Why Brewers Are Turning to Cocktails for Inspiration

The flavor profiles of classic mixed drinks are helping breweries set their beers apart—and capture a wider demographic

From left to right: Scorpion Bowl IPA (photo courtesy of Stone Brewing), Margarita Gose (photo courtesy of Appalachian Mountain Brewery), and Slow Crush Tart Spritz (photo courtesy of Highland Brewing).

Until 2015, Nathan Kelischek, a cofounder and the brewmaster of Appalachian Mountain Brewery in Boone, North Carolina, had never found a gose he fancied. The ancient German beer’s tart and salted profile registered with him as boring. But that year, at a Florida beer festival, he tried what he deemed to be “amazing traditional goses,” and he returned home with the desire to brew one.

“I was like, ‘What is the perfect citrus-forward, salty, refreshing drink?’” Kelischek recalls. “Oh, it’s a margarita—duh.” That brain flash became the lemon-lime Margarita Gose (priced at around $11 per six-pack), the cocktail’s flavor twin in beer form. “The margarita is a classic profile. When you can hit that and really represent those flavors in a way that resonates and tastes good,” Kelischek says of the spring release, “you’re going to go back for more.” 

Brewers have never been bashful about creating facsimile beers, like the campfire-inspired Dino S’mores (around $15 for a four-pack) by Off Color Brewing in Chicago and the popsicle-like Orange Dreamsicle ($20 a four-pack) by Great Notion Brewing, based in Portland, Oregon. Of late, cocktails have lent a spirited spark, letting breweries mine mixed drinks’ familiar flavors and rich cultural and emotional resonance. 

“Cocktails are highly nostalgic and reflect people, time, and history,” says Shawn Chen, the beverage director and head bartender at RedFarm and Decoy in New York City. “They have a magical ability to transport people to different times and places.”

Left: Shawn Chen (photo courtesy of Shawn Chen). Right: Trace Redmond (photo courtesy of Highland Brewing).

Tiki Time

For today’s breweries, the entire cocktail canon is fair game. Earlier this year in Missouri, the Saint Louis Brewery, which makes Schlafly Beer, launched the Saint Louis Crafted Cocktails line of cocktail-inspired beers, such as Paloma Gose (around $12 per four-pack). Funky Buddha in Oakland Park, Florida, debuted its Mixology Series, which features beers like the Manhattan Double Rye Ale (around $15 a four-pack).

Tiki culture, in particular, provides potent inspiration, says Steve Gonzalez, the senior manager of brewing and innovation at Stone Brewing, based in Escondido, California. He’s noticed a neat overlap between fruit-forward tiki cocktails and today’s modern hops, which often flaunt fruity aromas and flavors. “They really lend themselves to that sort of palate,” Gonzalez says, noting that “passion fruit” flavor is a common attribute of some hops. 

A few years ago, Gonzalez started brewing R&D batches for what became Vengeful Spirit, an unfiltered IPA flavored with pineapples and mandarin oranges. “My colleague and I tasted that beer before it was fruited,” he says, “and found it to be fruity in and of itself.” 

Gonzalez shared the base beer with Stone’s CEO, Dominic Engels, whose flavor memory took him to the Scorpion Bowl, the communal rum cocktail. That inspired the name of the Scorpion Bowl IPA (around $12 a six-pack), which entered Stone’s year-round lineup in 2018. “The way we used the hops,” Gonzalez says, “there’s almost a coconut element.”

In cocktail-loving New Orleans, Urban South Brewery collaborated with tiki expert Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, the proprietor of the cocktail bar Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, on a tiki-inspired gose line. To date, the brewery has released two beers (beers in the series range from $12 to $14 per four-pack), including Beachbum, a riff on the Latitude 29 cocktail, flavored with vanilla and passion fruit, and Outcasts of the Islands, which is seasoned with lime, cinnamon, ginger, almond, and star anise. “We’re using ingredients that aren’t traditionally in beer,” says Jacob Landry, Urban South’s founder and president. “Nuance has been critical. You can’t punch people in the face with star anise.” 

The tiki-inspired collaborations, Landry says, are resonating with drinkers that might typically avoid beers—most notably, his wife. “It’s been cool to capture that wider demographic,” he says. Urban South will be releasing Pop!—a mimosa-inspired tangerine-sour year-round beer—this fall. 

Ingredients of Success

Creating cocktail-like beers can require the mastering of unorthodox ingredients. Last year, Trace Redmond, the R&D brewer at Highland Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina, decided to brew an Aperol Spritz–like beer. 

To evoke the Italian aperitif, Redmond chose hibiscus flowers for that pink tint, in addition to gentian root and cinchona bark for bitterness. “As brewers, we think of bitterness [as coming] from hops, but bitterness can come from different sources,” Redmond says, noting that traditional gruits (herbal and botanical mixtures used to flavor beer) were bittered with herbs, roots, and spices—not hops.

Physically incorporating the fibrous plant matter in beer required a trip to the appliance store. “We ended up making a grinder out of a food-grade garbage disposal,” Redmond says, laughing. He adds that the ingredients were steeped, like a tea. “Beer and cocktails are made differently,” he says. “You have to think about how to add ingredients differently.”

Highland’s newest year-round beer, Slow Crush Tart Spritz, was released this spring in 16-ounce cans ($11 a four-pack). The brewery is betting big on Slow Crush’s crossover potential to reach new customers and occasions; it’s a beer that’s not a note-for-note cover but rather a fresh tune. “It’s not a beer trying to be a cocktail,” Redmond says. “It’s a beer inspired by a cocktail.”

At their best, cocktail-inspired beers deliver beloved, time-tested flavors in novel forms, creating new consumer rituals. Sure, one can sip a margarita beachside or with nachos at Mexican restaurants, but spirit-inspired beers are finding times and places, too.

Nathan Kelischekl
Nathan Kelischek. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Mountain Brewery.

When North Carolina’s spring weather starts breaking hot, Appalachian Mountain’s Kelischek has come to expect a pointed question. “So many of our locals come in,” he says, “and are like, ‘Oh, it’s getting a little warm out. Where’s the Margarita Gose?’” 

The brewery has increased production almost fivefold in 2019, and it’s considering making the 3.8 percent ABV crowd-pleaser a year-round staple. “It’s that perfect balance between moderation and the ability to have fun and keep going,” Kelischek says. “You can’t sit around and drink margaritas all day. That’d be fun, but it’d be a really short day.”


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Contributing editor Joshua M. Bernstein is a beer, spirits, food, and travel journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide, event producer, and industry consultant. He writes for the New York Times, Men’s Journal, New York magazine, Wine Enthusiast, and Imbibe, where he’s a contributing editor in charge of beer coverage. Bernstein is also the author of five books: Brewed Awakening, The Complete Beer Course, Complete IPA, Homebrew World, and Drink Better Beer.

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