Comparing Apples

There's a scene from the Monty Python classic Life of Brian in which a mob mistakes an underachiever either for the messiah or an Alabama judge; it's been awhile since we've seen the film and we get the two confused, anyway. Brian of Nazareth implores his unwanted followers to embrace individual interests rather than yield to peer pressure, but they continue to seek his guidance.

Monty Python's contribution to sociological scholarship cannot be overstated. From the beginning, we're taught to identify differences, to pick out the thing that is not like the others and, therefore, doesn't belong.

Yet at the same time, we learn to venerate the rebel--the James Deans--even while we emulate the group. "You have people who are creatures of habit and people who are looking for new experiences," agrees Phil Natale, bartender at Sense. "Most of us fall somewhere in between." Trends spark to life when an acceptable outsider, such as the Python's farcical messiah, adopts a certain style or listens to a particular piece of music or picks up a taste for a new drink.

Which brings us to this week's Burning Question: What are the trendiest drinks in Dallas?

"The sour apple martini," says Adam Salazar, bartender at Nikita and several other establishments. "The sour apple martini took off so much that the distilleries are responding with apple-flavored vodkas."

Only a few people ordered the neon concoction a few years ago. Now it's a favorite at upscale locales and dressed-down hangouts. "I sell as much apple as I do cosmos," confirms Jack Freysinger at Cool River. The cosmopolitan, a mix of cranberry juice and vodka, was spurred to popularity by the HBO series Sex & the City. The sour apple martini achieved trendy status, according to Salazar, "as more of word of mouth thing."

The green cocktail's status even affects other categories of consumption. English ciders now appear on tap at many area establishments and Amy Richard, bartender at Suede, says orders for Washington apple shots surpass everything else.

"Now it's more twists on an original than anything really new," explains Mark Giese at The Dralion. "It's not even the particular cocktail that's trendy, it's the high-end vodkas; they just keep one-upping themselves."

Vodka accounts for more than a quarter of all distilled spirits sold in the United States, with Americans downing some 39 million cases in 2002. Bar patrons select from overpriced, heavily marketed brands and an ever growing assortment of flavors: Absolut mandarin, Stoli vanilla, Vox raspberry, and so on.

Bartenders appreciate vodka's flexibility. "We can rub different colored salts on the rim, use strawberries, this liqueur, that liqueur, this vodka, that vodka," Freysinger says. "The more people are drinking, the more open it gets." And because vodka and the martini are considered masculine, both sexes may order variants of the drink without fear of compromise. Other popular cocktails--the rum-based mojito, for instance--lack the crossover appeal. "They are on the cusp," he continues, "but are not really capable of bridging the gap between men and women."

The Burning Question crew stopped by The Dralion, where Geise poured us a lychee martini, a cucumber martini, a coconut martini...we're still trying to piece together the rest of that particular evening.

"You can almost call out the colors now," Giese says, "but if I can make that flavor and it's clear, more people will order it."

In other words, we desire the appearance of old-school without the lip-wrenching bitterness of a traditional martini. Yet the fruity colors of such trendy facsimiles as the sour apple martini still conjure up that age-old fear of standing apart from the crowd, of being the one that doesn't belong. Thus, it seems, the real trend is not the drink itself, but the tall-stemmed cocktail glass.

"It's the sophisticated look they're after," Freysinger agrees. "It's all about the look."

Yeah, there are other trends out there. Sales of Michelob Ultra continue to inch up as the Atkins diet gains popularity, despite the revolting taste of the low-carb brew. Sooner or later, someone will introduce a carb-only diet, earn a spot on Oprah, and...well, better yet, if we could only come up with a catchy name for our Burning Question crew regimen of alcohol, whole milk, chips and salsa, buttered popcorn, more alcohol, ice cream, and a shot or two of bourbon diet...

But we digress.

Simply put, high-end vodkas, flavored vodkas and faux martinis are the trendiest drinks in Dallas. Nothing else really comes close. And as new versions hit the market, bartenders play with recipes, test different mixes, splash new concoctions into martini glasses and hope patrons will find the creation appealing.

"The next cosmo," says Giese. "That's what we're looking for."

Ah, the true messiah.

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Dave Faries
Contact: Dave Faries