6 drink trends for 2016 from the San Antonio Cocktail Conference

SACC Whiskey Tasting
Whiskey Tasting at #SACC2016

 

The fifth annual San Antonio Cocktail Conference (SACC) washed into the city on a wave of liquor. This year’s event had 25 percent more attendees than 2015 as well as a jump in the number of booze brands participating. More than 8,700 mixologists, brand representatives, and cocktail enthusiasts drank in information and binged on merriment at dozens of dinners and parties strewn all over town.

Notable industry experts like Houston Eaves of The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, Jessica Sanders of drink.well. in Austin, and Alba Huerta of Julep in Houston packed hotel ballrooms with bartenders eager to learn tricks of the trade and the hottest trends for 2016. The presenters at SACC certainly have their finger on the pulse of the most important trends in the industry.

As Jason Kosmos, co-owner of The 86 Co. put it, “We are the urban shamans. We deliver the medicine. We deliver the advice.”

What do the cocktail shamans say about the cocktail trends of 2016?

1. Beer is for cocktails

Jacob Grier making a Beer Flip at #SACC2016
Jacob Grier making a Beer Flip at #SACC2016

 

Jacob Grier, author of Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer, introduced a few hearty beer cocktails in his session with an academic approach to old-school drinks. In a “don’t try this one at home” moment, he superheated a metal rod to 1,000 degrees with a blowtorch to demonstrate how the earliest versions of flips were made. Rather than being a cold cocktail made with egg whites, historically, flips were made with beer, rum, sugar, and spice, served hot. Grier replicated it with a glowing red rod plunged into a malty beer, sending steam into the air and beer frothing over. The iron quickly heats the beer and caramelizes the sugars immediately. The result? A cocktail that smells like hot iron, tastes like scorched sugar in a smoky beer, and is oddly delightful.

For a safer way to make at home, and a really satisfying warm drink to fortify you against the cold, try his cognac and dark ale cocktail:

  • 2 ounces cognac
  • 12 ounces malty English ale like Samuel Smith Winter Welcome
  • 2 tablespoons Demerara raw sugar

Mix winter spices like clove and cinnamon in the beer and cognac mixture, while heating it on the stove. Serve it piping hot in a mug.

2. Whiskey is still king

Treaty Oak Distilling Whiskey Cruise at #SACC2016
Treaty Oak Distilling Whiskey Cruise at #SACC2016

 

No fewer than five seminars were dedicated to the caramel colored king, whiskey. In addition, there were several parties where whiskey was the featured spirit or heavily dominant. The recent surge in bourbon sales isn’t the only thing driving industry interest. Demand for rye whiskey, scotch, and Japanese whiskey is also running hot, and skyrocketing prices reaching beyond five digits will continue. The diversity of options running from rustic to elegant offer the drinking public plenty to thirst for.

3. Mezcal is the next bourbon
For the past few years, bourbon has been the hottest selling spirit, leaving many popular brands in scarce supply. Now it’s mezcal’s turn to soak in the spotlight. Mezcal was featured in a seminar on its culture, and brands like Montelobos Mezcal, Wahaka Mezcal, and Ilegal Mezcal held events to help bartenders hone their palates on the agave spirit. This is one spirit we are sure to see topping many cocktail lists this year.

Get into the spirit with this twist on the Moscow Mule, the Wahaka Mule:

  • 1.5 ounces Wahaka Mezcal
  • 3 ounces ginger beer

Stir and add a squeeze of lime.

4. Service matters
Dushan Zaric, a driving force behind the infamous Employees Only cocktail bar in New York and co-owner of The 86 Co., thinks the most important element of cocktail culture exists outside the glass. “As we grow as a profession and a craft movement, we are forced to adopt hospitality. In the culinary profession, it’s the better ingredients, the better experience. In cocktails, the quality of our drinks won’t differentiate us anymore. It will be more of the human dynamic that will set us apart. It is all about better service.”

5. Fortified factor
Jessica Sanders, co-owner of Austin’s drink.well. and soon-to-open-cocktail den Backbeat, sees the secondary players taking center stage. “Certainly, base spirits like mezcal and rye whiskey continue to be at the forefront but, above all, what you see is a very focused interest in education around modifier spirits and fortified wines — Madeira, sherry, and herbal liqueurs being particularly prevalent.”

6. Fun dominates

#SACC2016 Cocktail Tasting
#SACC2016 Cocktail Tasting

 

Travis Tober, who recently turned over the reigns as beverage director for Vox Table to become House Spirits Distillery’s national director of education and advocacy, is drawing on his inner Cyndi Lauper. “The biggest trend I saw at SACC this year was ‘fun.’ Gone are the days of speakeasies and rules at the door. The common citizen is hip to cocktails and they want them without pretentiousness. The cocktail scene is starting to relax and enjoy itself. And I for one am relieved.”

If the predictions of the spirit soothsayers of SACC hold true, we are in for a year of beer, dark liquor, and excellent experiences at the bars around Texas.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

Disclosure: I was provided a press pass allowing me to attend sessions at no cost.

What are you drinking?

Austin’s premier wine challenge Somms Under Fire attracts national competition

June Rodil, Diane Dixon, Devon BroglieAustin’s Diane Dixon of Keeper Collection — the wine impresario who dreamt up the concept of Somms Under Fire, a national wine and food pairing competition held in our city — gathered a few members from her event team to tell CultureMap about this year’s festivities. Really damn good wines and even better conversations were flowing between serious wine collectors, the Dixons, and two master sommeliers from Austin, June Rodil and Devon Broglie. As we sampled a California cab, food pairings began flying around:

“This thing needs raw elk.”

“This is a cab for a slab: A big salty, peppery slab of meat.”

Calling out the best possible wine pairings with excellent cuisine is the name of the game at the Somms Under Fire competition, held at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on Sunday, January 24. The general public is invited for a night where expert judges test the mettle of three wine professionals in both a cocktail competition and an in-the-moment food and wine pairing challenge before naming one person the 2016 Somms Under Fire champion.

The event rundown

VIP Wine Tasting, 4:30 pm
It starts with a VIP wine tasting and education session presented by Napa Valley Vintners with renowned winemakers Rosemary Cakebread of Gallica, Michael Eddy of Louis Martini Winery, Sara Fowler of Peju, and Chris Hall of Long Meadow Ranch Winery. The winemakers will present eight wines, offering VIP guests an opportunity to taste similarities and differences of the regions.

Chopin Vodka Cocktail Challenge, 6 pm
Judged by Jason Stephens, director of bars and beverage for La Corsha Hospitality Group, and Master Sommelier Craig Collins, beverage director of ELM Restaurant Group, the three competing sommeliers are given one week to create a cocktail recipe made with Chopin Vodka that is inspired by a song from their favorite band. The winner will get a competitive advantage in the food and wine pairing competition.

Food and Wine Pairing Competition, 7 pm
Sommeliers are challenged to match wine from all over the world with dishes prepared by Chef Drew Curren of ELM Restaurant Group. Curren will take inspiration from his restaurants Arro, Italic, and Easy Tiger to create cuisine for the competitors, and the sommeliers will then select an appropriate wine to pair with the dishes live in front of a panel of expert judges and audience.

“Somms Under Fire is a great way for people to explore wines and better understand their palate,” says Dixon. “It is a fun way to learn new wine and food pairings and to try them at home. It’s also a way for people to understand the role of a sommelier so they are comfortable working with one at a restaurant.”

Rodil, the event’s first winner in 2011, will serve as emcee. As a master somm and the wine and beverage director for McGuire Moorman Hospitality, she sees Somms Under fire as a fun and delicious way to learn about wine. “People get to taste a huge range of wines paired with excellent food that you wouldn’t get to taste in a normal night.”

Serious national competition

This year marks the first time in five years that there will not be a sommelier from Texas participating for the Somms Under Fire crown. Rania Zayyat, previously the sommelier at laV, is the only Texan in contention as an alternate. Sommeliers from Texas have won each of the last four competitions, despite having contestants from other states the past two years. That says a lot about the draw of this competition, because Texas has plenty of talented sommeliers.

There was roughly a 25-percent increase in sommeliers taking the exam to earn a coveted spot in the Somms Under Fire competition with a great turnout from Houston somms. Even so, this was the first year there were more out-of-state people applying to participate, with only 40 percent of applicants hailing from Texas.

Dixon, a huge supporter of the Texas sommelier community, is excited by this development. “It has always been our goal to attract national competition. We set out to create a competition that sommeliers aspire to have on their resume as they pursue the title of master sommelier.”

Who made the cut?

The three finalists competing for the title of Somms Under Fire 2016 champion are:

Advanced Sommelier, Luke Boland
Recently appointed wine director at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s first new restaurant in New York in the last decade, La Sirena, Boland got his start three years ago while working at Del Posto. He will also be sitting for his Master Sommelier Diploma Examination-Theory in March.

Luke Boland Somms Under Fire

 

Advanced Sommelier, Blake Leja
Leja is a district manager at Southern Wine & Spirits in Chicago, and currently studying for his masters diploma with the Court of Master Sommeliers.

Blake Leja Somms Under Fire (2)

Certified Sommelier, Ryan Robinson
Robinson is the manager and sommelier at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Boise, Idaho, and is determined to give Idaho some street cred with a solid showing in this competition.

Ryan Robinson Somms Under Fire

 Sitting in judgment

The judging panel includes wine industry luminaries from the U.S. and France. Making the competitors sweat with their critical eye will be Master Sommelier Collins of ELM, Peju winemaker Fowler, Burgundy winemaker Nicolas Rossignol of Domaine Nicolas Rossignol, and Peter Wasserman of Becky Wasserman & Co.

A founding volunteer of the competition and emcee for the first four years, Broglie has seen what it takes to win. He offers this advice: “The winner will be able to recreate the customer hospitality experience on stage, without getting too geeky about the wine. The folks who have won in the past were able to quickly come up with their pairings, were confident in their choices, and excited by them.”

As a previous winner, Rodil also offers insight on how to score the prize. “First, know how to make a cocktail. Really understand creation rather than assessment of a cocktail. Second, be able to concisely talk about wine. Having excitement and speaking with fluidity about the wine gets you everywhere.”

What’s at stake?

Guests will vote for a “fan favorite,” sponsored by Napa Valley Vintners. That prize is a four-day educational trip to Napa Valley, including airfare, accommodations, and meals. One of the volunteer sommeliers working the event will also randomly be selected to win the same trip.

The grand prize is a one-week internship in Burgundy, France sponsored by Becky Wasserman & Co that includes airfare, accommodations, all meals, and the opportunity to hear from winemakers in the cellars and vineyards of this storied region. In addition, the winner will receive a $2,000 travel grant provided by The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas.

“You can’t pay for an experience like this [prize package],” explains Rodil. “You just can’t go and do it on your own. There is no way to see that level of wine producer in what is heralded in the best wine region in the world is undoable. It’s an amazing prize.”

Previous winners are:

  • 2012: June Rodil, Advanced Sommelier (now a Master Sommelier)
  • 2013: Scott Ota, Certified Sommelier (now Advanced Sommelier) at Arro Restaurant, Austin
  • 2014: Nathan Prater, Advanced Sommelier at the AT&T Education and Conference Center and the Carillon Restaurant, Austin
  • 2015: James Watkins, Advanced Sommelier with Pappas Brothers, Houston

Tickets are still available to the public: VIP tickets are $130 and general admission is $65.

This story was originally published on CultureMap.

What are you drinking?