Last month, I published a screed in defense of the cocktail industry’s trendiest nutritional void: the espresso martini. Yes, espresso martinis are “bad” for you—but they’re also a delicious drinkable dessert, and that is something to celebrate. Nationwide, Americans are rotting their teeth and activating their acid reflux with cocktails that taste like Betty Crocker products, and I think that’s beautiful. It’s not all espresso martinis, either; upscale cocktail destinations have begun leaning harder into dessert-inspired libations that go way beyond your great uncle’s mudslide.
Take, for example, The Smith, a swanky New American concept in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. There, bartenders serve up a Lucky Charms cocktail with a mixture of bourbon, cherry, apricot, aperitivo, and lemon meant to mimic the cereal’s eerily firm marshmallows. Head over to The Dearborn, another hot spot in Chicago’s Loop, and you’ll see options like a Bananas Foster Old Fashioned and a Key Lime Martini sporting a graham cracker garnish. Couple that with the fact that sugary cocktails like the Dirty Shirley are having such a moment, and one thing is clear: the cocktail scene is being overrun by sugar-crazed adults. (I count myself among them. Rise up, brethren, and feast!)
What’s behind the sweet cocktail craze? Sarah Clark, beverage director at The Dearborn, chalks it up to two things. First, pandemic blues.
“After two years of making cocktails at home, consumers are bored of the staples that they can create themselves,” Clark says. “They are looking for more intricate flavor profiles and recipes that are relatable, like those of classic desserts.”
Clark adds that guests are also ready to let loose and indulge after two years of bleak, bleak times. “I have observed and spoken to so many guests who are really excited to celebrate everything,” Clark says. “Many people have commented to me that they are done taking life for granted. After the trauma of isolation and strict mandates limiting interaction with others, people are feeling the need and desire to savor every moment, and that seems to include opting for more complex, indulgent cocktails and flavor profiles.” In other words: everybody’s ready to slam some chocolate syrup.
Mike Di Tota, the corporate bar manager at The Smith, echoes that sentiment. “I think instead of having your cake and ice cream, folks are looking to have their booze and sweets combined in liquid form,” Di Tota says. He adds that dessert cocktails may seem like a more sensible option for folks looking to cut calories. (Note: they’re not, but that’s okay.) “Dessert cocktails are the skinny margarita of the dessert world, in a sense,” Di Tota says. “Some folks are looking for an extra indulgence when spirits are involved, as opposed to a decadent dessert.”
Dessert-inspired cocktails are buzzy, but they’re not entirely new. “The basic formulas that established the perfectly balanced classic cocktails still hold true when you implement alternative, updated ingredients,” Clark says.
Sticking to those classic formulas also helps bartenders keep an eye on balance. “Sweet components must be offset by acid: lemon or lime juice, or another citrus [or] acid ingredient,” Clark says. “One must keep in mind that lemon juice carries the other flavors in the cocktail, while lime juice and grapefruit juice add their own flavors to the drink. You may have to use super sweet spirits to achieve the tasting profile you are aiming for, but you can equalize them without losing flavor by increasing or decreasing the acid you submit to the drink.”
Di Tota agrees, adding that curious patrons can try a pinch of salt to offset the sugary-sweetness of dessert cocktails. “One secret both bakers and bartenders know is that salt balances sweetness and enhances other flavors,” Di Tota says. “It goes beyond your basic margarita; try a pinch of sea salt in your next espresso martini and your palate will be pleasantly surprised.”