After a decade-plus of writing about food and drink, I’ve noticed a seismic shift in the art of mixology throughout 2023.
While, yes, the boundaries of bartending have always been pushed by those talented enough to earn themselves the mixologist moniker, those boundaries have been all but binned over the last twelve months.
With a fervent focus on sustainability, local ingredients, and innovative flavor combinations, we simply haven’t been seeing cocktails like the ones we’ve seen over the last twelve months.
To understand why, I’ve called on eight of the best drinks maestros in the world to explore the art of cocktails today – including mixology’s roots, history, and future.
But first, what is the difference between a mixologist and a bartender? “It depends on who you ask,” says Nico De Soto, head mixologist of the Experimental Group and co-founder of Mace New York, which has been noted as one of the World’s 50 Best Bars for six years running. “Some say it’s the same, some hate the word ‘mixologist’. I don’t mind either term.
“A bartender tends the bar and doesn’t necessarily have to create drinks. They act as a host and even a psychologist, with their main goal being to provide excellent service to patrons. Making an excellent drink is part of their role, but it’s not the only aspect.
“On the other hand, a mixologist specifically focuses on creating drinks and can be seen as a ‘lab rat’ experimenting with different flavours and techniques. They may not excel in customer service or have the same personality traits as a bartender.
“It’s important to note that a good bartender can also be a good mixologist or a bad mixologist, and vice versa. So, there are four possible combinations. Additionally, some mixologists today don’t tend bars at all.”
The so-called lab rat mixologists are increasingly popular these days, too. Many recent openings in the bar and hotel industry have not only made a point to hire ‘behind the scenes’ mixologists to develop their menus, but installed fully-fledged drinks labs within the premises (à la Raffles Doha).
In such spaces, it’s all about experimentation. “The advancements in mixology techniques have been remarkable,” says Maroš Dzurus, venue manager at Himkok, number ten on the 2023 Worlds 50 Best Bars list. “Molecular mixology, introducing elements like foams and gels, has added a new dimension to cocktail experiences.
“Personally, I find the integration of culinary techniques, like sous-vide infusions and smoking, to be particularly exciting. These innovations allow for an incredible array of flavors and textures, elevating the cocktail experience.”
Of course, the tech is never quite as important as the technique. “I spent 10 years of my career on a Rotavapor and, while it can achieve unique and specific products, the tech is only as good as the idea,” adds Zoe Burgess, founder of independent drinks consultancy Atelier Pip.
“My current preference is to use tech to explore the preservation of seasonal ingredients, as this has real practical implications for a bar; freeze-dried fruits and vegetables and distilled dried herbs are some of my preferred techniques,” she says. “That said, for me nothing beats simple and accessible techniques such as making shrubs and cordials, how you layer flavor and balance these products is a real art form.”
Anna Parker, co-owner of Celentano’s in Glasgow, also prefers more traditional methods of experimentation and innovation. “To be honest, we are not about lots of fancy techniques and theatrics when it comes to creation,” she says. “We want to strip everything back so that each individual ingredient shines.”
Making all of their own liqueurs in-house has now not only become standard, but one of the processes Parker enjoys most. “Not only this, but also making non-alcoholic liqueur” to ensure that those who would prefer not to drink can still experience our exciting and experimental flavor combinations.
“I’m also excited to see that preservation and fermentation is becoming big in drinks, something we’ve always honed in on at the restaurant.”
Still, the spectrum is broader than you might expect. Unprompted, more than half of the mixologists I spoke to called out Iain McPherson’s Panda & Sons as a wild and noteworthy innovator.
“I’m really excited by, and think we’re going to see a lot more of, cold techniques coming into play,” says Liana Oster, Bar Director at NoMad London, of the technique McPherson has been pioneering from his Edinburgh cocktail bar. “It has been really well-received by the bar community.”
“This year the innovation has primarily been ingredient and flavor-led, but there are some actual new techniques being developed by Iain using sub zero temperatures for complex, delicate flavor extraction that is pretty game-changing,” adds cocktail consultant Jack Sotti.
“Aside from that, non-alc is still in growth and I have spent the last 12 months heavily immersing myself in adaptogens and nootropics to see if there is another way we can make guests feel good and more sociable without alcohol and caffeine. There are some great brands exploring this space, as well, with Three Spirit leading the category.”
Nevertheless, the focus isn’t all on the ‘new’. Most mixologists hone their skills through years of perfecting classic cocktails, and they make dedicated efforts to honor and showcase them, as well.
“I believe cocktails like the Corpse Reviver #2 and the Last Word deserve more attention. These classics, with their balanced and complex flavors, showcase the artistry of early mixologists and are due for a resurgence,” says Dzurus.
“I think the industry needs to take a step back, retrain the younger generation on classic cocktails, and think about theater to get people loving bar experiences,” adds Sotti.
Mickey Kwasniewski, bar manager at Kitchen Table, feels minimalism and classics reimagined will play a large part in the industry’s trend forecasting over the next year, too. “We will see more and more pre-batch cocktails; from a tap, like in Crossroads bar, or in bottles, like in ‘A bar with shapes for a name. Lots of cocktails will be based and developed around just one ingredient.
“Ferments are also a big one – for example right now I’m playing around with different ‘tepache’ like ferments, but lots of bartenders are doing interesting things with techniques like lacto-fermentation.
Dzurus foresees a continued emphasis on sustainability and zero-waste practices, as well. “Cocktails utilizing upcycled ingredients from kitchens, or other parts of the bar will become more popular,” he says.
At the tail end of a year in which TikTok made a Parmesan Espresso Martini so popular it found its way onto hundreds of bar menus around the world, there is also something to be said about the power of social media mixology.
“I think the customer will play a big role in helping determine those next trends and social media will play a big part in this,” adds Daniyel Jones, global brand ambassador for the House of Angostura. “This is the era we are in today, so the next trends I think will be determined by social media and outside influences like fashion, art, music and movies, too – especially with such a big rise in celebrities’ involvement in the spirits industry.”
Nevertheless, while technology advances, the core values of craftsmanship and innovations remain paramount for the industry. And if there’s anything to drink to as we head into 2024, I’ll drink to that.