The trends that swept Toronto bars in 2017

Simplicity reigned supreme with low-booze (and no-booze) cocktails, natural drinks and classic beer


1. Non-alcoholic alternatives that don’t suck*

Not so long ago, requesting a non-alc beverage at a bar or restaurant would yield a syrupy Shirley Temple spin-off or a semi-flat cran-soda with a sad wedge of citrus – plus a whole lot of flack from your friends. But a cultural shift towards wellness and conscious imbibing means teetotaling has never looked – or tasted – so good.

Some of the city’s best bartenders are pouring just as much care and creativity into non-alcoholic (NA for short) alternatives. (And FYI, it’s no longer couth to utter the “m” word – there’s nothing to mock about booze-free drinks.)

Parkdale’s PrettyUgly has an entire line of “placebo” cocktails, featuring ingredients like housemade infusions and shrubs. Even Godspeed, one of Toronto’s most heralded new breweries, keeps kombucha on tap (right now, it’s hibiscus-goji berry) sourced from its east-end neighbours Vams Culture. Don’t be shocked when highly drinkable NA craft beers come next. 

2. going au naturel 

Whether wine, cider or beer, the trendiest (and often tastiest) stuff we tried in 2017 took a natural or low-interventionist approach.  

What the hell does “natural” actually mean? Intrinsically nada, but the term’s loosely applied to wines (and other beverages) that have very little added or taken away during production this can include drinks made with organic and biodynamic practices. 

Some of the city’s best restaurants – Alo, Brothers, Dandylion, Grey Gardens – champion un-doctored wines. There are more bars (like Little Italy’s Mad Crush) and super-fun parties (like Grape Witches and Genuwine) where you can find them, too. 

Revel Cider just announced this week that they plan to produce only spontaneously fermented ciders next year and Ontario’s brewers are enchanted with brett-laced farmhouse-style beers, so more spontaneously fermented lambic-inspired beers are in the works.  

3. the long game 

If we know anything with absolute certainty in this world, it’s that the Japanese are masters at executing really simple ideas. One of the most refreshing things we noticed bubbling up in Toronto’s bar scene this year, an extension of the low-alcohol cocktail movement that’s been growing in the city for a few years now, is the prevalence of Japanese-style highballs. 

In their purest form, highballs are a spirit base plus a generous glug of effervescent mixer right now, the artful long drinks we love the most live at Aloette, Imanishi and Mahjong. 

4. back to beer basics

We’re stoked to see that local craft beer is rebounding from a foray into extreme whimsy that occasionally bordered on insanity. We’ve cycled through the wheel of novel obscurities – milkshake beers, random fruits, unpronounceable (made-up?) styles – to arrive at a newfound interest in good old drinkable beer like pilsners, lagers, pale ales and dessert-free stouts. 

Luckily, more of these workaday delicacies are now available in short, 355mL cans (another positive recent development). Plus, you can get them online – Blood Brothers, Left Field and Sawdust City all kicked off e-comm bottle shops last month. Drinking great Ontario beer seems to be getting easier and easier.

5. socially conscious cocktails

In our favourite drinks-related movement of the year, hospitality professionals are using their influence to stir positive changes in the industry.

Noted bartender and philanthropist Christina Veira (Apt. 200) has organized a number of industry-facing and cocktail events, raising thousands of dollars for charities like Nellie’s Women’s Shelter, Mexico Earthquake Relief and Street Health Toronto. 

The Dandelion Initiative, spearheaded by Viktoria Belle, has driven awareness about the industry’s culture of sexual harassment with their Safe Bars Project, which offers training on fostering safe bar spaces. 

Let’s not forget about the planet. Trash Tiki, a global anti-waste cocktail pop-up that came to Toronto last summer, encouraged bartenders to rethink food waste behind the wood. And many bars and restaurants citywide are ditching plastic straws for the sake of the environment.

* (Full disclosure: As of last week, I work for Seedlip, the world’s first non-alcoholic spirits — but I’d like to note that NA cocktails were on my radar long before the gig presented itself!)

drinks@nowtoronto.com | @S_Parns

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