Detroit Beverage Experts Weigh in on Trends for 2016

By Dorothy Hernandez, Foodable Contributor

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In recent years, Detroit has not only seen a boom in restaurants but also the rise of craft cocktail culture. 

“Personally, I am looking forward to the continued mainstream acceptance of properly made mixed drinks across metro Detroit,” says Dave Kwiatkowski, owner of The Sugar House in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood and partner in Wright & Co. “When I opened The Sugar House and told people I was opening a ‘craft cocktail’ bar, most people had no idea what I was talking about. Now, it’s completely common to walk into a restaurant and see a selection of house cocktails on the menu that don’t actually use flavored vodkas or a bottle of sour mix. It’s a great thing.”

Sandy Levine, owner of The Oakland Art Novelty Co. in Ferndale, Mich., and Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails in Detroit’s Midtown district, says with the explosion in creativity and experimentation, quality is crucial.

“Quality is pretty much a given,” he says. “Bars whose drinks don't actually taste good are given less leeway from guests than before. Many of the drinks made a few years ago were kind of made for bartenders rather than for the general public, and I think now people are realizing that good drinks are universally good, not just good to certain palates.” 

There’s been a lot of talk about hospitality, but Joe Robinson, director of beverage and hospitality at new Detroit hot spot Standby, says that’s the name of the game.

“No matter what kind of bar or restaurant you're in, the guest should always be the focus. Hopefully, we remember that bars are all about having fun and being able to let loose a little.”

To find out what will be trending this year in cocktails, we asked Kwiatkowski, Levine, Robinson, and other cocktail experts around Detroit for what to watch out for in 2016.

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Trendy Spirits

While the experts we talked to all had their own opinions on top spirits, one thing is for sure: It’s not clear booze.

“We see the popularity of brown spirits, specifically scotch and bourbon to continue,” says Jared Chorney, food and beverage director at The Townsend in Birmingham, Mich.

Robinson says good tequila and mezcal will be popular this year.

Whiskey is showing no signs of slowing down, says Travis Fourmont, cocktail ambassador at Great Lakes Wine and Spirits.

Nick Britsky, editor of the blog Nick Drinks, says it’s time for fortified wines, which “are ripe to explode.”

“I'd love to see more local vendors, but even just more variety on retail shelves and in bars,” he says. “There are already a few places that are serving a selection of sherrys, vermouths and ports but you have to really hunt for them. Gone are the days of these guys being the second fiddle to a dominant spirit. Their time is nigh.” 

Hot Cocktails

“The new trend that I see going into 2016 will be the usage of cordials that may have been looked down upon by serious mixologists in the past,” says Chorney from The Townsend, which has incorporated barrel-aged and smoked cocktails into the hotel’s beverage program, specifically calling out Kahlua, which they are using in two cocktails on the winter menu. One of the drinks is the smoked Pistolero cocktail, which includes Buffalo Trace, Kahlua and Ancho Reyes, an ancho chile liqueur. The cocktail is smoked to order and finished with orange zest. “The result is a sweet, smoky cocktail with a spicy finish that is complemented by a dark coffee hint from the Kahlua,” he says. The other cocktail is The Bogota Botanical, which is Green Chartreuse, Godiva Dark chocolate liqueur and Kahlua. “The result is a unique herbal, chocolate and coffee concoction that can be enjoyed with dinner or as a great after-dinner cocktail.” 

Standby’s Robinson says nitro cocktails on tap are going to start popping up thanks to all of the new tools for nitro cold brew coffee. “At Standby right now (as far as I know), we have one of the first nitrogenated cocktails ever, called the Port Austin. It has Milk Washed Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac, Ancho Reyes, Port Syrup, and Founders Porter. It pours like a Guinness but tastes like a cold Mexican hot chocolate.” 

Customer Centered

“The trend I've noticed people talking about most in our industry is hospitality,” Levine says. “Not very many places have even skimmed the surface, but I think creative ideas for the front-of-house is kind of a blank canvas and I'm really excited to see massive developments in this area over the next couple years. It'll be fun to see bartenders get as excited about hospitality as they've been about ingredients, recipes, and technique. The customer experience will be something really special when hospitality catches up to the other areas bartenders have grown in over the past few years.” 

At the bar, the customer may be the focus, but they’re also getting savvier.

“I've had a couple people talk to me recently with such knowledge of the geekiest stuff only a bartender would know about, and come to find out, they're a teacher, or a med student or something,” says Robinson.

Raising the Bar

“I think bars thought of as destination places are going to start to change as more quality places open,” Levine says. “I think the pendulum over the next few years will swing back in the direction of neighborhood bars with regulars as community meeting places where people know each other (similar to the way coffee shops operate).” 

Fourmont says 2016 could be the year of tiki. “The culture of tiki is gaining serious momentum.”

In Detroit, tiki bar The Bad Luck is another upcoming establishment from Kwiatkowski. “Partner and head bartender Yani Frye will be focusing on experiential and experimental drinks. This means an elevation of concept and presentation, which should be a fun and interesting process,” Kwiatkowski says.  

Interesting Ingredients

Forget simple syrups and homemade bitters. “The ingredient I hear discussed by bartenders in deep dark corners is aloe. There is already experimentation happening in pockets,” Britsky says.