Sommeliers Speak Easily About Cocktails - Wine & Spirits Magazine

Sommeliers Speak Easily
About Cocktails

Julian Cox curates cocktails for the bar at Intercrew in Los Angeles’s Koreatown—don’t let its happening nightlife distract from the top-tier food and drink. (Photo: Philip Rodriquez)

Restaurateurs are feeling optimistic as the pandemic wanes, with respondents reporting that wine now accounts for 54 percent of their total beverage sales, a slight increase from our 2019 poll. They are also finding new opportunities to engage guests with their cocktail programs, a phenomenon that has reached into the highest levels of fine dining. Amy Mitchell of NYC’s Indian Accent is just one among many respondents to have observed a change in the clientele. “A lot of our regulars haven’t returned,” she said. “I’m seeing a lot of new guests very knowledgeable about spirits, ordering and sticking with cocktails for the entire meal.”

At March, a prix-fixe fine dining restaurant in Houston, wine pairings make up 30 percent of alcoholic beverage sales. “We do a lot of cocktail pairings,” March’s June Rodil said, noting that some guests even choose mocktail pairings. “You start your meal at the bar with snacks and an aperitif,” so cocktails are a popular place to begin. But they are also integrated into the meal. “The entire cocktail list changes with the regional focus of the menu,” she says.

Chuck Bussler of Honolulu’s Fête reports selling a lot of cocktails, but he does not find that’s impacting his sales of wine. “Most people drink more than before. They have a cocktail and then a bottle of wine.” Both restaurants value the collaboration among the mixologists and sommeliers on their teams. At March, Beverage Director Mark Syre works with Wine Director Gillie Malone to curate pairing selections. At Fête, Fabrice McCarthy sources local ingredients in creative ways—like going trail running for pink peppercorn to use in his cocktails—and taste tests each new concoction with both Bussler and Chef Robynne Mai’i

An atmosphere of celebration also continued in 2022, with some mentioning a rise in mezcal and tequila popularity. Aldo Sohm of NYC’s Le Bernardin noticed a difference in people’s approach to spirits versus wine, recounting a story about a million-dollar charity dinner for City Harvest he and Chef Eric Ripert presented at the home of the winning bidder. Guests mingled around an open cellar packed with bottles of DRC and a lineup of tequilas at the bar. “With wine, people were asking, ‘Is this a good vintage?’” he said. “With tequila, even the ladies were chugging these things, no questions asked. They were partying.” And Calissa in the Hamptons adjusted to become a destination not just for dinner, but for the late-night crowd with DJs and bottle service. Wine Director Kylie Monagan laughed, “The amount of Clase Azul reposado that we buy is crazy!”

Without choosing to go full night-club, many are heightening their cocktail program to create flavor profiles that tell a story. At Fête, the Old Fashioned is made from local Hawaiian Koloa rum to evoke the spirit of the island. Beverage Director Seth Corr of Greens, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, continues the fresh produce theme with cocktails like Gin & Celery Tonic or Calvados & Kumquats.

Fabrice McCarthy runs our cocktail program and is zoned in on using local ingredients. We go trail running and find some pink peppercorns, pickle them and then infuse that in a spirit, and then use the pickled pink peppercorn as a garnish.” —Chuck Bussler, Fête (Honolulu, HI)

“Lately, I’m seeing more people asking for non-alcoholic drinks,” noted Gabriela Davogustto of NYC’s Clay when asked about other beverage trends she witnessed in 2022. And at LA’s Intercrew, sommelier Diana Lee stated that, “Guests order our cocktails without alcohol all the time. This year, we plan to provide more non-alcoholic options.”

While cocktails are having a moment, wine isn’t going anywhere. Marianna Caldwell of Santa Monica’s Cassia said, “cocktail sales are still beating wine sales, but it’s now more balanced.” Many beverage directors looking for ways that one can complement the other. At Coquine, in Portland, Oregon, Ksandek Podbielski told us, “I want the spirits we offer to be a complement to the wine experience,” he said, “with cocktails that are lighter, brighter openers to a meal and then more emphasis on after-dinner drinks.”

Based in Los Angeles, California, Alissa Bica is the Spirits Editor and Critic at Wine & Spirits. She is also a Certified Sommelier and co-runs the home wine tasting company, Côte Brune and Blonde. In any rare moments of free time, she writes about obscure grape varieties in the blog Off the Beaten Wine Path.

This story appears in the print issue of Spring 2023.
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