Over the past decade, a small army of bartenders and their followers—armed with bottles of artisanal spirits, ice cubes sized for a catapult, flaming citrus peels, and shillelagh-like muddlers—have staged a quiet cocktail revolution across America. Scarcely a week passes without the introduction of some exotic new cocktail bitters (Amargo Chuncho Peruvian bitters), the opening of a neo-speakeasy in yet another midsize city (Green Russell in Denver), or the production of some novel handcrafted spirit (according to the American Distilling Institute, some 302 craft distilleries are now operating in the United States and Canada). Finding an excellent cocktail is easier now than at any time in the past century.
Yet there remains one fortress the revolution has yet to breach: the “upscale casual” restaurant chain—think Ruby Tuesday, Outback Steakhouse, Chili’s—where beverage managers have long crouched on the battlements, ready to pour upon the invaders vats of treacly, electric-blue sugar syrup. Lately, however, there have been signs of a cease-fire.
Early this year, I spent two days at the Cheers Beverage Conference, a trade event that attracts hundreds of beverage managers from large chains, and I found many attendees notably curious about the cocktail insurgency. During one panel, an executive who oversees nearly 200 restaurants recounted a recent visit to a prominent craft-cocktail bar. “What was that stuff they used?” he asked with utter bewilderment. “Oh, yeah, tinc-tures.”