Mixologists might love gin, and connoisseurs might tout whiskey, but vodka remains the spirit of choice among American consumers.
Vodka accounts for 30 percent of all on-premise spirits, according to cocktail trend expert Donna Hood Crecca, Technomic Inc. senior director of the adult beverage resource group. Consumption of it, both on- and off-premise, grew by nearly 6 percent in 2012, she said.
Flavored vodka is driving growth. “There’s just a constant stream of flavors coming to market,” Crecca said.
New iterations range from dessert and candy-shop flavors such as cake, whipped cream and root beer float, to whimsical varieties such as peanut butter and jelly, and dill pickle. “It’s versatile, and there’s something for every type of consumer or bartender,” she said.
Unaged corn whiskey, sometime marketed as moonshine, resembles vodka and is becoming more popular in the growing whiskey category, Crecca said. “It’s so on-point today,” she said of corn whiskey. “It’s got the authenticity — the back story — and great craftsmanship. Some microdistilleries are getting props from larger distributors, making it available to a broader audience.
“If you’re a bar or restaurant and you have a customer base that’s looking for things that are new and interesting, corn whiskey is definitely something to look at,” she added.
Corn whiskey-based cocktails served in mason jars are becoming popular in New York City establishments, as well as some chains, Crecca said.
Joe’s Crab Shack, a 130-unit casual-dining chain owned by Houston-based Ignite Restaurant Group, currently has a line of corn whiskey-based Moonshine Cocktails in apple pie, tea and punch flavors, served in mason jars.
In 2011, 47-unit casual-dining chain Quaker Steak & Lube, based in Sharon, Pa., won a Nation’s Restaurant News MenuMasters award for innovations that included cocktails served in “bar jars” — mason jars with mug-like handles.
Just as vodka-like corn whiskey is helping spur growth of the whiskey category overall, so are flavored whiskeys, another tactic borrowed from vodka producers.
Leading that movement is Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey, which has become a popular shooter among younger consumers. Another popular cocktail is called Angry Balls — a combination of Angry Orchard cider with Fireball Cinnamon. An offshoot of that is the Angry Irishman, which combines the cider with Jameson Irish whiskey.
That leads to another category of cocktails in which not only different spirits but different categories of alcohol are combined.
Beer, in particular, has become a popular addition to cocktails, Crecca said, noting that even at casual-dining chain Red Robin, customers can get a drink that combines wheat beer with clementine-flavored vodka, and another that blends Coors Light with ginger liqueur and lemonade.
“When you see something like that at Red Robin, that is so mainstream,” she said.
Overall, the margarita remains the most popular — and often modified — cocktail. For instance, the Coronita upends a small Corona beer in a margarita.
Simple spirit-and-soft-drink combinations such as rum and Coke remain popular, too. Crecca estimates that they account for about two-fifths of all cocktails. “It doesn’t appear on the menu, but it’s very much called for,” she said.
Although customers are open to trying unusual flavor combinations, tried-and-true flavors remain the most popular. “About half of consumers would be satisfied with strawberry and lime as cocktail flavors,” she said.
However, berry, pear, cherry and white peach flavors are growing in popularity, as are sweet-and-spicy combinations such as chipotle-pineapple, and tropical exotics such as mango.
Consumers are looking for better versions of traditional flavors, Crecca said, noting that customers are interested in knowing the calorie content of their mixers and often look for specific brands.