With the rise of the G&T and the Old Fashioned, it’s no surprise that bartenders are now pouring fewer double vodkas and more well-crafted cocktails. Artisanal spirits have become as ubiquitous and superlative as artisanal bread, making cocktail hour as intriguing as any mealtime.
When you get right down to it, today’s cocktails aren’t so different from dishes on a chef’s tasting menu. The creator must train doggedly to hone their craft, each flavour component is considered and balanced, theatrics and general presentation contribute towards creating a memorable experience, and seasonal local produce takes pride of place. Sure, the old classics can still be found on drinks menus around the country and we’d never dream of turning down a piña colada on a hot summer’s day – but a new time has arrived for SA’s cocktails, one where bars are crafting their own way ahead, which looks and tastes nothing like what we remember.
“In South Africa we’ve had a resurgence of the idea of what cocktails can be,” says Justin "Awehwolf" Shaw, bartender at Cause | Effect in Cape Town. “And it’s gone back to the old-school style of the cocktail. When cocktails were first made, they were very dark; they had bitters and a little bit of sugar and were very spirit-forward. They were classy and bespoke.” This was the idea behind the cocktail menu at Cause | Effect, and it’s not alone: “Over the past year or so, we’ve seen bars across the country take up the mantle of creating our own trend in South Africa.”
So how did these super-sweet and colourful drinks, having been all but put out to pasture, earn this revival? Look in the mirror. “Consumers are wiser now about what they’re putting into their bodies. They’re more knowledgeable about spirits,” says Justin. He’s right – and we’re hungry to learn even more. Cocktails make for the ideal vehicle, something which is evident in the Cause | Effect menu, where the science of flavour is explained in unexpected detail. Scones, strawberries and butter, it teaches you, have very similar flavour compounds. You’re pondering this (and craving scones slathered in butter and strawberries), when you turn the page and, lo and behold, there’s a strawberry scone cocktail.
Or you might order the Avo-ntitious and let your taste buds discover that the avocado’s viscosity and high fat content means that it distributes the cocktail’s flavours evenly around your mouth and allows the taste of the spirits to linger longer. There’s a similar reaction in the Monarch, wherein stark black drops of burnt butter olive oil harden before melting on your tongue to create an entirely different sensory experience. As with all the best cooking, it’s nearly magic. And just like on a fine plate of food – where the potatoes may be roasted in duck fat, but they're darn well going to be the best potatoes and duck fat the chef could lay their hands on – there’s a sense of education here. “At the end of the day, we are all trying to be more conscious about what we’re putting into our bodies – not just as the consumer but as the establishment. We are trying to make more people aware of what they can drink and how it can be beneficial to them,” says Justin. “So it’s just better spirits made for better experiences, and you can drink smarter and not harder."
“IN SOUTH AFRICA WE’VE HAD A RESURGENCE OF THE IDEA OF WHAT COCKTAILS CAN BE.”
We’ll drink to that.
THE AVONTITIOUS COCKTAIL AT CAUSE | EFFECT