Must Autumn Drinking Be Such a Dour Affair? These Bartenders Don’t Think So.

Forget the bitters and the bourbons. Light and bright drinks are just as appropriate.

For most bartenders and bar patrons, the transition from summer to fall means moving from clear spirits and fresh ingredients to brown spirits and bitters, amaro, and other liqueurs. Yet I’ve long contended that leaving clear spirits like gin, rum, and even vodka out of fall cocktails unnecessarily limits a bartender’s options. To prove my point, I spoke with some area bartenders about their favorite fall cocktails utilizing clear spirits.

Stacia Sasso of Anacortes’s The Majestic mentioned a few new drinks on her list. Most intriguing for me was the Uncle Tom’s Cabin, made with Ebb and Flow Old Tom Gin, housemade limoncello, Bittermen’s Amere Nouvelle, Letterpress Amaro Amorino, and honey-ginger syrup. It seemed like the perfect transitional drink, bringing classic fall flavors into play while not going full-on “sitting in front of a fire while the storm rages outside.”

That’s not to say you can’t still make fruit-forward cocktails; sometimes just a hint of summer can make a cocktail come alive. Cody Goodwin, the general manager of Olympia’s Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar, explained it to me: “I definitely think you see some changes in autumn; as the days cool down, people start making everything with Allspice Dram and Drambuie, cinnamon syrups, dark and stirred. I try to separate from that a bit. We are staring at four months of nothing new produce-wise, apart from cranberries, pomegranates, blood oranges, and grapefruits, so how do we preserve what we already have? To break up the monotony of all the dark, delicious, and stirred drinks, I really try to grab anything fresh I can. Failing that, I’ve taken a couple flats of blueberries and peaches and made shrubs out of them so I can have something not-wintry on the menu. I think drinks can be an escape from the weather as much as enhancing them. When it’s really gross and rainy for the eighth day of the week, sometimes a light gin drink with a bright blueberry shrub is exactly what I want.”

Some of the best insight I got was from Jen Akin of Rumba, who pointed out that one challenge for bars is to be able to keep using equipment and techniques that they implemented during the summer. “I think this year we’re going to see a lot more sherry cocktails,” she said. “It’s definitely being brought front and center by a lot of bartenders, and while it’s great for all seasons, sherry definitely translates well with all those traditional fall flavors. In addition, this summer brought the slushie machine for many bars, which means a relatively expensive piece of equipment will go unused for a year unless we figure out slushies that folks will want to drink all year round. … I mean, people eat ice cream in the winter—why not a boozy, frozen treat: sherry-cobbler slushies, anyone?” Akin also pointed out that we can make drinks feel more fall-like without solely relying on base spirits. “I think bartenders are always looking outside the box to get people excited about cocktails, and sweeteners might be one thing to watch. I think maple syrup, while always a staple, will be highlighted more this fall. It’s versatile and rich, giving a lot of cocktails that whole ‘hoodie weather’ vibe.”

Josiah McLain of No Anchor highlighted another clear spirit that works well in the fall: “I dig using eau de vie. Clear Creek Distilling makes some awesome unaged fruit brandies that really retain their specific character. It adds a unique dimension that feels especially fall-like to me when using a pear brandy, kirschwasser [cherry], or mirabella [yellow plum].”

So whether you’re sipping an eau de vie-based old fashioned, a spiced berry mule, or even a sherry slushie, you can get your fall cocktail fix while still sticking to the clear spirits that made spring and summer so delightful for drinking, at least if you ask your bartender to push the envelope a bit.