For decades, the words "store bought cocktail mixer" have triggered trepidation in savvy drinkers—images of saccharine margarita mix and outlandish blue raspberry concoctions coming to mind. Why? The drinks people were buying out at bars could be considered only a minor improvement.
The seventies and eighties are wholeheartedly dismissed by cocktail historians and enthusiasts as the "dark ages" of mixology. A quick refresher: sour mix, shoulder pads, schnapps, Slippery Nipples. If that’s what people were drinking at bars, it’s easy to imagine how Franzia became a household name. While the dark ages ended in the late 1980s, since then it’s been a slow build toward today’s cocktail renaissance. Over the last 10 years, drinks have both embraced their roots with classics like the Old Fashioned or Negroni, and made a serious comeback that’s outdone previous generations. Now, more often than not bars stock cherries brandied in house over the bright red maraschinos of yore. Also, "Citrus" no longer strictly references lemon or lime, there’s grapefruit, yuzu, sudachi and more.
... chefs are largely responsible for our alcoholic renaissance.
Unlike its forbearers, the "craft mixer" is a pre-batched, non-alcoholic beverage that’s meant to be mixed with booze. The "craft" aspect refers to the fact that these products are often made in small batches using natural (possibly local) ingredients, with fewer preservatives than the average mixer. These tinctures are never a bright shade of green or blue, and it's not unusual to find them in flavors like "Lavender Bloom."
According to cocktail historian David Wondrich, author of Imbibe!, chefs are largely responsible for our alcoholic renaissance. Wondrich believes our current cocktail culture "is an outgrowth of the American culinary revolution." Though drinkers may not have noticed, Wondrich notes that what we would consider craft cocktails began sneaking onto menus in the mid-eighties. "It kicked into high gear about seven or eight years ago," he says, adding, "Now it’s everywhere."
Most notably, our homes. In the history of human intoxication, keeping a party-worthy store of liquor in the house at all times is a relatively new phenomenon. It first became popular in the post-WWII years where suburban isolation made barbeques and Tupperware parties the only way for most families to mingle. If you can’t go to the bar, bring the bar to you. Yet since then, the quality and size of one’s liquor cabinet has become a indication of a host’s sophistication. When the average bartender didn’t know how to make a Manhattan, the bar—so to speak—for the average host was set pretty low. But ever since the word "mixologist" entered the popular lexicon things have started to change.
The best indicator of this quality shift is the proliferation of a new kind of cocktail mixer. Not counting juices and other liquids that could be mixed with alcohol, at this year's recent Fancy Food Show in New York City, over 20 (mostly new) purveyors displayed products created to be blended with booze.
If you can't go to the bar, bring the bar to you.
Cocktail aficionados have become so addicted to mixology that companies have found a niche for products like W&P Design's Carry on Cocktail Kit. Encased in TSA-friendly three-by-four inch metal tins, one can purchase kits which contain all the quality ingredients one needs to mix an Old Fashioned, Moscow Mule, or Gin and Tonic—airplane-sized liquor bottles not included—on a flight. Meanwhile, Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. manufactures a popular line of small batch tonic concentrates to which one adds sparkling water. Otherwise, for pre-batched quality tonic water, there's bartender favorite Fever Tree.
Cocktail mixers now come in a slew of flavors, from tea-flavored Owl’s Brew, to P&H Soda Co., whose syrups range from a familiar grapefruit to cream and lovage. Even simple mixers aren’t safe from the craft boom. Companies like Brooklyn’s Morris Kitchen carry varieties like ginger, rhubarb and preserved lemon.
One of the oldest craft mixers companies is Powell & Mahoney, which only launched in 2010 and was founded by Mark Mahoney and Brian Powell, two men with a long history in the beverage industry. Mahoney realized that the craft cocktail trend in restaurants could be extended to the home market. Since then, this Northeastern-based brand has grown its distribution throughout the United States. Their success is unsurprising considering that their flavors appeal to both cocktail lovers and more average drinkers. Try anything from the user-friendly Cosmopolitan or Mojito mix to Sriracha Bloody Mary or Jalapeño Margarita. The company’s director of marketing, Meredith Cyr, says that today the increasing number of cocktail mixer competitors are "helping educate the consumer that craft mixers can be a really great product."
...if a host wants to serve impressive drinks to guests while still having time to mingle, these products may be the best answer.
High quality cocktail mixers not only appeal to home bartenders, but restaurant bartenders, too. And some companies have even partnered with hospitality operators to create new beverage trends. Such is the case for the recent popularity of vinegary shrubs, a beverage (that dates back to at least the 1700s), which was helped along by the pre-made mixers of Shrub & Co. Co-founder Deborah Marskey and her husband fell into cocktail culture the way many do—through ordering drinks out and talking to bartenders. Soon they started to experiment with drinks at home and Marskey eventually stumbled across a strange ingredient called a "shrub" in Jerry Thomas’ Bartender’s Guide. Her interest was piqued. From the first bottle of shrub produced in 2012, Marskey says the business has "more or less doubled" each year, with most of their sales coming from bars and restaurants.
Shrubs are all about preservation—both of produce and flavor of the ingredients. "You’re taking your harvest and trying to capture that," Marskey says. "They’re pretty concentrated and it’s a great way to get flavor into your drink." It’s also worth noting that many bars trying to grow their cocktail program gravitate toward products like Marskey’s.
The Green Table, located in Manhattan's Chelsea Market, uses their wildflower honey shrub, while D.C.’s Penn Commons mixes apple shrub with rum and cider in one of their cocktails. Still, a significant portion of sales come direct from consumers. "People go into a nice place, have a cocktail shrub, and want to replicate that experience at home," Marskey says, adding that consumer sales are growing.
"People are going out and their expectations and appreciations for a good cocktail are really increasing ..."
And pre-batched cocktail mixers add convenience for any party host. As Wondrich points out, "Making cocktails for a crowd is a lot of work." While hardcore cocktail geeks may not use pre-made mixers, if a host wants to serve impressive drinks to guests while still having time to mingle, these products may be the best answer.
The issue of being stuck permanently next to his home bar is partly what inspired Alex Abbott Boyd to launch his craft mixer company, Cocktail Crate, in 2012. Boyd, based in New York City, regularly visited top local cocktail bars and would invite friends over to test out his own creations. But he explains, "All I was doing all evening was making cocktails and not hanging out with friends." To launch Cocktail Crate, he created a Kickstarter campaign that raised the necessary $5,000 for his first batch. "I started in my home borough of Queens at the Organic Food Incubator and I bottled and labeled each one by hand," Boyd says.
Boyd believes that making great cocktails is about more than having practical knowledge. "You have to be stocked on simple syrup and have fresh fruit and liquor," he states. "It’s expensive and time consuming." But once you catch the cocktail bug it can be hard to leave it behind at home. "People are going out and their expectations and appreciations for a good cocktail are really increasing," Boyd says. "That makes it more painful to have a Rum and Coke or standard Gin and Tonic when you’re at home."