Why cocktails are cool again

Australia is a nation of beer and wine drinkers, and not one renowned for a refined palette when it comes to what we sip.

Maybe that's why so many urbanites are beginning to peruse the cocktails menu at their watering hole of choice, or even venturing into a cocktail bar.

No, we're not talking about fruity, gaudy concoctions festooned with paper umbrellas. The ever-popular Martini now has the likes of the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the Cosmopolitan for company on the top line of most lists, thanks in large part to richly nuanced televisual dramas such as Mad Men and Board-walk Empire, plus Sex and the City.

Daiquiris, predictably, still enjoy a good following, and the rum-based Mojito is becoming popular as an accessible entry point to cocktail culture.

But it's the rise of another cocktail, the Negroni, that convinces Luke Hanzlicek, the manager of Sydney cocktail bar The Victoria Room, that cocktails have really arrived.

The Negroni features gin, Campari and Sweet Vermouth, combining for a dense burst of strong flavour.

“It's absolutely massive these days. It's a simple drink, but it has ingredients in it that are an acquired taste, and people are coming around to it,” he says.

Tim Phillips, the Sydney-based cocktail bartender who was crowned the world's best in his craft in 2012, also sees a more inquisitive and knowledgeable wave of customers coming into his bar, Bulletin Place.

“In the eight years I've been working in cocktail bars, no-one knew what a Negroni or an Old Fashioned was outside of the bartending world, and now I have punters coming in and asking 'do you know how to make a 1951 Chicago Martini?'


“I don't think I've ever made that drink for anyone who wasn't a bartender, it's a real nerdy, obscure drink.”

Phillips also credits American hip-hop culture with a role in the resurgence of drinks mixed using top-shelf spirits.

“There was a big rise in cognac sales in the early 90s, and this was a time when vodka was king,” he says.

“They looked into why cognac had taken off, and it was because of hip-hop culture; a couple of the big hip-hop artists got involved in cognac and it just changed the climate of the whole cognac scene.”

This combination of influences – and let's face it, the 1980s flick Cocktail also had a part to play, although debate continues about whether it was a good or bad one – plus a trend to greater refinement in drinking culture, is putting cocktails not just at the beginning or the slightly sozzled end-point of a lot of after-dark plans, but more frequently the central theme for a night out and even an accompaniment for dinner.

“They're more refined, more knowledgeable and willing to take more risks,” Hanzlicek says.

He points to the booming popularity of the Victoria's Room's speciality, cocktails laced with medicinal herbs such as the Bach flower, as an example of drinkers' willingness to try new things.

In line with the rise of cocktails is the greater prominence of their purveyors, the cocktail bartender – or mixologist, as some prefer to be known.

Bartenders in New York can earn as much as lawyers thanks to the tips they receive, and the same applies in London, Phillips says.

“In Australia the climate is changing. You can now earn an incredible living and go far in the industry, open up your own venue or become a brand ambassador,” he says. “Becoming a professional bartender is becoming a respected profession that people can aspire to doing, much like cheffing.”

Hanzlicek says cocktail bartenders are typically more approachable than they used to be. “A few years ago there was this ego that went with it and if you wanted a good drink, you probably weren't going to get a good chat with it,” he says.

“A lot of bartenders are really getting on board with creating the ultimate experience for the guest, rather than just making a drink for them.”

Competitions such as World Class, the unofficial world championship of cocktail bartending sponsored by global spirits giant Diageo, further lift their profile with this year's competition being filmed as the subject of a reality television show that will be seen later this year by 25 million people in 100 countries.

Walter Celli, the global marketing director for Diageo's top-shelf Reserve range, says the objective of the World Class contest is to recreate a new golden age for cocktails, or what he calls “fine drinking culture”.

“This one of the ways we explode the fine drinking culture around the world; it's not only about activating the bars, or generating growth, it's also about consumers being enticed to get into this world,” he says.

“We want our consumers to drink better. Sometimes a beer is nice; but sometimes you deserve more than a beer, something that is prepared and crafted and full of flavour.”

And while the focus is primarily on the drink, creating a memorable experience for the customer through showmanship and interaction is another string to the bow of the cocktail bartender.

“It's totally about the experience (for the customer),” Celli says. “If you see Tim Phillips working, he is a showman. The product of his work is something that is not only delicious, it's the way that he entertains you while he is serving you and involves you in the experience.”

Cocktails are also changing drinking habits, and could be the antidote to “pre-loading” for those who have had a bellyful – literally – of the beers, wines and mixed spirits that are the staples of social imbibing.

“What we're seeing is that people are spending the same amount on booze, but they're actually drinking less,” Phillips says.

“Instead of going out to a bar and drinking nine schooners on a Friday afternoon, they're going out and having three incredibly crafted cocktails, spending the same amount of money, having less standard drinks but drinking better.”