Several years into a New York cocktail revival, a host of skilled bartenders have garnered fervent admiration from the general public, the press, and perhaps most importantly, the accountants, who have happily approved of the profit margins cocktail programs can generate. But one set has been more reserved in their praise of mixologists: the wine crowd. High alcohol spirits and the concept of (gasp!) mixing liquids together doesn't seem to sit well with many wine aficionados, who may well go out of their way to tell you that yes, they drink wine, but they never touch the hard stuff. Many restaurants make a point of choosing from the beginning between a reputation for cocktails or being known for wine service. And despite all the shared success, you don't often see sommeliers and bartenders having dinner together on their own time. The two social worlds don't have much intersection. This is true despite the fact that an earlier generation of sommeliers often started their beverage careers behind the bar.
But increasingly, it looks like the two sides of beverage are sharing in the same trends, and at roughly the same time. There is the emphasis on the old ways, the old methods or recipes, and the traditional. There are endless fascination with subtle riffs on the classics, whether that is a Negroni or a Pinot Noir. There is the searching out of what is now referred to by everyone as "artisanal," so much so that the word now looks strange inside quotation marks. And these are often conjoined with a small is beautiful rule regarding production levels and rarity. An emphasis on geographic origin (New York!) has become notable for spirits, just as it is for wine. We've also seen in both camps the arrival of the savory palate, whether it be for amaro or Jura. And for every ice carved liquor luge there are 10 (perhaps 20?) impossibly thin, improbably curved decanters.
Just like sommeliers, today's well known bartenders often garner a reputation for a specific area of expertise. The wine community associates Paul Grieco with Riesling in much the same way that the cocktail community associates Phil Ward with mezcal. And the whole idea of "Dealer's Choice," where a customer leaves it to the expert to decide, exists just as much for sommeliers as it does for mixologists. Indeed, the general willingness of the consumer to try something new is driving the changes in the entire beverage world. If people aren't buying into brands for life, in the way that their parents did, then the implications of what that means are huge and will play out in the specifics for several more years.
There is also the shared likelihood that the ambitious young bartender or sommelier may leverage success to leave the floor. Just as some bartenders covet Brand Ambassador appointments, some sommeliers take up work for large importers or brands after achieving their MS. And it is easy to recognize that with the rise of restaurant groups in New York you have also seen the development of more and more Beverage Director roles which oversee multiple venues. What John Ragan does at the Union Square Hospitality Group is not dissimilar from what Eben Freeman does for the Altamarea Group.
[Pearl & Ash by Daniel Krieger]
But the most noticeable trend has been ownership. Both bartenders and sommeliers have increasingly had stakes in new venues, and that has brought to the fore a host of spots where pretension is low, but where the shared love for beverages is potent. Inevitably these places, a restaurant like Pearl & Ash, or a bar like Pouring Ribbons, are downtown and casual. They have placed limited resources largely into beverage, instead of higher rent or more luxurious furnishings. The result is beverage programs that could rival any place in the world, but which still feel comfortable. Of course this isn't solely a new idea. Restaurants like Hearth, and bars like Pegu Club have been around for several years. But when you see the current crop of new spots to check out it is clear that an ownership say from sommeliers and bartenders is having a large effect in steering restaurant decisions. And that is something that both wine and cocktail crowds can cheer.
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[Wine photo: Bess Adler]