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Beverage creators have an abundance of unique ingredients to work with today, and that’s a good thing because consumer expectations for novelty, variety and quality have never been higher.
That trend accounts for the growing appeal of cocktails and alcohol-free drinks flavored with herbs, spices, tropical fruits and botanicals, either made with fresh, scratch ingredients or high-quality prepared syrups, purees and concentrated flavors. They are the building blocks of beverages that not only taste good but, in some cases, also play perceived functional roles as wellness boosters and mood enhancers.
One major attention getter appearing on menus today is dragon fruit — aptly named for its crimson skin and green scales surrounding a sweet red or white pulp with edible black seeds. Another is pineberry, a hybrid of North and South American strawberries with white flesh, red seeds and an alluring pineapple nuance. The pair joins forces in a creative flavor portfolio that features enticing spices like cardamom and turmeric, colorful blossoms of rose, lavender, hibiscus and butterfly pea flower, and flavorful herbs like rosemary, tarragon and lemon grass.
“With millennials and Generation Z drinking less, it takes more for alcohol to grab their attention,” says the Future 100: 2020 forecast by Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. Some complex cocktails today combine 20-plus ingredients to achieve a unique drinking experience, according to the report.
However, satisfying that craving for novelty can pose a challenge to operators. “Everybody is looking for a new combination, a new flavor 'wow' to present to their customers,” says chef and mixologist Kathy Casey. Casey owns Kathy Casey Food Studios – Liquid Kitchen, a food, beverage and concept agency in Seattle, together with local eateries Dish D’Lish, Rel’Lish Burger Lounge and Lucky Louie Fish Shack. Some of her suggestions for making drinks stand out include employing headline-grabbing ingredients, interactive garnishes, smoky and spicy nuances and contrasting textures and temperatures.
Enter the Dragon Fruit
“Dragon fruit is super popular,” says Casey. “We are going to see more of it in nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages.” Bartenders can add a dash of mezcal to a dragon fruit cocktail to create a Smoky Dragon, Casey explains, or stir in concentrated jalapeño flavor to make a Spicy Dragon.
Dragon fruit offers promising food applications as well. “Imagine a dragon fruit vinaigrette with that vibrant, hot pink-magenta color,” she says.
Rose, lavender, hibiscus and rose essences are also getting more play to add flavor, fragrance and color to beverages. “At one time, some of those products were considered too floral,” says Casey. “Now there are lightly, naturally floral ones that people are more willing to try.”
Casey says florals work best when used “with sleight of hand,” or in small amounts, to accent other flavors. Examples are raspberry with rose, blueberry with lavender and strawberry with hibiscus. “Strawberry hibiscus lemonade is killer,” observes Casey.
Botanicals in Bloom
Botanicals are a broad category of plants that have long been perceived to have wellness benefits such as boosting energy, improving digestion and countering inflammation. At one time, they dwelt mainly on the dietary fringe. But today botanicals like elderflower, turmeric, ginseng and cinnamon are finding more mainstream beverage applications.
“Look into any grocery retailer across the country and you see premium single-serve beverages that are basically demonstrating this whole shift,” says Melissa Abbott, vice president of culinary insights, at The Hartman Group, a Seattle-based market research firm. “We are seeing all kinds of botanicals show up in cold-pressed juices, plant-based dairy beverages, kombucha and other fermented or cultured products.” Consumers typically use them to be proactive;” she says, noting, “For example, I have a long day coming up, so I want good energy that is not all caffeine driven.”
Other examples of unique, imaginative drinks that are finding their way on to restaurant menus include:
- Rose Fizz at Devil May Care in Austin, Texas, which features sloeberry gin, dry gin, rose water, pomegranate, lemon, egg white and seltzer.
- Sun Kissed at Fresh on Sunset in Los Angeles, which mixes blanco tequila, Italian bitter aperitif, cold-pressed organic turmeric and pineapple, organic lime, craft ginger kombucha, agave and cayenne.
- Twilight at SX Sky Bar in Chicago, which showcases London dry gin infused with butterfly pea flower, elderflower liqueur, lavender syrup, bubbles and edible glitter.
- Put Out the Vibe at Bluebird Brasserie in Sherman Oaks, California, which combines lavender-infused mezcal, yellow Chartreuse, agave nectar and lemon.
- Cranberry Tarragon Soda at The Purple Pig in Chicago, an alcohol-free refresher featuring cranberry juice, cranberry-tarragon syrup, lemon and soda.
Keeping pace with fast-breaking flavor trends is imperative in today’s highly competitive beverage scene. And the profit opportunity can be significant for operators who leverage the drawing power of herbs, spices, tropical fruits and botanicals in imaginative signature beverages