Each year, the San Antonio Cocktail Conference brings together some of the worlds best people — the publicans that pour drinks, the brands that make what goes in them, the media (ahem) that let you know where to drink it and industry experts who can teach us all a thing or two. Everyone converges on Alamo City for five days of seminars, pop-up bars, tasting rooms, happy hours and dinners to see what the industry has to offer in the coming year. As an added bonus, the conference benefits Houston Street Charities, an umbrella organization that helps fund worthy children’s charities.
At this year’s conference, we saw some intriguing new things — and spotted more than one Dallas cocktail heavy-hitter — but also noticed that the industry is doubling down on some previously seen movements like the classic cocktail resurgence. Here are the booze trends you can expect to see in the coming months.
We’re not talking about the sugary bastardizations you sip by the pool, but a return to the tart sweetness of the classic — just rum, lime and sugar. While some of the more prescient of us have been drinking these a while, we’re glad to see the public is catching up. We attended a daq-off (a competition for bartenders to make two of their best and then chug one in 30 seconds), a seminar exploring the history and resurgence of rum and even a daiquiri toast to a cocktail great, the former Sasha Petraske. Expect to see more high-end takes on the true-blue daiquiri this year.
Even aside from the humble daiquiri, rum is poised to hit big in the coming years for a number of reasons. First off, people love to consume things with a story — and rum’s story has it all, from politics to colonization and, yes, actual pirates. While vodka may be big in the states, rum is the No. 1 selling spirit used worldwide in cocktails, according to Kiowa Bryan, director of brand advocacy for Spiribam, and it comes in three distinct styles: English (made with molasses and characterized as spiced and vivid), Spanish (made with molasses and yielding lighter, buttery flavors) and French (made with pure sugar cane and often more fruity and intense).
One of the biggest reasons that rum is going to get more popular is that currently, well, it’s kind of not popular in the U.S. Unlike whiskey, which has seen a huge boom that led to higher demand (and higher prices) for premium products, you can still get a mind-blowing premium rum for around $40. For now, anyway — premium rum sales are already on the rise, which means prices will soon follow. Do yourself a favor and drop $50 or less on an aged rum agricole (made with pure sugar cane) and enjoy the rich complexity while it’s still cheap.
While we’ve been seeing tequila make a comeback as a spirit used in more than just margaritas, we’re also starting to see mezcal, its smoky, peaty cousin, on menus all over town, and the spirit was ubiquitous at the cocktail conference. The smokiness of mezcal may weed out some beginners, but those who stick with it will enjoy the complexity of the flavors — and cocktail experts say that as drinkers adapt to peaty mezcals, their palates are leading them on to more intense, peat-heavy scotches. At a session about agave sustainability, we learned that a new generation of mezcal producers is using technology to sustainably farm the agave used to make this near-ancient spirit.
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Another popular theme was draft (or draught) cocktails — cocktails, from craft to crass, that are pre-batched and can be dispensed at the touch of a soda gun button. In Dallas, we’ve seen the Truck Yard’s trash can punch on tap or the Lolita at Chino Chinatown, but they’re still slow on the uptick. Why? Much of Dallas hasn’t figured out how to do it well just yet. We tasted some amazing examples at SACC and are eager to see how bars adopt draft cocktails in Dallas. Hell, draft wine is already a thing, so cocktails can’t be far behind.
“The rise in popularity of cocktails is driving consumers to want more, faster options, while maintaining craft quality,” says Dallasite Nico Martini, co-founder of Bar Draught, a company that created a mobile answer to draft cocktail needs. “Draft cocktails are the fastest and most efficient way to serve craft cocktails to large groups while not diminishing quality ... as long as you don’t compromise the ingredients.”
The return of the friendly bartender
While we are happy to see some new drink trends, we’re most excited to see an effort to shift bar hospitality. We’ve all had terrible experiences at some point, but what makes a great one? With the seminar about what makes an experience great, we’re eager to see the return of “the friendly bartender.” Gone is the era of the handcrafted apron-wearing hipster who scoffs at your drink of choice — bars are ready to implement the same kind of hospitality we see in fine dining establishments, and that’s fine by us.