Adam Kolesar, who makes quality cocktail syrups under the name Orgeat Works in Brooklyn, approached his friend Jeff Berry in 2018 with an offbeat idea: What if they made a Mai Tai mix — like the cocktail mixers you see in the supermarket but, you know, good.
Mr. Berry was skeptical.
“Premixes were something we were trying to get away from in the early Aughts,” said Mr. Berry, an expert on tiki bars and an owner of the New Orleans bar Latitude 29. “To me, they were always the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
“Mixer” has been a dirty word since the cocktail revival began, evoking the industrially manufactured drinks, filled with artificial ingredients and preservatives, that have found a permanent place in many bars after decades of use. They were intended to mimic the flavors of citrus and sugar, and make the bartender’s life easier.
But they ended up erasing cocktail know-how, and debasing the reputations of classics like the whiskey sour and the daiquiri. In recent decades, enlightened bartenders have started fighting back, with freshly squeezed juice and handmade syrups.
And now, bringing things full circle, new mixers have arrived, made with natural ingredients and an eye toward integrity. The companies making them include Fresh Victor, in San Francisco; Charismatic Creations and Pratt Standard Cocktail Co., in the Washington, D.C., area; and Owl’s Brew and Cheeky, in New York City.
The pandemic, and the make-do-at-home culture it has fostered, has played an unexpected role is getting thirsty consumers to reconsider mixers.
“It was very hard to get people to buy into it initially,” said Chrissy Sheffey, who started Charismatic Creations in 2018. Ms. Sheffey draws on fruits and herbs from urban gardeners to create potions like her strawberry-basil-lemon mixer. “The first year and a half, it was me having to pop up around D.C. in order for people to taste them. Then the pandemic happened.” Sales on the website increased tenfold.
For April Wachtel, a hospitality-industry veteran who founded Cheeky in 2015 as Swing & Swallow, modern mixers were an opportunity waiting to be seized.
“We know people want to drink great cocktails,” she said. “We also know that not a whole lot of people know how to make them well.” Cheeky sells a wide array of bottled juices and syrups which, when mixed and matched and then combined with spirits, lead to instant cosmopolitans, mojitos and Gold Rushes.
Ms. Wachtel knew what she was up against. The average cocktail consumer is a lot savvier today than 20 years ago.
“We’re getting to the point where more red flags go up when they read that ingredient list,” said Eric Tecosky, a brand ambassador for Gentleman Jack, a whiskey line under the Jack Daniel’s umbrella. When he pitched the idea of putting out Jack Daniel’s first-ever cocktail mixer — Gentleman Jack Whiskey Sour Cocktail Mixer, released this summer — he knew it had to be a straight shooter. “There are three ingredients in there,” he said, “lemon juice, sugar and water.”
Rockey’s liqueur — made by Eamon Rockey, of the now-closed restaurant Betony — is a bit more complicated, but just as natural. A mix of fruits and teas, it is meant to convert any spirit into the sort of deeply flavored clarified milk punch you might order in a fancy cocktail bar.
Beyond home bartenders looking for that magic combination of quality and convenience, high-volume bars and hotel bars are the prime customers for many of these new mixers, producers say.
H. Joseph Ehrmann, a partner in Fresh Victor, knows that places like Elixir, the craft cocktail bar he owns in San Francisco, are not their audience. “But for the operator who has more units or has more volume, it makes total sense,” he said. “Bartenders love not having to juice limes as part of their job.”
Mr. Ehrmann believes that the timing may be right to rebuild the reputation of cocktail mixers. “That concept of sour mix is almost lost on younger drinkers that have come of age in the last 15 years,” he said. “And for the older drinker, they might think, ‘I remember the garbage I used to drink; this is a big upgrade.’”
As for Mr. Kolesar of Orgeat Works, he persisted with his notion of making a quality mixer. After two years and many trials, he came up with something that met Mr. Berry’s approval: Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 Wiki Wiki Mai Tai Mix, which went on the market in November, is a no-preservatives syrup that needs only white Puerto Rican rum and lime juice to make a Mai Tai in a minute.
Mr. Berry has a good idea who the ideal customer for the mix might be: him.
“When I go on vacation, you can’t get a decent Mai Tai to save your life,” he said.