Bartenders on 2016: What's In, What's Out, and What's Next

Lightbulbs hanging from a bar ceiling lighting a chalkboard menu on the wall

The craft cocktail movement has grown and evolved so much in the last few years: customers are becoming more adventurous about trying unfamiliar spirits; distillers are touting methodologies like grain to glass; bars are continuing to differentiate themselves with ever-innovative cocktail programs and putting new spins on old themes. Tiny, remote communities are getting a taste for small-batch spirits. Even Taco Bell wants in on the action. 2015 has been yet another dizzyingly fun and fast-paced year for the spirits industry, and we're excited to see what the new year holds. So, we consulted a handful of bartenders from around the world for their thoughts on the year that was, the year that will be, and the trends that will either grow or die off somewhere in between.

David Roth, Bartender at Cask Bar & Kitchen, New York

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

Mezcal, Amaro, Hospitality.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

Throwing cocktails, more low-ABV cocktails, more vermouth-heavy drinks, focus on service and hospitality. Sipping rums.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

I can't wrap my head around vodka that tastes like tequila, or whiskey or cognac or whatever. Maybe bring back Kümmel and Akvavit and Zubrowka.

Joe Pereira, Bar Manager at Herbs and Rye, Las Vegas

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

Incredible. Busy. Fun. Growing.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

We are moving so fast that we are skipping a lot of wonderful basic spirits and specific eras of cocktail history. Our excitement and passion might be an issue of concern.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away in the industry in 2016?

Too many cocktail weeks. We are not doing as much as we can to educate the consumers.

Konrad Kantor, Founding Partner at El Libre, New Orleans

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

2015 was a huge year for learning about everything from sangria to how to mix oft-confusing liqueurs like Strega and Benedictine. This year, the bar world narrowed recipes down to a science, but in a refreshingly down to earth way.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

My prediction for 2016 is a massive rise in demand for rum and quality rum drunks. It will also be a year for bars and bartenders to put some of Dave Arnold's tips and tricks into action.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

I would love to see things like Danny Meyer is implementing that spark a change in how seriously the service industry is taken as a profession.

Lucinda Weed, Bar Manager at the Ace Hotel, New Orleans

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

Guests seem to be more educated than ever before, which provides bartenders with the freedom to make more sophisticated cocktails.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

Continued innovations in craft spirit distillation and the resurrection of vintage ingredients.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

I hope the turn back towards hospitality continues and the reputation of craft cocktails being "snobby" goes out the window.

Crystal Pavlas, Bartender at Compere Lapin, Nola

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

Lots of new faces making a scene. More efforts are being made by our cocktail community whether it be fundraisers, charities or education. Lots of innovative cocktails!

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

I feel like we need to be more focused on our techniques and organization skills to be more efficient. Also, let's have more sherry!

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

Expansion of knowledge: grow, please. Pretentiousness: go away, please.

Kyle Reutner, Manager at KoHana Rum, Honolulu

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

I would describe 2015 as playful. Many of my colleagues back away from taking themselves so seriously. Slushy machines, tropical flavors and over-the-top garnishes came into favor as did some smiles—thank god.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

The low proof cocktail will continue to pop up on cocktail menus. Madeira will get some shine.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

I hope we can navigate the tipping/no-tipping fight without looking spoiled or archaic. The questions raised about the system are important and, as a community, we need to address fair pay for all.

Antonio Lai, consultant, Hong Kong

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

A new era of the cocktail, from bottled cocktails to new concept bars.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

Cocktail pairing with food in fine dining restaurants.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

More new glasses need to develop, bartenders in Hong Kong will grow and become stronger.

Will Groves, Principal Consultant, Pittsburgh

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

The return of fun to drinking culture.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

More whimsy, more fun. More beer in cocktails. More sherry. More wine cocktails and wine-drinking.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

I would love to see "high concept" cocktails go away in favor of simple, tasty, fun drinks.

Julia Comu, Bartender at PidGin, Vancouver

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

Beets! Everything is purple! Can bartenders stop with beet cocktails already?

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

Back to classics. End of infusions. Simple cocktails with few ingredients.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

I hope the star-tender celebrity attitude will go away and bartenders will understand that you don't need to be in a magazine or on TV to be recognized as a successful bartender.

Chris Lowder, Four Seasons, Seoul, Head Bartender

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

2015 was an interesting year in cocktails. More than ever, the spotlight is shifting away from traditional established markets as good drinking becomes globally ubiquitous. We saw areas like Singapore, Miami, Tel Aviv, Seoul, and Athens continue to rise in the World's 50 Best list, taking slots from traditional winners like Tokyo, New York, and London. Dead Rabbit moved its focus to Chicago. Artesian lost its bar team. Investors are seeing the strength of new markets, and 2015 saw the beginning of a real diffusion of the globe's cocktail capitals.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

I expect that as American whiskey continues to rise in price and rarity, we will be seeing more bars and consumers turn to alternative spirits. Consumer palates are maturing, and so we should expect to see more rums, white whiskies, cachacas, and piscos making their way onto cocktail menus.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

More than ever before, key talent is moving from established markets in North America and Europe to new burgeoning markets in East Asia. Places like Hong Kong, South Korea, and China boast a massive amount of liquid investment, but simply don't have enough talent to sustain their cocktail market growth. Consumers in those markets are excited to drink cocktails, and investors are willing to pay large sums to attract the right talent to help their bar stand out from the crowd. This is especially true with venues who wish to step into high-volume cocktails, which is both a completely foreign concept and completely necessary evolution in East Asia.

More bars are trending away from hyper-specific niche concepts and many markets are opening the "elevated neighborhood bar." This is a place where education, intention, hospitality, and approachability all intersect. Anticipated venues like Green River and Broken Shaker in Chicago are great examples of that trend.

People understand the value of cocktails, and are spending more and more money in groups drinking at cocktail bars. This has led to a push in new ways to provide large-format cocktails as a large group spend rather than as a value proposition. In other words, large format cocktails are no longer a "bargain" where guests can enjoy a discounted drink, but rather a way to pool their resources to spend on something premium. The challenge for bar owners will be in making sure that the cocktail serve is able to consistently convey the value and quality that those price tags command.

Amber Dawn Peterson, Independent Beverage Consultant, Toledo

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

Tiki 4 Lyfe. A return to service. Rum domination. Amaro evolution. The terroir of spirits. The bartender/entrepreneur hybrid. Attention to advocacy for the quality of life in our industry. The Tipping Conundrum. Shandyland.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

States like Michigan, Oregon, and Louisiana, and perhaps others, will find themselves so rich in great distilleries that their states will become a category of spirits. Amari will continue to evolve and develop to meet the demand of the persnickety or adventurous bartender and spirit consumer. Fortified and aromatized wines, as well as aged rum, and agave spirits will continue to grow as categories, and dominate cocktail menus. A renewed focus on service and hospitality will continue to drive the industry, and more and more workers will continue to stand up for their quality of life, and their rights, as workers.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

If on-premise, low-cal cocktails don't start showing up in more high-end drinking establishments, they're leaving money on the table. I hope to see a larger movement within the leaders of the service community at-large, to stop rewarding brands and establishments with illegal and unethical practices. I hope to see more worker organization and education. Also, the stigma attached to those who report employers for breaking the law has got to end. And more sherry, please.

Eamon Rockey, General Manager at Betony, NYC

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

2015 saw the gap between restaurant and cocktail bar close decidedly smaller, and the level of food and drink offerings raise. Spots like Bar Goto and Seamstress illustrate that there can be a cocktail-centric theme that still offers superb food.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

I believe that we will see more and more cocktails that will showcase ingredients other than the base spirit to an increasing degree over the course of 2016. Bars like Mace have been front runners on this track and with so many great spirits on the market and so many talented bartenders mixing with them, the excitement will come in selecting those ingredients to accompany the base spirits.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

The bartending world has seen a tremendous benefit from the cross-pollination of bartenders spending time in a given week or year, behind multiple bars. But now that the bar has been raised across the board in quality, I hope that bartenders will settle down and invest themselves in a place where both the bar and bartender will benefit from a consistent home within a team.

Adil Yamin, Bartender at Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails and MGM Grand Detroit, Bartender, Detroit

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

Personally I thought that 2015 was the year that saw not only the bartenders and other hospitality individuals take notice in the cocktail world, but the patrons as well. I noticed people wanting to take part in learning and talking more about spirits. Also, bartenders motivated each other in their markets and got better as a markets as a whole rather than individual bars’ programs.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

I think we will see more trainings, more seminars, and communities working together as a whole. I also see different chapters of the USBG attending more events in their neighboring cities for education and support. In terms of spirits we will see more amari and bitter style spirits, which is my guess. In terms of techniques in making cocktails, we will see the more complex but neat Japanese style of bartending. We will be seeing more and more industry-educated bartenders. We will see more diverse ingredients from around the world and more people focusing on importance of quality ice as an ingredient.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

I would like more bartenders to be humble and share their knowledge rather than flaunting it. I would like to see hospitality shine more. Sometimes when people get so involved with cocktails, they tend to forget about hospitality and why we are really there in the first place.

Berit Jane Soli-Holt, Hanky Panky, Head Bartender / Manager of Bar Program, Mexico CIty

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

Managing a bar program in Mexico City, I am not necessarily as saturated in the contemporary cocktail scene as most people know in the US and Europe; but to sum up in México, 2015 was all about education and deepening understanding.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

Again, I can't speak to a wider community with as much authority as someone who is embedded in the more developed countries' cocktail scenes, but I imagine that the techniques that Dave Arnold outlines in “Liquid Intelligence” will be used more liberally in bars that haven't been using the techniques yet.

In México, there has been and remains vibrant, a trend of twisting classic recipes with Mexican ingredients that are widely available, but the scene is beginning to move into a deeper understanding of bitter elements used to balance cocktails.

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

As a matter of personal taste, I would like to see bartenders to the north relying less on crafting sours when they use mezcal in cocktails. I tend to be gifted cocktails with mezcal when I visit the US (since I live and work in Mexico) and more often than not they will have a mezcal base, element of citrus, some herbal or vegetal note, and perhaps a sweet liqueur. While certainly there are varying levels of balance, they all taste the same and sadly all give me heartburn.

Generally, however, I would love to see the emphasis on hospitality continue to grow and the variety of hospitality to increase as bars adopt their own style of service. I think everyone is over the lists of how a customer should act at a bar; instead I think that the heat is always on the bartender to create the scene the customer takes part in. I'd love to see some writing and investigations on this part of a bartender's craft.

Shannon McSwain, Doris Metropolitan, Bar Manager, New Orleans

How would you sum up 2015 in a few words?

So much foam! And mezcal.

What will we be seeing more of in 2016?

I believe amaros will continue to become more and more popular as people open up to being educated about spirits. There's a massive variety in the category and there is something for everyone. I think the public wants to try new things and anyone can find a happy place in a tasty digestif!

What do you hope to see change, grow, or go away?

I hope to see brands recognize more often that they work for us as an industry and as individual bartenders. There were many times in the last year where it was made clear to me that brand ambassadors, reps, or distilleries felt that we should be trying to impress them, rather than them impressing us. I would also like to see the camaraderie in the community continue to grow!