There’s nothing that demonstrates the changing face of the modern pub market as much as the emergence of cocktails into the mainstream.
A simple menu of easy-to-make mixed drinks shows the breadth and quality of the spirits a venue sells, and acts as a statement of the commitment it puts into honing the skills of its staff.
A CGA report published in the spring showed that one in four consumers frequently drink cocktails made with premium spirits and that 28% of all on-trade outlets now serve cocktails.
Like a Champagne glass waterfall, cocktail-making skill and passion have trickled down from the top end of the on-trade to a wider base.
It’s not all about the drinks?
Behind every great cocktail in the on-trade is a well-trained member of staff, but that’s not all. There also needs to be a well-managed, efficient team to ensure consistency for the customer and a steady cash flow for the business.
This is my second column after taking part in Diageo’s Bar Academy training sessions. The accredited scheme has been running for three years, with well over 7,000 bar tenders now trained.
Last month’s session was with Diageo’s senior on-trade consultant Matthew Guest, who opened the eyes of the trainees and myself to the real business of bars.
Guest likened the information in the session to the work David Brailsford – coach for Sky’s cycling team – did at the London Olympics in his role as head of marginal improvements.
“There are small improvements you can make in a business that you won’t necessarily think of at first, but will have a big overall impact on cash flow,” explains Guest. “That’s what David Brailsford’s job was at the Olympics, to make minor improvements to the athletes’ performance.”
When applying the theory to bars, it can be as simple as managers being more realistic when setting out cocktail menus and which drinks they promote at which times, he adds. At peak trading times (on Friday and Saturday nights, perhaps) there should be a focus on the cocktails that take less time to make. Guest says: “If you sell a £10 cocktail and it takes two minutes to make, when you could have sold four or five well-made gin and tonics in that time, for example, then you’ve lost money.
“Having customers wait a long time for drinks at peak trading times isn’t profitable for the bar.”
At peak times, Guest explains, if the bar team is working flat out then the business could be earning £33 a minute. “But once you have something disrupt that – so a bar tender has to go back to the till or has to go and get ice – you’re losing money because they’ve been away for five minutes or so.” Simply having someone available to stock up the back bar could save the business £2,000 in lost time, he claims.
The overall message, though, is that marginal improvements can have a big impact on profit. Who would have thought a trip to get ice could cost your business thousands of pounds?
“Bars have transformed the cocktail market, taking mixed drinks from the niches of drinking out to a hugely popular mainstream consumer choice,” says CGA client services director Rachel Perryman.
The great thing about cocktails is that there are virtually no limits to what can be done, other than the creativity of the bartender and the adventurous spirit of the drinker.
Cocktails can be sharp or sweet, still or sparkling, hot or cold, short or long, pre- or post-food, and practically any colour that’s easy on the eye.
At that top level, drinks are made by specialist bartenders who continually practice their art to the point of perfection.
There’s no reason pubs shouldn’t aspire to the same standards, but it’s important not to over-reach in an environment where members of the team have to be all-rounders.
Dan Bolton, managing director of Southern Comfort supplier Hi-Spirits, says: “In the mainstream, it’s essential to match the drinks menu to the available skills. A poorly-made cocktail, or one that simply takes too long to arrive, is a genuinely disappointing experience.”
Perhaps the most exciting thing about cocktails is their constant ability to be reinvented.
Jack Daniel’s brand ambassador Cam Dawson predicts “taptails” – or pre-batched cocktails sold through draught taps connected to reusable beer kegs – will be the next big thing, as made popular by US bars such as Death & Co in New York.
He also sees flavoured spirits as a major drinks trend that is being fuelled by cocktails, citing the brand’s signature Fire Station Mule as an example. It’s made with the Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Fire cinnamon liqueur, fresh lime, ginger beer and Angostura bitters.
“Flavours appeal to people who don’t regard themselves as whiskey drinkers but want to be part of the brand because it’s cool,” he says. “It’s like the way people wear a Ramones T-shirt without really liking their music.”
Dawson adds: “We’re also starting to see a lot more beer cocktails. They extend the reach of cocktails because they appeal to people who don’t drink cocktails, but regard themselves as beer drinkers.”
Old school glamour
Gabrielle Cole, marketing manager at Four Roses bourbon and Babicka vodka supplier Spirit Cartel says “old school glamour” is a prominent trend and adds: “This and the innovative foam and smoke-filled drinks are filtering down to the next-tier pubs who look to top bars as trendsetters”.
Cole adds: “Pubs and bartenders are starting to use more creative and bespoke glassware to create unique serves which will grab the consumer’s attention.”
Benji Purslow, Four Roses UK brand ambassador, says frozen drinks are becoming big in pubs.
“Not only are they serving the standard Strawberry Daiquiri or Piña Colada, but bartenders are creating unexpected blends and premium frozen cocktails using top ingredients,” he says.
“Low-alcohol cocktails have become extremely popular amongst consumers. Artificial sweeteners, sugar-free syrups, carbonated water or fruit and vegetable low-calorie juices are being used instead of soda to save calories and make healthier mixers.
“Many of these will feature wine, vermouth or sherry as their base ingredient.”
Broadening the appeal
Brockmans gin is pushing autumn and winter serves in an attempt to broaden the appeal of cocktails across the year.
The CGA cocktail report said that 94% of cocktail consumers associate them with summer but this drops to 50% for autumn and 45% for winter.
“There is a huge opportunity to promote cocktails during the three quarters of the year when many consumers currently don’t consider them,” says Brockmans brand ambassador Mike Whatmough.
Look out for trends in kit too. Rob Blunderfield, marketing manager at equipment and glassware supplier Parsley In Time, says vintage and retro glasses are on-trend, and that copper kit – from shakers and strainers through to cups and mugs – is a “must-have”.
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