Gin and vodka very much rule the spirits category in restaurants. According to Andrius Izganaitis, bar manager at Brasserie of Light, the two together represent 80% of total spirit and liquor category sales. That’s a pretty hefty proportion of drinks that contain gin and vodka.
While gin has been increasing in popularity with the British public at a fast pace, vodka has stayed at a steady one, given its presence in spirit and mixer serves and cocktails for so long. However, gin is now so popular that it is overtaking sales of vodka by some way.
“At Brasserie of Light, we serve around four times as much gin as we do vodka,” says Izganaitis. “Gin as a category continues to be incredibly popular and we’re certainly seeing this.”
Despite vodka being behind gin in the proportion of sales, it is second only to its white spirit cousin. The restaurant is clearly gaining in the popularity of the gin boom, however, with a dedicated section of the drinks menu to gin and tonic serves. More and more restaurants have latched onto this idea as different gins, garnishes and tonics are combined to create different offerings.
Flavour the brave
The flexibility of gin and vodka lends themselves to great experimentation and diversity. As a result, much of the activity with these spirits, gin in particular, has been around bringing new styles to the market following the craft boom.
Craft and small batch gins have grown in abundance, becoming available to restaurants to offer customers something different from the standard brands. New styles can be considered an evolution of this, as distilleries look to gain on gin’s popularity by bringing interesting and exciting flavours to serves.
As if the dozen or more botanicals that are used to create gin don’t give it enough complexity, more and more gin releases are flavoured, from Beefeater’s Blood Orange variant to Japanese-inspired Kuro, which launched a Soft Peach gin and a Cherry Blossom gin. Even brands that aren’t traditionally in the gin market have entered the category as a result of its popularity. This year alone, Mast-Jaegermeister UK launched Gin Sul – a craft gin from Germany – and Accolade Wines added a fusion of rosé wine and gin to its Echo Falls range, following the launch of a vodka version in 2018.
“There is a significant opportunity in the UK for orange gin, as 83% of current growth is incremental to the wider category,” says Chris Ellis, commercial director of Pernod Ricard UK. “Orange gin has swiftly become the second fastest growing gin flavour, after pink, yet the majority of orange gins currently on the market are only available at a super-premium price.”
The growth in flavoured gins and vodkas does give people more choice and variety, but operators are warned not to forget the simplicity behind these spirits and what they can give to drinks, especially in a food-led environment. With so much flavour and colour now in the spirit itself, operators may not need to be so bold with their presentation.
Big balloon glasses, outlandish garnishes and complicated presentation have created lots of theatre for gin and tonic serves as the drink has increased in popularity, in parallel with the rise of Instagram. However, much of the industry believes that operators should let the core ingredients do the talking.
“Sometimes keeping things simple is key, allowing the taste of the gin to shine through,” says Jack Sotti, senior Tanqueray ambassador at Diageo Reserve GB. “This allows customers to appreciate the taste of the spirit and become more receptive to exploring the wider category. Complex serves of course have their place, but I’d always remind bartenders not to overcomplicate a drink and make sure consumers can taste and enjoy the taste of the spirit.”
According to Love Drinks marketing manager Ellie Jones, the big serves are indeed on their way out, especially as people appreciate premium craft gins more and more.
“I think we will see a less flamboyant side to serves this year with more time being spent on the quality of the liquid, the flavour profiles and the balance, as opposed to the decoration,” she says. “Expect more highball style drinks, done simply but with interesting, boundary-pushing craft liquors and mixers.”
This is positive news for casual dining, as serves such as these will do better in restaurants than over the top ones. This doesn’t mean that gin and vodka cocktails won’t be popular, but the presentation will be toned down and the simple classics will see more of an uplift.
“Craft brands are helping to drive a reassessment of serves as more casual dining operators look to cocktails to provide a point of difference in a crowded market, and bartenders highlight the flavour and provenance of different brands in their recipes,” explains Dan Bolton, managing director of Hi-Spirits.
More simple serves that champion the craft ingredients complement the behaviour of gin and vodka drinkers. Izganaitis describes seeing gin and vodka serves most popular with people before dinner, with a sweeter cocktail or darker spirit preferred later. That said, the espresso martini is the restaurant’s most ordered post-dinner drink.
This suggests that customers are thinking about their taste buds when in a restaurant, as they will be having food during their visit as opposed to just drinks. The way people drink gin and vodka serves should ideally be different to how they would in a bar because of this – thinking about how they will best complement dishes is vital to the overall experience.
Seafood restaurant Bucket in Notting Hill teamed up with Reyka Vodka to approach vodka differently and demonstrate how it can be paired with food, particularly fish. Guests were able to dine on a creamy langoustine soup while sipping on a Puffin Collins cocktail made with vodka, pink grapefruit, fresh cherry tomato, elderflower and soda; butter braised cod cheeks with sweet potato rosti, chilli cherry tomato oil and crispy chorizo, paired with vodka, nettle cordial, Fino sherry, soil essence and tomato vine to make up a Riverbank Gimlet; or pan seared halibut with sweet roasted tomatoes, washed down with a Tectonic Spritz, which combined vodka, dry vermouth, greenhouse tomato, tonic water and rosemary.
Sotti supports the idea of looking to food to inspire gin and vodka serves, as he says: “Trends across the wider lifestyle and food scene should be watched closely to really engage and inspire drinkers. Savoury cocktails are becoming more popular and herbaceous flavours are in demand, so bartenders should experiment with this trend. A point of difference, like a seasonal menu, can be a great way to entice people into restaurants in the summer. For example, a flavoured gin can add a summer twist to a classic.”
It’s no surprise that Sotti mentions summer, a prime time for gin and vodka serves as people seek refreshment from the warm weather. No doubt we’ll see more flavoured gins and vodkas released before it arrives. In the meantime, there’s plenty for bartenders to play around with – without thinking too far out of the box.