Old Monk, the iconic Indian rum has been enjoyed by tens of millions of Indian men (and several women). My dad, a scotch drinker, would go back to Old Monk on special occasions. A bartender (mixologist, as she corrected me) at a Chelsea bar (of the London variety) surprised me with a choice of half a dozen cocktails based on Old Monk!
While by no means a new art, mixology is enjoying a global revival, with searches for craft cocktails across the world rising fivefold between 2010 and 2018. No longer a forbidden pleasure or insurance against disease, today’s cocktails answer the millennial consumer’s call for intentional food experiences, joining the ranks of artisanal coffee, cooking, beer, and a growing list of food industries.
Unique even among these, mixology takes hipster food culture’s respect for origin and creative vision, adding a theatrical flair that other sectors have only just started to mimic. In a professional’s hands modern bartending is choreography, with regional styles ranging from New York’s colorful speakeasies to Tokyo’s subtle, precise approach. Its breadth of techniques is surpassed only by its willingness to play with bold ingredients, as elite bartenders stretch customer tastes while remaining relevant in a crowded marketplace.
The industry has come a long way with from dried octopus to edible soil. I wondered about the trends tying these concoctions together. Could I, a cocktail enthusiast figure out where the industry is headed without years of barbacking or bankrupting myself at the bars?
A DIGITAL BAR CRAWL
Curious, I gathered signature drinks from the top 20 bars in Perrier’s list of the best in the world, whose bartenders are recognized as trailblazers and trendsetters in the industry. My colleagues and I ran 182 recipes through an AI NLP engine, weighing keywords for popularity across different drink and alcohol types. We correlated these to search trends throughout 2018 around five common base spirits — gin, whiskey, rum, vodka, and tequila/mezcal — in Singapore, London, and New York.
We found that gin is currently the most popular spirit worldwide, appearing in 25% of consumer search interest and 31% of signature drinks. Whiskey comes in a close second, taking up 21% of search and 25% of signature drink interest. Curiously, although vodka represents 23% of consumer searches, it is far less popular among elite bartenders (12%), who prefer rum (19%) in their drink selection.
Across all drink categories, citrus (46%) is by far the most common flavor note, reflecting a well-established market preference for acidity shown in the growing popularity of light-roasted African coffees, sourdough breads, and the rise of sours in craft beer. To balance this, craft bartenders use infused liqueurs (29%) and bitters (20%) to add complexity, weaving in sweetness (19%) as a note instead of placing it front and center. Broadly speaking, tropical flavors such as passionfruit and pineapple were trendy (11%), with warmer notes such as spices, woodiness, and chocolate closely trailing (7%).
Regionally, several interesting insights surfaced:
- Popularised in London as the drink of the disreputable, gin enjoys five times as much interest in the city as its nearest competitor, whiskey. Local brand Beefeater enjoys a twofold or threefold lead, with Scottish brands Hendricks and Tanqueray dominant in New York and Singapore.
- Rum and tequila are largely still seen as lowbrow or party drinks, with searches across all three cities reflecting little awareness of craft consumption. Consumer interest focused on generic recipes and mainstream brands such as Captain Morgan, Kraken, Bacardi, Jose Cuervo, and Patrón.
- New York drinkers were familiar with niche brands such as Brugal (Dominican Republic) and Zapaca (Guatemala) rum, as well as less common subcategories such as sotol (an aged agave liquor). They were more likely to seek origin and production information in tequila, suggesting that they are more open-minded and exploratory as drinkers
- The whiskey market is highly differentiated across regions. Where London whiskey drinkers focus on Scottish and Irish single malts, Singaporean drinkers take to established, high-end craft brands from Japan, Scotland, and the United States. New York drinkers span the gamut, enjoying foreign single malts and budget bourbons alike
THE NEXT HIP ALCOHOL
Analysing search behavior and trendsetters in tandem enables one to get a feel for popular trends, catching shifts in taste before they lose their novelty. At any point, only one or two base spirits dominate consumer preferences in each market. Even among elite bartenders, a group known for its willingness to experiment, these main spirits account for up to 50% of signature drinks.
Although this is currently gin’s moment of fame, we believe that dark rum will be the next meaningful trend in mixology. Sweet and complex, with warm tropical notes, dark rum offers a strong base for the flavor notes elite bartenders are leading the market towards.
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