Hip-hop culture putting top shelf into the mix

Australia is a nation of beer and wine drinkers, and not one renowned for a refined palate when it comes to what we sip.

Australia is a nation of beer and wine drinkers, and not one renowned for a refined palate when it comes to what we sip.

Maybe that's why so many urbanites are beginning to peruse the cocktails menu at their watering hole of choice, or even venturing into a cocktail bar.

No, we're not talking about fruity, gaudy concoctions festooned with paper umbrellas. The ever-popular Martini now has the likes of the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned and the Cosmopolitan for company on the top line of most lists, thanks in large part to richly nuanced televisual dramas such as Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, plus Sex and the City.

Daiquiris, predictably, still enjoy a good following, and the rum-based Mojito is becoming popular as an accessible entry point to cocktail culture. But it's the rise of another cocktail, the Negroni, that convinces Luke Hanzlicek, the manager of Sydney cocktail bar the Victoria Room, that cocktails have really arrived. The Negroni features gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, combining for a dense burst of strong flavour.

"It's absolutely massive these days. It's a simple drink, but it has ingredients in it that are an acquired taste, and people are coming around to it," he says.

Tim Phillips, the Sydney-based cocktail bartender who was crowned the world's best in his craft in 2012, also sees a more inquisitive and knowledgable wave of customers coming into his bar, Bulletin Place.

"In the eight years I've been working in cocktail bars, no one knew what a Negroni or an Old Fashioned was outside of the bartending world, and now I have punters coming in and asking 'do you know how to make a 1951 Chicago Martini?'

"I don't think I've ever made that drink for anyone who wasn't a bartender, it's a real nerdy, obscure drink."

Mr Phillips also credits American hip-hop culture with a role in the resurgence of drinks mixed using top-shelf spirits.

"There was a big rise in cognac sales in the early '90s, and this was a time when vodka was king," he says.

"They looked into why cognac had taken off, and it was because of hip-hop culture; a couple of the big hip-hop artists got involved in cognac and it just changed the climate of the whole cognac scene."

This combination of influences, plus a trend to greater refinement in drinking culture, is putting cocktails not just at the beginning or the slightly sozzled end-point of a lot of after-dark plans, but more frequently the central theme for a night out and even an accompaniment for dinner. "[Customers are] more refined, more knowledgable and willing to take more risks," Mr Hanzlicek says.

In line with the rise of cocktails is the greater prominence of their purveyors, the cocktail bartender - or mixologist, as some prefer to be known.

"In Australia the climate is changing. You can now earn an incredible living and go far in the industry, open up your own venue or become a brand ambassador," Mr Phillips says.

Competitions such as World Class, the unofficial world championship of cocktail bartending sponsored by global spirits giant Diageo, further lift their profile with this year's competition being filmed as the subject of a reality television show that will be seen later this year by 25 million people in 100 countries.

Walter Celli, the global marketing director for Diageo's top-shelf Reserve range, says the objective of the World Class contest is to create a new golden age for cocktails, or what he calls "fine drinking culture".

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