Continuing Eater Austin's series of interviews with the city's best bartenders, beer experts and general managers, we spoke with Jessica Sanders, co-owner of Drink.Well.
Fresh off her return from Tales of the Cocktail, a global cocktail festival in New Orleans, Sanders shared her thoughts on the demise of cocktails with must-Google-to-understand ingredients. Read on to find out her other predictions for the imbibable future, including a return to simplicity and lighter, low-alcohol drinks like vermouth.
What was your role at the Tales of the Cocktail festival?
This was our fourth year to attend Tales. We've been as both enthusiasts and now as bar professionals. I was there to represent Drink. Well but also to represent Austin and the US Bartenders' Guild. I was really able to wrap my head around how much the industry has grown since then.
The first year we went, there were maybe a handful of people from Austin that would go, and it was a mix of enthusiasts and bar professionals. Now, I think it was anywhere from 25 to 50 from Austin that attended and a good chunk of that was actual working bartenders and bar operators. And that was really exciting to see.
What were some trends and new discoveries? Anything other folks are doing that you want to bring back to Austin?
I think the most significant thing I noticed that was a sharp turn from previous years was the real focus on simplicity. I think the days of the seven-ingredient cocktail have (thank God!) come to an end. There was a real focus on making very approachable, very simple cocktails. Things with four ingredients or less.
I think that people who are the sort of "cocktail geeks" who like the seven ingredient drinks will feel like their creativity will be taken away, but, if anything, you have to be more creative because every ingredient matters. I saw a lot of cocktails with very few ingredients but very high quality ingredients. A lot of housemade things that were very culinary driven but much more approachable than before in terms of the kinds of cocktails across the country.
It's all about keeping it simple and not overwhelming the guests with a bunch of things they have to Google on their phones to know what the ingredient is before they order it.
At the end of the day, it's a hospitality and service industry, and I think that that idea was lost in Austin for a while. It's great that it's coming back. You need it to be approachable enough for the culture to survive. You need to have really passionate service-oriented bar teams and operators that are really serious about the craft.
Being at Tales, I think the biggest thing I saw with this was the era of "fake it 'til you make it" is coming to an end in Austin. There was this real separation between those who are dressing up and playing bartender and then the importance of being serious about the craft in an approachable way.
What about trends in specific flavor profiles?
There were a lot more softer flavors out there. In previous years, I feel we saw a lot of marketing from single-malt scotches, mezcals, bourbons and heavy whiskeys. This year there were a lot more lower alcohol, lighter, softer flavors. A lot of vermouth. A lot of sherry. A lot of liqueurs and cordials.
I keep waiting for vermouth to happen in Austin, and I'm still holding on hope. It's so delicious and refreshing when it's infused in cocktails well. I was really excited to see that the industry was getting into that. These are the types of things that you can enjoy two or three of as opposed to just one booze bomb that's going to knock you down the first time you have it.
Are there any industry leaders nationally and locally you think we should watch out for now?
On a national scale, one of the events I went to was a fabulous lunch with prominent women in the industry, which was really inspiring. Julie Reiner is a bartender/owner in New York, who owns Clover Club and The Flat Iron Lounge, and it was really wonderful listening to her because she's very bold and unapologetic about her passion for the craft. I would say that she's also one of those people who you don't hear a lot about, so on a national level, I'm going to start paying a lot more attention to the program she's putting together.
In Texas in general, the name that comes to mind first is Bobby Heugel from Anvil, who led several seminars this year. He's an extremely savvy operator that we all look to for inspiration in terms of cocktails but also in terms of how to properly run a cocktail bar.
It was really fabulous to see how many Austinites were there, and we'll have to see who really emerges from that group as thought leaders. David Alan (Tipsy Texan) has been on the forefront of what's been going on in the Austin cocktail movement since the beginning, and I think he will continue to be a Mother Hen, for lack of a better word, for what happens in Austin. I really think it will come down to bar operators and individual bartenders who are passionate about turning this into a career in Austin and really growing the craft here.
What's coming up for Drink.Well?
We're working on our next menu, which we pushed off a few weeks, so we could go to Tales and get some added inspiration. It was great because we felt a little validated that the direction we were already heading was where the industry was already heading. Like I said, simpler execution and more approachable flavors, creative and thoughtful classic cocktails.
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[Photo: Austin Woman Magazine]