For starters, your bartender is no longer just a mixer of drinks. He or she is a "bar chef," the individual who uses "all that is around him or her, bringing these components into a perfectly balanced concoction," says Robert Zappatelli, vice president of food and beverage for Benchmark Hospitality International, the operator of award-winning hotels, restaurants and resort properties.
Bar chefs have more at their fingertips than ever. The locavore movement has taken a seat at the bar, which means ingredients from farmers markets and produce baskets are popping up like never before in your cocktails.
On the bar at 116 Crown in New Haven, a row of glasses contains what amounts to ingredients for a delicious salad: fresh mint, rosemary, thyme and sliced cucumbers. Lemongrass, chile peppers and fruits like watermelon and blueberries are also making a splash on the drinks menu.
Today's bar chefs are playing around with the latest liqueurs, infused liquors and aromatics, or, where necessary, inventing their own, like blueberry-infused or lavender-infused simple syrup.
The average bartender's regular chemistry set is already extensive and keeps growing. Kevin Gillespie, bar and floor manager at Max Burger in West Hartford, estimates that the restaurant stocks 23 vodkas — many of them flavored with ingredients from kaffir lime to mandarin orange, pomegranate to pear and plum. Two new additions to the drinks menu are the Mango Cosmo, a cosmopolitan made with a new mango-flavored vodka, and the Hole-in-One, a combination of strawberry-flavored Stolichnaya vodka, lemonade and iced tea inspired by the non-alcoholic drink named for its creator, golfer Arnold Palmer.
Retro CoolAnother trend this summer is that old-fashioned drinks like the Old-Fashioned are making a comeback. Sidecars, Rob Roys and Tom Collinses are creating a mood of retro cool. "The trend is going back to classic ingredients and cocktails — the kind your grandmother used to drink," says Dan Gifeisman, bar manager at West Hartford's Elbow Room.
But if some bars serve the classics just as granny quaffed them, others are changing them up with new ingredients.
"Back then, we didn't have the products we have now," says John Ginnetti, co-owner with his wife, Danielle, of the restaurant and bar 116 Crown.
Cocktail trends aside, to be a bar chef involves the same hazards as being a kitchen chef, and the ruination of many a cocktail occurs when mixology strays too far from orthodoxy.
The mere mention of a Snickers martini, seen recently on a drinks menu in northwest Connecticut, gives Ginnetti pause. "Who wants to drink a peanut?" he asks.
He laments the development of cocktail concoctions that show little respect for human taste buds. "The whiskey sour has survived in spite of what people have done to it," he says.
While the need for change is obvious ("What are you preserving by not evolving?" he asks), certain principles must be brought to bear.
At 116 Crown, libation creation begins with one very important first rule: "It has to taste good," Ginnetti says.
A Classic FormulaWhen he changes ingredients or mixes new ones to create a cocktail, he's less inclined to combine candy bar flavors or salad ingredients than to upgrade what belongs in the glass in the first place.
He starts with a formula — "a cocktail [combines] a spirit, a sweetener and a bitter agent," he says.
Before mixing anything, Ginnetti works like a chef, sourcing out the best ingredients. Making drinks is like cooking dinner, he says. "A chef who starts with the best ends with the best."
He has a preference for boutique spirits — a vodka distilled with water from Iceland (where it's believed to be the purest); Q Tonic, an artisanal all-natural mixer made with Peruvian quinine and sweetened with agave syrup instead of corn syrup; and infused spirits or simple syrups made using local, organic produce.