever, Chris and I are both hoping we continued to see more Genevers appearing at reasonable price points and with good availability across the USA.

Sustainability

While far from new, bar sustainability blew up in a big way in 2019. While we’ve been talking about it in the industry for a while, the idea went fully mainstream with the well publicized plastic straw controversy and subsequent ban in California, Seattle, and parts of Hawaii, New York, and a few other states. Lots more on this below (in 2020 and beyond!)

Savory flavors 

Much to Chris’ disappointment, savory flavors didn’t make as big an appearance in 2019 cocktails as we thought they would. While it’s been exciting to see ingredients like Tahini, Miso paste, tomato, and mushroom in cocktails, they are still an exception and far from the rule. Although things are changing, I think we’ll still have to wait-and-see on this one.

CBD in Cocktails

Chris and I are the farthest thing from experts in this area, and we’re going to continue to reserve judgment on this trend for now. Even though I see a lot of talk about CBD in general, we still feel as though the bar industry is still apprehensive about the regulatory side of using CBD products on their menus. Until states finalize their laws regarding CBD, bartenders don’t really know what they can do with it yet. 

As Chris points out, we also don’t have accurate research about the medical impacts of mixing CBD with alcohol. Similar to the concern about caffeinated alcoholic drinks, when two powerful ingredients fight for dominance in the body, we don’t yet know what the impact is going to be. For these reasons, it seems like the industry is (probably rightfully) moving forward with caution on the CBD front.

Focus on the Guest and Hospitality

While the craft cocktail and mixology movements spent a few years focusing a bit too hard (IMHO) on glorifying the bartender, we’re excited to see that 2019 saw the pendulum continue to swing back toward focusing the spotlight on the guest. It’s great to see this ongoing trend where bartenders are putting energy into the customer experience and creating a really fun, thoughtful atmosphere for their guests.

On to the New Stuff: 2020 Cocktail Trends

Enough about the past, let’s talk about 2020 and where we think cocktails are heading! We asked the bartenders in our Craft Bartender Facebook group to let us know what they’ve been seeing lately and what they hope to see, and here are our predictions for the major trends this year.

The Death of “Craft” 

This one makes me sad.

Over time, it seems the word “craft” has sadly completely lost its meaning. It used to indicate high-quality ingredients, making ingredients yourself, avoiding preservatives, and focusing on seasonality and fresh components. Now it seems like it’s nothing more than an empty marketing term. 

There was once a distinction between craft and not craft; but with overuse, that distinction seems to have all but disappeared. Now “craft” is just another word for “fancy” or “good,” rather than a focus on high quality. (Are you seeing this? Do you disagree? LMK!)

Resurgence of 80s/90s Cocktails: 

I’m a little surprised by this one, actually; but an interesting new trend we’re noticing is 70s, 80s, and 90s cocktails making a reappearance. As Chris notes,

The high-end cocktail movement has always looked backwards as it’s progressed forward.

Starting with the early 1900s and Prohibition era, modern “craft” cocktails are often heavily derived from drinks of the past. 

But nothing makes me feel old like realizing 1980 was 40 years ago, making it officially vintage. So I probably shouldn’t be so surprised that bars and restaurants are re-envisioning cocktails like the Amaretto Sour, Cosmo, Long Island Iced Tea, Midori Sour, and Singapore Sling with high-quality ingredients. 

While I’m a little surprised by this trend, I like that the industry is taking itself a bit less seriously. And I’m not going to lie – I do love a good Amaretto Sour!

Low ABV and Spirit-Free 

No matter what word you’re using, the spirit-free and low-ABV movement is a continuation from 2019, and I think it’s here to stay. I think this is great for both the bar and the guests: 

  • A Better Experience: Maybe you’re pregnant, you’ve had a few drinks and want to slow down, you’re with a friend who doesn’t drink, or you’re the designated driver. Whatever the reason, offering creative, non-alcoholic or low-alcohol options lets more guests enjoy the full hospitality experience.
  • Increased Check Averages: If you don’t have options for your guests, you’re missing a huge opportunity to increase check averages. You can charge a lot more for a high-end, non-alcoholic drink than a water or soda.
  • No Liquor License? No Problem: If you don’t have a full liquor license, you can offer a non-alcoholic cocktail program or wine and beer cocktails without the large costs of a liquor license and the spirits. 

On the low-ABV front, we’re sticking to our 2018 prediction that bartenders will use more vermouth and sherry to make delicious, low-alcohol cocktails.

Fancy Ice Programs

I’m not even sure we can qualify this as a prediction or trend anymore. Large format, clear cocktail ice has become industry standard at this point, and guests definitely expect it. A high-quality ice program suggests attention to detail and elevates the guest experience.

Unfortunately, A quality ice program costs money, period. Between staff, training, and equipment, it’s definitely more expensive than just having an ice machine. That said, nowdays it’s something your customer expects if they’re sitting in a high end cocktail bar – and they’ll notice if it’s missing. Fancy bar ice is definitely here to stay.

Now Let’s Talk Industry Trends for 2020

We’re seeing important changes in the industry that focus on bartenders and their careers. We can’t say it enough: This is a difficult  job. Physically, emotionally, and mentally, people in the service industry have it rough sometimes, even if the job can be creatively fulfilling. Hopefully we continue noticing positive improvements that take care of people in this industry throughout 2020 and beyond.

Sustainability

As I mentioned in the 2019 recap, this is a continuation from last year’s focus on sustainability, which I think is just going to become the new normal in 2020 and beyond. Sustainable practices that used to be considered “out there” or hippie-ish are gradually trickling into the mainstream because they’re economical, required by law, or just the right thing to do for our planet.

With the plastic straw ban (and the oh-so ineffective paper alternative), there are so many new options. The other night, we went to dinner at Jeune et Jolie in northern San Diego and used straws made from avocado pits. I’ve also heard of straws made from hay, pasta, bamboo, stainless steel, and even agave fibers (thanks, Jose Cuervo!)

By the way, if you’re looking for more inspiration for sustainability behind the bar, check out Trash Tiki, a resource site for (and by) bartenders who care about sustainability and want more environmentally-friendly tricks of the trade.

Local Sourcing

Hand-in-hand with sustainability, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more local spirits and produce being used in 2020, a trend that is continuing from the past couple years. With more microbreweries and microdistilleries popping up, many cities have a lot more local options than ever before. 

Unfortunately this isn’t the case for everyone – not everyone can grow local herbs in January. And while local sourcing seems here to stay in general, a major economic downturn could cause restrictions for smaller, local producers. For now, I think we’re going to continue to see more local products and a greater focus on using them in bars and restaurants.

Career Development

Way back in 2018 and 2019 we did a series of podcasts interviewing Bartenders as Entrepreneurs. As they grow up and get older, bartenders are starting to think more broadly about their career and stepping outside the bar, whether it’s as a mobile bartender or by selling their own bitters, syrups, and mixers.

Mobile Bartending is the Next Big Thing

One of the biggest trends that keeps coming up when we ask is mobile bartending. With the rise in food truck popularity, it’s no surprise that bartending is following close behind.  The first-ever SWIG mobile bar conference just took place in mid-February, centering on issues like mobile entrepreneurship, social media presence, and hospitality.  Why is a mobile bar so enticing?

    • Having a portable business allows the bartender to be in charge of a personal guest experience. You can customize your set-up, like a vintage trailer, with a relatively low overhead.
    • It allows you to set your own schedule, which is a major perk if you have a family.  (Obviously, you’ll still have to work nights and weekends, but you can choose which ones to work while still showing up to your kid’s birthday party.)
    • You can be your own boss and still be creative with your beverage program but also have a business focus (this might be a downfall for some, but for bartenders who are looking to expand and grow, this is a big draw).

Mental & Physical Health

We all know this is a difficult, demanding job, so it’s about time the industry focuses on taking care of its bartenders. Over the last couple years, we’ve seen brands and the industry as a whole slowly embrace a focus on mental and physical health. I hope this continues to grow well into 2020 and beyond!

Not only are brands pioneering this movement, but bars and bartending conferences are focusing more on the health of bartenders. In past years, Tales of the Cocktail has started its days with yoga or a juice bar, and other conferences are following suide. The USBG is providing hiking, yoga, and running experiences, too. As an industry and a society, we’re talking more about mental and physical health issues, so I think (and hope!) this movement of taking care of ourselves is here to stay.

What Are You Noticing?

Some of these predictions may be our high hopes for the industry, but it’s exciting to watch where the cocktail industry is going right now; we really hope that we see these trends continue throughout the year… And we’ll have to check in next year to see how right (or wrong) we were!

Let us know what you’re experiencing in your bars and what your 2020 predictions are in the comments or on our FB group. AND don’t forget that our 4-piece bar kit is 15% off the entire month of February! (So shiny!)

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