Light-coloured Spirits Are Revving Up Cocktail Menus


Volume 48, Number 4

Written By: Alan McGinty

“Gin is in,” says Alex Harber, bar manager at Toronto’s Nota Bene.

Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) sales figures back up the gin boom: sales are up 21.6 per cent since 2010, and gin drinkers are moving upscale, with “deluxe” gins up more than 300 per cent (from a small base) and “premium” gins up 27 per cent. “Standard” gins are down 22 per cent, according to Genevieve Tomney, senior communications consultant, LCBO.

Toronto’s Nota Bene offers numerous pairing opportunities within its extensive gin list, which includes a dozen choices — from the coriander, lemon and liquorice notes of U.K.’s Bombay Sapphire to the wild rose hip and Labrador tea of Canada’s Ungava. The spirit is mixed with one of three tonics, including the house blend, Fever Tree or Schweppes. “Juniper … is in all gins, but there are other herbs and botanicals, including flowers, that give [the spirit] different flavour profiles,” explains Harber. The crowd at the Toronto mainstay is fairly conservative, but Harber still slips in fresh and innovative cocktails such as the gin-based Murasaki ($14, pictured in inset on p. 57). Crushed flower petals give the purple drink its colour and a splash of tonic gives it fizz.

So, if gin is in, what’s out? “Brown [alcohol] is pretty much dead,” Harber says, adding he’s seeing a lot of interest in tequila, especially premium reposados, oak-aged “sipping tequilas.” “Tequila negronis are [big], and mezcal has buzz…. It’s almost a Scotch or bourbon replacement.” LCBO figures show a 39-per-cent jump in the tequila category from 2010 to 2015. The deluxe and premium categories (combined) have risen 242 per cent and now account for just under half of all tequila sales in Ontario.

Other cocktail trends include a rise of interest in unique offerings; look no further than the tea boom spreading to bars. Neila MacIntyre, bar manager at Calgary’s Ox and Angela, uses tea to balance drinks. She recommends including a sweetened variety instead of a syrup. Think: Earl Grey, camomile or smoky lapsang souchong. “It sells itself,” says MacIntyre. “Tea is often the ingredient that jumps out and makes people want to try it.” One success last season was the Winter Warmer ($13), a glass of Four Roses bourbon, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, St. Germain and lemon juice accompanied by a pot of Earl Grey tea, which the customer added to taste.

In another surprising twist, MacIntyre has seen an uptick in Calgary of “kitschy, colourful cocktails you can have a lot of fun with. Think: Blue Hawaiian, a souped-up mojito or a tiki rum cocktail.” And, yes, the drink would be served with a chunky fruit garnish and a paper umbrella. Cocktails should be fun,
after all.

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