Whether it's a pub, club or fine restaurant, you're likely to find a menu several pages long detailing these alcoholic experiments. Raspberry pepper martini? Cucumber and mint gimlet? Any combination you can imagine, a bartender can muddle, infuse and shake until the flavors pop in your mouth.
Mixologists say they are catering to foodies who want their dining experiences to move beyond the plate. They are more familiar with international ingredients and, quite simply, they like the unexpected not only when they dine but also as they sip.
"People are pleasantly surprised that they are getting cocktails they think are familiar, but they end up having completely different tastes - and they are good," said Scott Stein, owner of Pearl, the new, minimalist, modern lounge off Rittenhouse Square.
"We try to be very sophisticated, because people now have very refined tastes."
Stein, who made his cocktail mark on the city a few years ago with his first venture, the trendy Old City club lounge Red Sky, says that even in the short time he's been in the business, people have come to expect more than fruity, syrupy cocktails like those old "Sex and the City" cosmos.
"Coming from Red Sky, I think our drinks have matured," said Stein, adding, "Customers are very intelligent."
Drink-savvy customers saddle up to Pearl's bar and order pomegranate martinis without even opening a menu. Or they request Pearl's Asian-influenced mojitos or margaritas.
The mojito relies on liberal doses of lychee fruit liquor, 10 Cane Rum and the basil-like Japanese shiso herb. The high-octane margarita includes chili pepper-infused tequila, Japanese rice shochu liquor and Calpico, an Asian milk drink that comes in assorted fruit flavors.
"People have more access to [Asian] ingredients when cooking now," said Pearl general manager Kevin Beary, who created the mojito and margarita recipes. "When they get the drinks, they are tasting flavors they are more familiar with from foods."
Bill Curry, owner of South Street stalwart Copabanana for almost 30 years, is no stranger to exotic mixology. But where Pearl goes Japanese, he goes 100 percent Latin-influenced with his creations. He was making mojitos years ago, when Latin flavors hadn't yet invaded everyday cuisine.
Since mojitos went mainstream a few years ago at places like Old City's Cuba Libre, he's abandoned the traditional muddled mint version for a chipotle pineapple concoction. He says the public constantly demands new cocktail excitement.
"There are so many different new flavors awakening in drinks," said Curry. "I think the popularity of Latin flavors has really affected a lot of the drinks out there."
That's the idea at the upscale Old City Mexican restaurant Xochilt. Alongside a creative menu that offers blood sausage salad, goat cheese and chorizo tortillas and sopas, the staff mixologists take full advantage of the 60 tequilas behind the bar.
No lemon and salt here - it's all about original Latin cocktails that use, quite honestly, ingredients you'd be more apt to cook with than chug.
"People nowadays are used to having the freshest ingredients in foods," said Xochilt general manager Sergio Ruiz. "So we are using more herbs and spices in our drinks, just like in the food."
Ruiz won't hesitate to muddle fresh thyme and jalapeno in a margarita - and that's one of his tame drinks. There's a margarita that combines Corralejo Blanco tequila with cantaloupe, basil, chilies and fresh lime. Another margarita on the menu uses the same tequila with muddled pineapple, sugar, cilantro and lime. You'll spend $8 to $10 on one, but you won't need to drink many of these to feel good.
"We try to change people's perspectives of tequila with drinks like this," said Ruiz.
Beyond trendy bars
Trendy Latin restaurants and fun-loving bars like Copabanana aren't the only ones hip to the new trend. At the staid Park Hyatt Philadelphia at the Bellevue at Broad and Locust, the upscale XIX restaurant on the hotel's 19th floor is mixing up raspberry chile pepper martinis with Stoli Razberi vodka, or cucumber mint gimlets with Hendricks, the Scottish small-batch gin.
Even restaurant chains like Benihana aren't immune to the exotic cocktail bug. Go to the chain's Cherry Hill location for a mango mojito, which uses fresh mangoes in the traditional mint and rum drink.
So where can this bizarre, if not tasty, trend go from here?
Just ask former Philadelphian Steve Luttmann, founder of a Brazilian company that distills the fermented sugarcane juice spirit cachaca, which packs a 38 to 48 percent alcohol punch, incidentally.
Luttmann just returned from Taste of the Cocktail in New Orleans, where the steadily growing "bar chef" subculture has gathered annually since 2003. This year's event included classes on "brunch drinks from the fridge," absinthe tutorials and martini flight tastings.
"Consumers are just into cocktails right now," said Luttmann. "They are bored with beer and wine. It's that desire of discovery of something new, whether it's cultural or sensorial. They are looking for a surprise." *
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