Pros and cons of running a spirits-focused bar

By Nicholas Robinson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Ups and downs: the pros and cons of a spirits-focused bar
Ups and downs: the pros and cons of a spirits-focused bar

Related tags: Spirits, Cocktail, Great british pub awards

Spirits and cocktail sales are booming, driven by increasing consumer demand for better experiences, as well as a large proportion of new product development in the segment. But for those businesses focusing on spirits, what are the upsides and downsides of doing so?

This year, the finalists in the John Smith’s Great British Pub Awards Spirit Pub of the Year category, sponsored by Diageo, talk through the highs and lows of focusing on spirits.

Fiesta Havana, Chester

Dan Ellis, general manager: 

Pros: ​“For us, it’s the fact you can take so many different directions and use so many different types of spirits. In the past few years, there has been a lot more independent distilleries launching with new products, which makes customers more interested in the spirits, especially if they’re local.

“Customers are more educated. They’re passionate about what they’re drinking.

“I love that two-way connection; if they come in and ask for a certain drink, we can talk to them about it.

“But spirits is also a great category to get people away from their comfort zone. If they’re interested in a certain spirit,  they’re more likely to be willing to try new things.”

Challenges: ​“For us, storage is a challenge. The cellar we have is tiny and we’re only allowed 180 bottles behind the bar. So when we started to add to our spirits range, we had to take that into account.”

Ye Old sun inn
Ye Old Sun Inn, Colton, Tadcaster

Ashley McCarthy, owner: 

Pros: ​“The great thing about focusing on spirits is that there is constant training within the team, as new products are constantly coming in. The background information has to be gathered to ensure we are delivering it to a customer as its perfect serve, and ensure we know the tasting notes that go with the product.

“The whole team and customers are very excited when a new product arrives, and it always has pride of place for a while on the bar as product of the day.”

Challenges: ​“The only down side I see is that my bar is never big enough.

“I could do so much more if I had the space. That said, we manage very well with what we have. One great challenge we have is converting people to try our spirits, especially if something they are used to is not visible and we encourage them to try new things for the first time. Once you have converted them, they keep coming back for more.”

Mad Hatter, Oxford
Mad Hatter

Jessica Tomkinson, general manager:

Pros: ​“For us, the diversity of the products and opportunity to be learning and finding out new things. There are so many new quality spirits coming out and that means we have a legitimate reason to taste and use them.

“It also gives us a lot of opportunity for customer interaction. We have masterclasses and people are paying to have the experience, so it is great to share the experience about a product. It makes our jobs much more interesting than just pulling pints.”

Challenges: ​“Establishing a strong GP on lots of our spirits is a struggle because some are so premium. In Oxford, we can’t sell cocktails at the same price as you would in London.

“We don’t have to stock premium, expensive spirits, but we want to offer guests an experience and show them something new. So to make it more accessible, we sell at less than you would have in, say, London, at a lower GP.”

The Stillery, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Tim Blake, co-founder:

Pros: ​“Spirits have by far the most uses. Within the category, there’s so much going on and if you compare spirits with beer, wine and cider, there are so many more flavours.

“The most innovation and the most growth in this industry is coming from spirits. You can stock your bar with 10 bottles and  make 1,000 drinks. Put in 10 beers and you’ve got 10 drinks.”


Challenges: ​“People are often scared of spirits because there is so much variety.

“They understand beer and wine, and consumers have their favourite wine varieties, but they’re going to taste similar no matter where they’re from.

“It’s difficult to give people the information to help them choose and experience the variety of spirits out there. 

“There are a lot of perception problems; people say they don’t like rum or gin, but you can’t say that now because there’s so much choice.

“People are also scared by the strength of spirits and cocktails; they want to drink less and they’re worried about their health. As bartenders, we need to look at lower ABV drinks.”

The Phoenix Artist Club, London’s West End

Kenneth Wright, owner: 

Pros: ​“The upside is that you’re seen as an industry leader when you stock emerging brands, because they don’t have the breakthrough with bigger chains and suppliers.

“We’re in the 1% of bar influencers because of this, according to Diageo.”

Challenges: ​“The drawbacks are keeping up with the range and having the space.

“Our bar is small and everything up there has to sell and we rely heavily on trade influencers to try to spot what’s next. It is one in and one out for us and that is a challenge.

“Also, sometimes the mixer is the Cinderella and the soft drinks industry has taken so long to get to grips with it. But we’re getting there.”

Get your tickets for The Morning Advertiser's Spirits Summit, held in London on 2 October. Don't miss out, contact Stevie Robinson at​ or call 01293 846 508.

Related topics: Spirits & Cocktails

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