From bagel-scented Manhattans to a sensory cocktail journey, bars are reinventing what it means to go out for a drink.

Bartending is drawing on art and science to create sensory cocktails for adventurous drinkers. The extra effort to invent unique concoctions and heightened experiences comes at a time when 55% of Americans say they prefer drinking at home, according to an April 2018 Mintel report. Although overall the amount of alcohol consumed outside the home is falling, spending is increasing as consumers adopt a “fewer but better” mentality.

“Bars and restaurants must work harder than ever to provide customers with a unique drinking experience,” says Caleb Bryant, senior foodservice analyst at Mintel.

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The Aviary at Mandarin Oriental. Boom Goes the Dynamite cocktail. Photography by Steph Goralnick
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The Aviary at Mandarin Oriental. Loaded to the Gunwalls cocktail. Photography by Steph Goralnick

The Blue Bar at London’s Berkeley hotel launched its Out of the Blue cocktail tasting experience in November 2017, and describes it as an “intriguing, secret space” where guests can explore the ways that sensory stimulation can alter flavor perceptions. Created in partnership with Bacardi Limited, Out of the Blue is a half-hour 360-degree immersive environment designed to awaken all five senses—taste, sound, touch, smell and sight. A maximum of four guests enter a cube-shaped sensory playground where they can sample temperature-controlled cocktails while custom-made animations are projected onto the walls, and sounds and molecular smells fill the room.

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Out of the Blue at London's Berkeley hotel

Out of the Blue puts taste at the forefront by first removing the menu, thus eliminating preconceived thoughts on the drink at hand, and secondly by changing the environment around the guests as they drink, demonstrating how taste buds are influenced by surroundings. “Instead of creating a distinct serve for every drink, let’s serve them identically,” Rashid Ghuloom, bar manager at the Berkeley, tells JWT Intelligence. “Let’s strip everything away and focus on flavor, then use technology as our garnish—to explain and enhance the flavors.”

The result? “A cocktail that at first seems bitter and vegetal takes on a fruitier note when images of a pineapple are flashed up, while one that’s at first met with grimaces becomes strangely addictive when the scent of smoky coals seeps into the room,” reported Sarah Royce-Greensill in the Telegraph. Mintel has found that 35% of in-home drinkers prefer to stay home because they feel that it’s more personal—this carefully curated experience allows for an intimate setting outside of the home.

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Out of the Blue at London's Berkeley hotel
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Further exploring new ways to attract consumers, bars in the United States are reinventing the way a cocktail is consumed with the help of hi-tech machines and scientific know-how.

The Bazaar in Los Angeles launched the Bazaar Flights cocktail tasting menu this year, with the goal of making its cocktails as innovative as the food it offers. The evolving, interactive experience consists of six drink interpretations created using equipment such as a Cryovac and an iSi cream whipper to make, for example, gelatinous spheres containing bubbles of flavor. Delivery methods are as diverse as airplane-shaped spoons and mouth-spritzes of gin taken from vintage perfume bottles.

Drinks that have appeared on the menu so far include Ben Franklin’s Milk Punch, based on Franklin’s own recipe and served in a small glass “milk carton,” and a caipirinha chilled with liquid nitrogen and presented in a mixing bowl shrouded in fog. Cava is served in a mini porrón, a traditional Catalan wine pitcher that is slowly fading out of use.

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Bazaar Flight, Spheres and Atomizer cocktail. Photography by Dustin Downing
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Bazaar Flight, Ben Franklin's Punch. Photography by Dustin Downing
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Bazaar Flight, Mini Porron cocktail. Photography by Dustin Downing

On the east coast, The Aviary, which opened September 2017 in New York City, also infuses science into its cocktails. One of its notable drinks is the Wake and Bake, a coffee-spiked Manhattan served in a balloon filled with the scent of an everything bagel. Even getting to the drink requires a bit of science. The balloon is sliced open, filling the air with a scent evoking the quintessential New York breakfast. We’re all accustomed to drinks being served on the rocks but the accurately named In The Rocks is an Old-Fashioned served in a hollow sphere of superchilled ice—guests are invited to break through the ice with a slingshot to unleash the cocktail.

Drink names such as Bring Another Smurf! and How Does Snoop Dogg Use Lemongrass? make it clear that the team at The Aviary are committed to pushing the boundaries in the world of bartending while adding a dash of humor along the way.

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The Aviary at Mandarin Oriental. Bring Another Smurf cocktail. Photography by Steph Goralnick
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The Aviary at Mandarin Oriental. How does Snoop Dogg use lemongrass cocktail. Photography by Steph Goralnick

It’s no surprise that bars are beckoning consumers into unique venues that offer new ways to “drink” cocktails. After all, the primary reason people go out and drink is to try new alcoholic beverages—49% of Americans prioritize this, according to Mintel’s report. It appears the winning recipe for bars is to create an environment and a menu that cannot be replicated at home, to keep experience-first consumers interested.

For more on drink trends read our Food and Drink report.

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Bazaar Flight, LN2 Caipirinha cocktail. Photography by Dustin Downing