Christmas stocking: which drinks should make pub and bar operator lists this year?

By Stuart Stone contact

- Last updated on GMT

Flurry of footfall: 'traditionally, pandemic aside, consumers spend and drink a bit more in the run up to Christmas,' Mast-Jaegermeister UK brand ambassador Florian Beuren explains.
Flurry of footfall: 'traditionally, pandemic aside, consumers spend and drink a bit more in the run up to Christmas,' Mast-Jaegermeister UK brand ambassador Florian Beuren explains.

Related tags: Christmas, Cocktails, Spirits, Beer, Wine

Though drink sales in pubs traditionally snowball over Christmas, the ongoing pandemic means that, more than ever, strong seasonal returns will be far from gift wrapped when venues reopen.

According to CGA data, Brits drank 16.9% more than usual during the average week of festive trading in 2019, with seven-day spending bumped by almost a quarter (24.4%) compared to the average week from 26 January to 30 November 2019. 

As such a number of hospitality businesses saw a record-breaking flurry of footfall during Christmas 2019, with Fuller’s managed pub and hotel like-for-like sales rising by 4.3% during the festive period and Mitchells & Butlers takings increasing by 5.6%.

Premium operator Arc Inspirations also saw customers rock up with bells on last year, announcing record-breaking sales days and weeks with 6% like-for-like sales growth across December – including a £145,000 week for the group’s top billing site, Manahatta in Deansgate, Manchester. 

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With global intelligence platform Streetbees finding three quarters (75%) of Brits are willing to spend more on festive or limited-edition seasonal drinks – with one-in-10 of those willing to spend more than £2.50 extra per pour – these numbers are hardly surprising. 

“Traditionally, pandemic aside, consumers spend and drink a bit more in the run up to Christmas,” Mast-Jaegermeister UK brand ambassador Florian Beuren explains. 

“This is typically a celebratory time of year with many Christmas parties occurring well in advance all the way through to Christmas Eve.  

“We would typically see a lot of fizz being poured and consumers trading up to treat themselves at the end of the year,” he continues. “We also see an increase in shot consumption. 

“Shots are often consumed in a group around a celebratory occasion and Christmas certainly fits the bill for this. It’s also a great sales driver for pubs as shots are incremental serve. 

“One-quarter of annual volume for shots is realised in December and on average, consumers buy 3.1 shots in a purchase, which helps drive that incremental serve.”

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Getting into the Christmas spirits 

According to CGA data, spirits saw the second biggest category boost during Christmas 2019, with festive volumes up by one third (34%) versus the average week in 2019, with Brits forking out an extra third (34.6%) on seasonal serves.  

As part of the uplift, cocktail volumes were up by a fifth (20.2%), while value increased by 14.2% versus the rest of the year. 

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Mast-Jaegermeister UK Brand Ambassador Florian Beuren says: "The Espresso Martini is one of the UK's top 10 selling cocktails and we expect this to be a popular serve at Christmas pending the re-opening of the on-trade. 

“This is a great serve for pubs when using Jägermeister Cold Brew Coffee as the cocktail only requires four ingredients that are easy to source, including just one single spirit – not two. So it’s quicker to make.  

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Steve Latto of the Critereon bar in St Andrews, Scotland – the winner of the best for spirits category at the 2019 Great British Pub Awards – explains that Christmas traditionally yields a rush on premium pours and “important driver” winter warmers.

“With the season changing and also the temperature dropping our customers often want hot drinks so we specialise in serving a range of hot toddies and mulled wine,” he tells The Morning Advertiser (The MA).​ 

“There is also a move to premiumisation within the consumers drinking category, i.e. rather than going for a house gin they will go for a premium,” he continues. “Same goes for beer as well we tend to get people trading up from the standard lagers to the premium ones.

“Since opening back up again with have been working more closely with our local breweries, local distillers, etc to promote their products more than ever as the hospitality industry needs to support the independent suppliers to ensure we have a thriving local produce sector,” Latto adds.  

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What’s more, Latto says that in the throes of a global pandemic it’s more important than ever to harness a sense of novelty, fun and experience to spruce up Christmas drink menus.

“This year the festive period looks like it will be very different with social distancing and household limitations, we need to keep on providing an atmosphere that is warm and friendly and not let the restrictions kill the point of our business which is hospitality,” he explains. 

“As hard as it is we need to be as positive about the current situation and provide the venue for people to socialise in a Covid secure environment.”

Additionally, with finances a real concern for bar operators up and down the country, Latto explains 'tis the season to go through previously unused or unwanted spirit stock with a fine-tooth comb and get creative with what you find.

“Stock sitting on the shelf or cellar is money not in the bank so you need to have a look at anything typically you have over ordered to see how you can accommodate any of the products into a variation of an existing cocktail,” he says. 

“For example, you can swap out a neutral spirit such as vodka for Gran Marnier to give it a taste of orange. Experiment with what you have.”

Most wine-derful time of the year

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However, despite the outpouring of Christmas spirits, the wine category saw the biggest seasonal surge in 2019 according to CGA, with sales during the average week of festive trading more than a third (34.7%) up versus in the rest of 2019 in terms of volume, with revellers spending 39.6% more. 

Brendan Padfield of the Unruly Pig in Bromeswell, Suffolk – twice winner​​ of the Front of House Team of the Year Award at the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs, and winner of the best for wine category at the 2019 Great British Pub Awards – tells The MA​ he typically sees wine drinkers splash out. 

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“Pre-Covid-19 we would always see customers want to treat themselves at Christmas,” he explains. “A bottle of Ruinart, rather than house Champagne, Puligny Montrachet rather than a Macon. 

“In pandemic times, guests are so fed up I anticipate that this year they will really push the boat out.

“People are looking for a change and an escape from the depressing new normal,” he continues. “They will therefore be more adventurous, wanting something different and a bit of fun. That is why we will be enhancing the ‘Edgy and Quirky’ section of our wine list to tap directly into this sentiment.

“It is critical to introduce a sense of fun and humour to the cocktail menu for example, people will come to the pub to relax and forget about the ghastliness the world faces. Allowing a moment of escapism and humour is what it’s all about.” 

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Christmas beer

According to Sam Cornwall-Jones of the Drawing Board in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire – winner of the best for beer category at the 2019 Great British Pub Awards – people use Christmas as a “brilliant excuse to celebrate’ with beer”. 

“No doubt it’s been a tough year and it’ll not be getting any easier,” he tells The MA​. “From my point of view, Christmas is a time that brewers have traditionally produced cheesy brews such as Rockin’ Rudolph, Christmas Ale etc. and whilst this is something that we shy away from, the craft brewers do much the same at the other end of the spectrum. 

Festive flavours

“The ingredients or flavours that are most popular around Christmas are ones that you would expect,” Mast-Jaegermeister UK brand ambassador Florian Beuren explains. “Chocolate, spice, nuts, vanilla—these are all familiar flavours in cocktails around Christmas.”

Steve Latto of the Critereon bar in St Andrews, Scotland adds: “The more spiced the better normally, you find customers want stronger flavours, so ginger, nutmeg, bitters, cloves etc all things associated with providing a warm feeling, this ties in with the hot drinks and mulled drinks but also with a Negroni or an Old Fashioned.

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Global intelligence platform Streetbees asked drinkers which characteristics they look for in a festive drink, revealing the most popular festive features.

  • 64% mentioned cinnamon
  • 63% mentioned “mulled”
  • 60% mentioned spice
  • 63% mentioned warm
  • 57% mentioned hot
  • 52% mentioned sweet
  • 53% mentioned chocolate
  • 52% mentioned ginger or gingerbread

“Tiny Rebel produce such wonders as ‘Welcome To The Party, Pal’ a snowball milkshake IPA, which we inevitably lap up. It’s something that can be explored but as ever in pubs its horses for courses. Let’s face it we do need cheering up. We’re hoping to launch our Christmas Pale Ale ‘Leam Sip’ which will hopefully begin the cheer in Leamington Spa.”

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What’s more, Five Points Brewing Co’s head brewer Greg Hobbs, adds he traditionally sees beer drinker tastes turn with the winter weather.

“We generally see customers opting for our malt forward, richer and darker beers generally in cask and in bottle,” he explains. “At Five Points we release a range of beers suited to the autumn and winter such as our Hook Island Red and Brick Field Brown as well as our stronger 'winter warmer’ beers like Old Greg’s Barley Wine and Grand Stout. 

“This Christmas looks to be very different to any other we’ve experienced but beer drinkers will be looking for unusual comforting and celebratory beers to enjoy over the festive period.”

Cornwall-Jones adds that as low and no-alcohol options become of higher quality and taste, the opportunity for designated drivers to enjoy something more than soft drinks becomes larger and more lucrative.  

“This is a trend that has increased year on year, but we will dedicate a line to draught low alcohol craft beer from the likes of Big Drop, Lucky Saint etc.,” he explains.  

“We have always had exceptional success with Rothaus Pils Alcohol Free from Black Forest Beer – this tastes almost as good as the real thing.”

Inclusion and excitement 

When it comes to the low and no category more broadly, Club Soda co-founder Laura Willoughby explains Christmas can traditionally be stressful for those going cold turkey as they are dragged to pubs and Christmas parties with poor alcohol-free options and stuck in situations out of “social obligation”. 

“Obviously, that is all changing this year,” she tells The MA​. “People are likely to carefully select where and when they go out, so it's even more essential for venues to make sure everyone is getting the best experience regardless of whether they are consuming alcohol. 

“For example, more people are likely to drive but still want something special to drink. People may move their event to earlier in the day and people are more inclined to meet one-to-one rather than a big boozy social. A menu that fits all times of day is a must.”  

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While Willoughby adds that she believes the ongoing pandemic has “supercharged the trend towards health and wellness”, she explains that “inclusion and excitement” are key to Christmas drink menus, particularly for people choosing alcohol-free options.  

“People's trips to the pub are few and far between in the current situation so more than ever non-drinking customers want to feel like it is worth their time and that the places they are choosing to go want them there,” she says.  

“Putting that extra bit of thought into a low and no-alcohol menu makes those customers feel welcomed and more likely to return. 

“Make sure your three course Christmas lunch is just as thrilling with an alcohol-free option for the Prosecco on offer.”

Related topics: Spirits & Cocktails

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