FEATURE - Spirits

FEATURE: Get into the spirit of increasing sales at your pub

By Nigel Huddleston

- Last updated on GMT

In good spirits: attention to the category can help boost income at your pub (credit: Getty/Kar-Tr)
In good spirits: attention to the category can help boost income at your pub (credit: Getty/Kar-Tr)

Related tags Spirits Schweppes Cocktails Finance

Cocktail culture and the popularity of classic mixer serves such as the G&T have made spirits one of the most dynamic sections of the on-trade drinks market in recent years.

Sales figures for the first quarter of 2023 from speciality spirits wholesaler Master of Malt Trade showed growth of 83.5% for rum over the corresponding period last year, with dark rum sales more than double.

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Key period for soft drinks and mixers

Schweppes advert image for spirits feature

According to Pat Humphries, associate director on-premise at Coca-Cola Europacific Partners GB (CCEP), this is a key time of year for pubs and bars, and soft drinks, including mixers, play a key role in driving sales, with the category growing in value by 20% in the run up to Christmas last year[1]​.

Venues need to ensure that they have a strong soft drinks range to meet different consumer needs and occasions, whether that is for someone who doesn’t drink alcohol or a designated driver on a festive night out over the Christmas period.

As consumer spending is still under pressure, it’s important that operators deliver an experience that cannot be replicated at home and that consumers are happy to pay money for.

Earlier this year Schweppes helped 20 independent pubs and bars to create social experiences in their outlets to celebrate the new Schweppes ‘Born Social’ campaign and drive footfall into outlets. The ‘Born Social’ campaign is back this Christmas, as well as new winter-themed Schweppes Tonic and Schweppes Slimline Tonic Limited Edition bottles to keep the brand front of mind with consumers.

Alongside this, the nation’s favourite mixer brand[2]​ is inspiring operators to add something new to their menus with a new seasonal serve called the ‘Holiday Highball’ which includes 40ml Gin, 15ml Gingerbread Syrup, 20ml mandarin orange juice and topped with Schweppes Tonic.

With 54% of consumers wanting to try something new when they’re at a pub or bar[3]​, the serves can help venues excite consumers during the festive period. Operators can visit CCEP’s trade website, My.CCEP.com​ for a variety of Schweppes point of sale materials and digital assets.

Delivering the perfect serve is another way to elevate any drink, simply by using elegant branded glassware and stylish garnishes – critically, that consumers are unlikely to have at home. There’s a guide on My.CCEP.com, complete with step-by-step instructions and a video, explaining how to serve Coca-Cola at its best or a perfect Gin & Schweppes Tonic.

[1]​ KWP Out of Home Purchase | Key KPI | Total Food & Non-alcoholic Drink | 4 w /e 25 Dec 22 vs prev year

[2]​ CGA data, Total On Premise, MAT Vol to 30.06.23 (FT – 22.7m litres & Schweppes – 14.3m litres) and Nielsen data, Total GB, MAT Vol to 17.06.23 (FT – 27.0m Litres & Schweppes – 57.6m litres) 

[3]​ CGA Path to Purchase 2022

Tequila was up 55%, with the blanco variety most commonly used for cocktails ahead by 75%. There are also signs of new life in old favourites, with vodka up 59%.

Master of Malt’s successes may be an exaggeration of trends in the broader market but they certainly signpost the general direction of travel in many categories.

Liam Belton, trade lead at Master of Malt, says flavoured rum sales increased by more than 36% in the past year and flavoured vodka by 18.5%.

He puts this down to growing consumer experimentation and because such products are a way for bars to streamline their preparation times and costs, removing the need for homemade infusions.

“There is a reduction in the cost of ordering stock,” he says. “Rather than multiple ingredients, they are able to buy one liquid.

“Flavoured spirits encourage bars to create more bespoke serves, enabling the whole team to be able to put together complicated drinks, no matter what their experience.

“They are the perfect way to test recipes without putting them on menus.”

butterfly cannon luxardo starlino

Belton also suggests flavoured spirits are a shortcut to creating short-term seasonal serves with a point of difference for special calendar events.

Spiced rum boom

Ben Ko-Nkengmo, spirits category buyer for Star Pubs & Bars, says the boom in spiced rum is the single biggest development its seen in recent times in spirits, and one that could accelerate heading into the winter.

“Sales have been on the up for more than a year and really gained momentum in the second quarter of 2023,” he says. “In our Just Add Talent managed pubs, spiced rum now outsells flavoured gin and accounts for almost one in nine spirits serves.

“Substituting spiced rum for traditional white rum is an easy way for operators to serve classic cocktails with a twist, such as a spiced Mojito, Daiquiri or Rum Punch.”

He also says flavoured vodka – a category that sometimes seems locked in a cycle of boom and bust – is currently seeing strong growth.

“I’d recommend every pub make the most of the spiced rum and flavoured vodka trends by stocking at least three or four of each,” Ko-Nkengmo adds, suggesting a good/better/super-premium quality/price ladder.

'Four Seas' by Salcombe Gin, £39.50 70cl ABV 40� (bottle and serve hero)

Fiona Hornsby, co-owner of the Bridewell and the Denbigh Castle in Liverpool, says the pubs are witnessing stronger sales in Scotch whisky but the gin boom of recent years is tailing off.

“We’ve noticed in the past six months that premium gins have been selling a bit less,” she says.

“A premium gin and tonic is getting quite expensive now; people are still drinking gin but they’re not the very expensive ones.

“People are prepared to pay more for whisky. No one comes in and drinks whisky all night but they will pay for one really good quality whisky at the end of the evening.

“They also want different ones every time they came in, so it’s a bit like craft beer; you have to keep rotating the range.”

Hornsby adds: “There is a little uptake in flavoured vodkas, not hugely, but there has been an uptick in people asking for them, which there hasn’t been for quite some time.”

Despite the fall-off in gin, the category has featured in regular ticketed tasting events held at each venue to drive consumer interest. A tasting at the Bridewell led by the Liverpool Gin distillery paired six gins with different snacks.

“It builds confidence for customers,” Hornsby says. “A lot of the time they’re guided by you at the bar but if they taste something they wouldn’t otherwise get to try, it gives them the confidence to go to the bar and ask for something new, rather than the same thing every time.”

Single spirit focus

Cheshire Cat Pubs focuses on specific spirits in two of its venues: rum at the Mainwaring Arms in Whitmore, Staffordshire, and gin at the Cholmondeley Arms in Cholmondeley, Cheshire, pub of the year in this year’s Great British Pub Awards​.

Each pub has a ‘bible’ reference guide to its chosen feature spirits category and highlights rums or gins of the month.

The Mainwaring has an additional list of 25 rums of the year, seven cocktail serves, plus numerous varieties of boozy hot chocolates. A deal called ‘Walk the Planks’ offers three rums served with mixers and garnishes, for sharing or individual exploration, for £16.95.

The Cholmondeley runs gin festivals and appreciation nights, including a package bundling together accommodation, a two-course meal and breakfast for two for £220.

The Mainwaring has its own brand of rum and Cholmondeley a gin, which has recently been joined by a raspberry and vanilla-laced pink version.


Cholmondeley general manager Helen Mosford says the pub has actually been trying to dial down its gin range this year but it’s easier said than done.

“We were going down from 366 gins – because we had one for every day of the year – to 200,” she says, “but we’re still well over that. There are still people coming in and staring at the shelves for five minutes to see if there’s one they haven’t tried.

“A few have come off the shelves because they’ve been discontinued but there are still a lot of new ones coming out and others that are going very strongly, so we’ll definitely stay as a gin pub.”

Tyber’s Reggae Bar in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, is run by Stonegate pub partner Tyber Cranstoun, lead singer of ska band The Dualers, and has a re-fashioned menu of classic cocktails renamed after the band’s songs, such as Back to Paradise for Piña Colada​, Dancing Till the Sun Comes Up for Tequila Sunrise​ and One Love for Sex on the Beach​. The band helpfully has a song called Hurricane​, which means that the Hurricane cocktail has been able to keep its original name.

“We do a lot of different flavoured rums,” says general manager Jax Barclay. “Even our shots are rum-based and all of our cocktails are freshly made.”

The bar cuts its cloth in other spirits to suit the location.

“Tunbridge Wells is an affluent place, so we have Grey Goose and Belvedere vodkas, and expensive brandies,” she adds.

Sharing serves of cocktails come in fish bowls rather than jugs.

“It’s a talking point and they sell really well,” she says. “They hold four cocktails but customers only pay for the price of three.”

Seasonal demands

Suppliers and pub groups have sound advice for licensees looking to increase their spirits revenue.

Ko-Nkengmo at Star Pubs Bars says venues should adjust to the shifting seasonal demands of the market.

“A simple mulled serve, like spiced rum with apple juice, cranberry juice and cinnamon sticks, is a great winter warmer that offers the experiential element customers increasingly seek,” he says.
“Instagrammable spirits are a fantastic way of promoting a pub. Venues offering cocktails and other aspirational spirits serves should look to get pictures of their winter drinks on to their social media in November as people make their plans for the festive season.”

Sarah Gandy, marketing manager for Luxardo liqueurs at Amber Beverage UK, suggests tweaking popular serves to stand out from the crowd.

“When the bar is busy, customers want to order an easy, familiar serve,” she says, “but don’t let this stop your bar team from being adventurous. 

“Start with a familiar traditional serve and think of colour appeal and fast mixing. Instead of a standard gin and tonic, offer a variant which has a touch of novelty and added value.”

Gandy suggests Luxardo’s Sour Cherry gin with tonic.

Salcombe Gin ‘Start Point’, £45 - bottle, serve, grapefruit

Stefanie Holt, UK market manager for Irish whiskey producer Waterford, says providing customers with background product information can help with engagement.

“We have a ‘teireoir code’ on the back of each bottle that, when typed into our website, will tell you masses of information about each whisky: the barley, the farm and farmer, maps, photography and every single cask that went into the assemblage.

“Any venue that serves Waterford can easily access and share this information with its customers.”

Belton at Master of Malt has a novel Christmas meal suggestion involving 3cl miniatures, of which it stocks more than 1,900. 

“Placing a dram on each person’s plate setting is a delightful example of supporting the customer experience.

“Ensuring you stock the full bottle behind the bar leads to longer drink requests of the spirit as well.”

Tim Dunlop, European commercial director at Butterfly Cannon tequila supplier Biggar & Leith, says fast-growing agave spirits should be front of mind.

“Offering playful, refreshing and tasty cocktails is a simple and effective way to maximise tequila sales,” he says. “Spice up punches with pomegranate or cranberry juice, orange wedges and cinnamon sticks, or add seasonal cocktails to the menu such as winter-spiced Margaritas or cranberry Palomas.”

He also highlights popular aperitivos, in which the company has the Hotel Starlino brand.

“They cater for a multitude of occasions – paired with lunch, enjoyed as a sun downer or late into the night in higher-tempo moments.”

Help for pubs

Growth in spirits has brought a multitude of brands to the market, which can often make it hard to decide what to list.

Brand owners and distributors with clear points of difference and offering practical support are useful for pubs to have on their side.

Karl Mason, co-founder of Masons of Yorkshire gin, says: “There are no added colours or flavourings added to our products and we don’t follow fads.

“We appreciate every venue is different, so promotions in outlets have always been, and always will be, bespoke to each customer.

“We love supporting menu development, drinks development, competitions, charity events, tastings, staff training and incentives. It’s busy, but we see this as essential to show the industry we mean business, and how much we respect what venues are doing.”

Shankys Whip Cocktail Lifestyle - On the Rocks - Angle

James Edis, national account manager for Devon’s Salcombe Distilling, adds: “Education is key, so we offer regular on-site brand training, and more in-depth training at our distillery and our Salcombe Gin School.

“We work closely with venues on menu development, provide branded barware, glassware, parasols and bespoke assets, and offer consumer-facing masterclasses and live distillations at key venues – for staff and customer education, as well as our brand awareness.”

Nick Gillett, managing director of Mangrove Global, whose portfolio includes Portobello Road gin and vodka, Giffard liqueurs and Dark Matter rum, says it also likes working with venues.

“I can’t pigeonhole our customers into one category or style,” he says. “We work with some really successful multiple venue owners, and equally successful single-venue ones.

“The size of the company isn’t important, more the ethos behind it: venues that care about what they serve.

“A big part of what we do at Mangrove is the education piece behind the liquids. The team at Mangrove comes from different walks of life, different countries, some from the on-trade, and many of them have experience behind the bar. Because of this, we’re usually ahead of the curve, and we impart this knowledge to our partners to ensure that they’re at the forefront of the market too.
“Beyond serving politely, being engaging and offering great service, if a pub can help a customer find a new drink that they love, they’ll have a customer for life.”

Try something new

Meanwhile, Schweppes adds that while core favourites like gin and its Indian Tonic Water are “integral to licensed outlets”, 54% of consumers want to try something new when they’re at a pub or bar (source: CGA Path to Purchase 2022).

This can create interesting serves using flavoured spirits or mixers, such as Schweppes Elderflower Slimline tonic or its flavoured sodas range, which includes Melon Watermelon and Peach Coconut variants, which can appeal to those on the lookout for something different.

The rapid rise of the likes of tequila and mezcal in recent years gives hope to today’s niche products that they might one day hit it big.

Pisco Serenza
Pisco Serenza

Chile’s pisco producers paid an awareness-raising visit to the UK recently, aiming to enthuse on-trade operators about the potential of the spirit, which is distilled from wine in two of the country’s most northerly wine regions.

Nicolàs Poblete Bravo, of promotional body Pro Chile, says pisco is a versatile spirit.

“Tequila, mezcal and spiced rum are growing because consumers are looking for niche products that have interesting stories,” he says. “That’s where pisco comes in. It’s made in the part of Chile with the Atacama desert, the driest in the world, and some of the clearest skies, where there is the highest concentration of observatories.”

The most well-known serve is the pisco sour cocktail but the traditional Chilean serve of piscola – with cola and ice – could appeal to high-volume pubs where speed of serve is key.

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