After Years on the Rise, Richmond's Cocktail Scene Finally Hits Its Stride 

click to enlarge Belle & James’  Sean Rapoza fires up a branch of rosemary to add a little smoke to the restaurant’s bar program.

Ash Daniel

Belle & James’ Sean Rapoza fires up a branch of rosemary to add a little smoke to the restaurant’s bar program. 

Some cocktail trends, like tiki, are cyclical. Others, like test-tube shooters, not so much. Unless you’re on spring break in the Bahamas, then they’re still pretty hot. … Or so I hear.

The website Thrillist recently surveyed some of the nation’s best bartenders to find out what cocktail trends to expect in 2016, and the answers were sort of what you’d expect from the cocktail geek set.

There were draft cocktails, room-temperature cocktails — huh? — cobblers, savory cocktails, craft frozen drinks — it’s a thing, seriously — and both riffs on and a return to classics such as well-made martinis and old fashioneds — both of which felt pretty returned-to six years ago. Dale “King Cocktail” DeGroff even thinks that beer as an ingredient in cocktails is the next big thing.

All of that is well and good, but we don’t live in New York or San Francisco, and Richmond, God bless it, doesn’t always stay up to date on what’s hot or not in the cocktail scene. Nonetheless, this has definitely, albeit slowly, changed in the past 10 years with the rise of craft cocktails and local adherents to the movement.

So what’s the next big thing here? And more important, what trends are on their way out?

One of Richmond’s original cocktail-mixing connoisseurs, Bobby Kruger, has been working on ways to introduce more fire and smoke into a cocktail — and you’ll find his creations at Belle & James. But Kruger isn’t especially fond of one particular trend.

“Barrel-aging whiskey-based cocktails really annoys the hell out of me,” he says. “I get it if you want to barrel-age a Negroni or another cocktail made with ingredients that don’t usually see much — or any — oak. But what exactly are you trying to accomplish when you’re barrel-aging a Manhattan?”

Rogue Gentlemen owner and bartender John Maher — who’s never been one to hold his tongue — would “like to see the whole ‘molecular mixology’ thing die a painful death.” As he puts it, “If I order a Manhattan, I want to drink it and not get sprayed in the face with an Angostura cloud, eat vermouth gelée and take a spoonful of powdered whiskey.”

Pedro Aida, general manager at Fat Dragon Chinese Kitchen & Bar, makes a good case for the omission of nonhouse-infused spirits.

“I personally think the use of pre-infused spirits needs to go, at least at a restaurant level,” he says. “With so much talent and creativity in this town, and not to mention legislation passed over the past couple of years, it’s become a more common practice to infuse sprits in-house with fresh, seasonal ingredients — not to mention that the artificial flavorings and chemicals some companies use to pre-infuse are downright scary.”

On the upside, there are positive cocktail changes underway.

“Honestly, craft cocktails bars have gotten a lot better the last few years — moving away from the bow ties and arm garters, and into a more relaxed and fun place to be,” Maher says. “It’s less about the holier-than-thou bartenders and more about the hospitality.”

Aida agrees. “The bartenders that dress way better than me need to go,” he says.

Five or six years ago, there were a handful of places to get a really well-crafted cocktail. Nowadays, there are at least 30. Gone are the days where you’d roll the dice with a new spot and a new bartender.

The bow tie thing probably isn’t going anywhere. But there’s no doubt that this town has slowly but surely become a great cocktail city.

In the Mix

Don’t feel like rolling the metaphorical dice? Here are a few sure bets:

Acacia Mid-Town, Amuse at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Belle & James, Can Can Brasserie, Comfort, Fat Dragon Chinese Kitchen & Bar, Graffiato, Heritage, L’Opossum, Maple & Pine, Pasture, Pearl Raw Bar, Rappahannock, the Rogue Gentlemen, the Roosevelt, Sabai, Saison and Vagabond.

If I missed your bar, it certainly wasn’t on purpose. Twenty-four hours in the day and one liver can only take me so far. — J.L.


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