Insights and Innovations from Chicago's Inaugural Cocktail Summit

Jun. 7, 2016

Movers and shakers in Chicago’s cocktail scene gathered at the historic Logan Theatre this month for the inaugural Chicago Cocktail Summit. Industry veterans, legendary mixologists and enthusiastic home bartenders enjoyed two days of networking, product sampling and sharing insider tips for filling menus with world-class drinks.

Spanning two days, Sunday’s events focused on home mixologists, giving amateurs an insider perspective and a shopping list for all the key brands they should stock up on at their local off premise establishment. On Monday, bartenders, beverage managers and other on premise decision-makers learned about all the new trends that are catching fire with customers in the city.

“I’m incredibly proud of how well we were able to balance real, useful information, education and good times with product placement and effective brand participation,” said Billy Helmkamp, the event's organizer and co-owner of Chicago's The Whistler. "Feedback from attendees, presenters, volunteers and brands has been universally positive so we feel great knowing that we have a solid foundation on which to build for next year's Cocktail Summit."

Breakthru’s own beverage development specialists, Eric Hay and Johnny Costello, were also on site for the event, helping to batch cocktails and facilitate the demonstrations. Hay thanked our 12 brand partners for their participation and praised the summit for “great integration of the sponsors’ products into the cocktails and presentations.”

Breakthru Beverage Illinois is proud to have been a partner for this first-of-its-kind event, and we are excited to see how Chicago’s cocktail culture continues to evolve and grow. For now, we will raise our glass in honor of the successful summit behind us, and for all those yet to come.

We’re living in the golden age of home mixology, that according to IMBIBE magazine editor and Chicago Cocktail Summit keynote speaker, Paul Clarke.

“Today consumers have the power to make something at home that is better than what they can get at the bar,” said Clarke.

So how did something that started in the 1920s as a way to doctor up poor quality spirits become a nationwide, shaken and stirred trend? Clarke broke it down into three factors.

The internet and spread of social media

Consumers use the internet every day to stay connected, do research and gain insights into the world around them. It should be no surprise then that early adopters to blogs, chat rooms and message boards were often professional and amateur bartenders looking for tips, tricks and insights to both fuel and refine their craft.

“The web led to a two-way road of communication between home and pro bartenders,” said Clarke. “People would share recipes, advice on technique and recommend [at the time] little-known or regional spirit brands on industry blogs and message boards.”

Social media is playing a large role as well, as consumers are now more exposed than ever to creative and innovative cocktails being posted on Instagram and Snapchat.

“Social media carries the home mixology message very far,” added Clarke.

A new wave of craft spirits

In 2016, the U.S. surpassed 1,000 licensed craft distilleries. That number is expected to more than double within the next five years, meaning that consumers’ choice of spirits is only going to grow more robust. This is good news to off premise accounts as they can now begin to grow and diversify their spirit selections into more categories, such as locally produced or organic.

Budding celebrity bartenders

According to Clarke, cocktails are following a similar path to what food did a decade ago. The launch of Food Network and celebrity chefs like Bobby Flay, Rachel Ray and Anthony Bourdain brought a new wave of interest into culinary arts as consumers strove to replicate what they saw on TV in their own kitchens at home. Today, TV shows like Bar Rescue and rising star bartenders such as Charles Joly and Paul McGee are grabbing consumers’ attention and educating them to the craft of mixology.

As he drops a ball of clear ice into a glass of Johnnie Walker Black, Alcademic’s Camper English details why the purity of the clear ice is the preferred companion to the whisky, rather than a few regular cubes a bartender might go to in a pinch. Clear ice comes at a cost, however, as some industry insiders estimate an additional 60 to 80 cents per drink for the privilege of the premium ice. The good news for bars is most cocktail enthusiasts agree it’s worth the extra coin.

From the reason behind cloudy ice to the ideal freezing methods, there are many important ice details to consider when crafting a cocktail.

Cloudy Ice?

Cloudy ice forms because oxygen gets trapped in the water, which will result in the ice melting faster and altering (not in a good way) the flavor of your drink.

How to Freeze and Store Ice

Ice cube trays tend to freeze the water from all directions, thus creating cloudy ice. Put water in a hard-sided cooler with the top off and put in the freezer. This way the water will freeze from the top down and the ice will be clearer. The ice will freeze in about 2-4 days. When freezing ice, don’t let it freeze all the way. Cloudiness forms when the ice has been freezing for a long period of time. When storing ice, seal the cooler to maintain the shape and moisture of the ice.

Flavored Ice

What if when the ice melts in a cocktail the ice released a new hit of flavor? That’s where flavored ice enters the frame. Bitters, coconut water and fruit juice work well. In this instance, smaller cubes work better than a big block of ice.

Camper English of is a water savant, with a veritable ocean of knowledge on the subject. English educated attendees on the variety of chemicals and minerals found in different water sources and how variations in the composition can impact the flavor profile of spirits as they are mixed, stirred, splashed into glasses.

DIY Mineral Water 

Easily accessible online resources make it possible for mixologists to craft their own unique mineral waters or recreate popular flavors from scratch. Adventurous establishments can blend their own signature mineral recipes and differentiate themselves from the city’s other “watering holes.”

Water Enhances Flavors

Demonstrate authority behind the bar by suggesting a splash of water next time a customer orders a high-end whisky “neat.” Going against common wisdom, and delivering a better drinking experience, will help your bar develop a winning reputation among the city’s whisky aficionados.

Expert mixologist Adam Seger (Balsam Spirits and Rare Botanical Bitters) and exotic tea hunter Rodrick Markus (Rare Tea Cellar) shared their collective wisdom, as well as samples of an incredible gin cocktail with a magnolia-infused shrub.

Best Syrups = Light Water

Seger reminded the room that while you can always add more water to dilute a syrup or shrub, once added you can never remove it. Keeping the water content down makes these sweets and acids a more versatile tool for making mixed drinks.

Room Temperature Works

Boiling water is not always necessary for a simple syrup. It may take longer, but room temperature water will dissolve and distribute sugar into a syrup just as well as hot water. Room temperature water also allows you to work with more delicate flavors and ingredients, like lavender, that can be damaged by high heat.

Pits are Perfect

Often overlooked, the humble cherry pit is where most of the cherry flavor is hiding. Don’t throw away these valuable pieces of your ingredients! Crack them open and let them enhance your mixture. Cherries are expensive and temperamental, so make sure you get your money’s worth.

Native to Europe and Asia, mint is a go-to plant for many classic cocktails. “Its presence immediately enhances any cocktail it’s in,” said Charlotte Voisey, head of ambassadors at William Grant and Sons. While mint may be a staple in refreshing drinks, understanding its complexities allows bartenders to utilize the plant in prime condition.

Growing Mint

Mint is one of the easiest plants to grow. It’s a perennial plant that remains green throughout the year. Mint grows best in warm/moist climates. If growing indoors, place your container where it will receive good morning light. While growing mint is simple, be mindful that the plant can spread quickly and overtake a flower bed or garden if boundaries, such as mulch, aren’t utilized.

Release the Goods

Mint at its finest is smooth (not dry) and contains oil. When using mint in a drink, the more oil the leaves have the better, because that’s where the flavor comes in. Simply slap the mint to release extra oil before using it in a cocktail.

Keep and Storing Mint

It takes a little bit of TLC to keep mint fresh, but if handled properly it will keep for several days. Trim the stems and give it an ice bath before standing the mint up in shallow warm water in a jar or mug and store in the refrigerator. Make sure to change the water every two or three days.

Chicago Cocktail Summit 2016

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