We’ve had a few years of witnessing the euphoric rise of cocktails in casual dining – the premium and fun element they bring to a drinks menu, the Instagram opportunities that mesmerising serves can provide and the occasions to which they lend themselves (brunch, we’re looking at you).
Due to giving restaurant guests a boost of fruity flavour and refreshment, cocktails become especially popular during one long event – the summer. In fact, cocktails are so popular that they see a 64% increase in customer orders in a restaurant or bar during summer, compared to winter. The warmer weather is just around the corner, so we can expect to see increased activity, promotion and marketing of cocktails, from extended menus through to dedicated Aperol Spritz pop-up bars in venues.
That said, there are particular concoctions that have become popular and on-trend as a result of the wider appeal of cocktails, such as Espresso Martinis, while Old Fashioneds, Negronis and Whiskey Sours are now the most popular cocktails in the world. Compared to lighter, fruitier cocktails associated with summer, like the Mojito, these are not dictated by season and so should be offered all year round.
Noticing the popularity of Espresso Martinis and Old Fashioneds, El Gato Negro in Manchester added these to its drinks menu last summer. As the restaurant’s drinks specialist Matt Gregory explains, people would order them despite them not even being on the menu.
“We always sold them for those who asked, but for some reason hadn’t included them on our menu,” he says. “When we looked at sales figures, we noticed how many we were selling without even advertising and realised that the customers wanted them. So, due to popular demand, we added them to our drinks menu.”
Now that the availability of classic and well-known cocktails is to be expected, whether listed on the menu or not, we are seeing the activity behind the bar develop. More restaurants are taking on cocktails with their brand in mind, all while responding to the customer’s wants and needs.
Cocktail serves in restaurants are going through a new stage of life – they are maturing. As bartenders become increasingly used to making them, their confidence grows and experimentation beckons. With many restaurants led by a concept, cuisine or environment, cocktails can be created exclusively for a venue. We are seeing this in abundance.
“What’s really driving consumers towards the cocktail trend is the opportunity for an operator’s take on innovation and the exclusivity that comes with it,” says Alliance Online marketing manager Mike Hardman. “More operators are developing cocktail menus featuring their own creations, promoting to their patrons the results of their own unique mixology.”
Results include the Showstoppers at Christopher’s in the West End, which, inspired by its location in theatre land, has created a selection of cocktails including Chicago (Virtuous Raspberry Vodka, Crème de Cassis, St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur, blueberry puree and Prosecco) and Hamilton (Slane Irish Whiskey, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Frangelico Liqueur, caramel syrup and a double espresso). These cocktails are especially apt, given the restaurant’s accessibility for pre- or post-theatre drinks.
Rosa’s Thai Café has also teamed up with World of Zing to offer five Thai-inspired cocktails including Appe-Thai-Zing – a lemongrass and ginger Collins with Tanqueray Gin & Asian botanical sour syrup – and Bangkok Night Out – a twist on a Mojito, made with Pampero Rum and finished with Thai basil. These cocktails are delivered to Rosa’s in a ready-to-serve format, meaning that, while they are on-brand, they don’t require the skills of an experienced bartender. Byron takes ready-to-serve cocktails one step further by offering bottled cocktails from Longflint Drinks Co. For the more casual dining brand where in-house cocktail experimentation is limited, a simpler production is necessary, which can also result in simpler serves without the ultra-premium liqueurs and extravagant garnishes.
According to Dee Humphreys, co-creator of Bristol Syrup Company, this approach is on point, as she suggests “simple, relatable cocktails which suit the style of the restaurant and match the food being served. Keep the list short and concise, at around five cocktails.”
Rosa’s does indeed recommend dishes for the cocktails. Appe-Thai-Zing is paired with larb chicken patties, while the Bangkok Night Out works with the red curry with pineapple and chicken. Cocktails that complement cuisine work to provide an all-round experience, but those that are matched to specific dishes can also enhance the flavours. Encouraging guests to have a cocktail with their food can be hugely beneficial to operators.
Good with food
While Hi-Spirits marketing director Amanda McLeod claims that “the UK lags behind the US in matching cocktails to food,” there is evidence of operators seeing the potential for extra revenue, but mainly with customers looking to have dessert, suggesting the popularity of a post-dinner cocktail.
Gregory reveals that he is in the process of developing an after-dinner cocktail menu for El Gato Negro, which will be paired with the restaurants desserts. Meanwhile, the new Cutting Room in Fitzrovia has opened with dessert cocktails to be served alongside puddings, including Apple Crumble in a Glass, which combines apple and cinnamon infused bourbon with vanilla, amaretto, apple juice and crushed digestives. Whether it’s desirable to have biscuit crumbs in your drink is another question altogether…
One solution for opening customers’ eyes and taste buds to having cocktails with food might be miniature cocktails, as Tabasco business unit manager Helen Hyde explains: “Many of these are smaller versions of well-known cocktails and are perfect for customers to drink while they look over the menu. In addition, we are aware of venues using them as a form of amuse bouche. Miniaturising cocktails makes it easier to serve them with food and as a result many venues are now offering them as an accompaniment to their tasting menu.”
When you think about the ingredients and recipes involved with cocktail-making, it’s shocking that more food and cocktail pairings don’t take place. Operators can easily utilise the methodology to combine the two. For example, Lee Hyde, Monin beverage innovation manager, mentions the popularity of vegetal and earthy flavours such as beetroot, red pepper and carrot as being popular, as well as botanical infusions – all of which could be found in any restaurant kitchen. Furthermore, for the increasing number of sustainable food menus we’re seeing from operators, the same can be done for the cocktail menu, inviting food and cocktail pairings.
“Make ice cubes out of juice,” suggests Laurence Kay, development chef at Oliver Kay Produce, part of the Bidfresh Group. “Use oranges that need juicing, freeze the juice down with thyme and use as a gin mixer or to add in a variation on an Old Fashioned with whisky. Bloody Mary-style ice cubes can be made from a carrot and tomato mix or a celery juice. The ice cubes add to the visual appearance of the drink, as well as to the customer experience as the ice changes in the drink.”
It’s advisable that restaurants deliberate on their cocktail menu as they would their food menu when it comes to what people want to put inside their bodies. Healthier diets have been more of a priority in recent years, so you would expect this to trickle down from food into drinks. For this reason, there is a bigger push for low- and no-alcohol cocktails than ever.
How low can you go?
There has been plenty of research in the past year that suggests that younger people in particular are choosing to drink less alcohol. Because these people still want a high-quality drink with a premium feel, low- and no-alcohol cocktails are recommended.
“New low-ABV offerings are resonating with consumers adopting an increasingly mindful approach to consumption,” says James Mowbray-Pratt, Fever-Tree channels manager for restaurants and bars. “We would recommend restaurants offer a selection of innovative low- and non-alcoholic spritz serves on their cocktail menus, allowing everyone to enjoy a premium drinking experience with varying degrees of alcohol content.”
Of course, operators should consider low- and no-alcohol options, but what we’re seeing is very modest moderation. Restaurant brands that market themselves as healthy and clean eating are unlikely to serve alcohol and can jump onto this low-and-no trend with full force. Take Redemption Bar, for instance. The vegan, sugar-free and alcohol-free restaurant offers boozeless cocktails in the way of a Pious Pina Colada, a Kombucha Apple Mockjito, and a Sea Foam Sour. Compare this to 100 Wardour St, which last month launched a new collection of cocktails called Creative Disorders, which looked to honour renowned but troubled names in the arts (another example of exclusive, on-brand cocktail creations). Among eight creations celebrating the likes of Madonna, Ray Charles and Jackson Pollock, just one was non-alcoholic – the Kurt Cobain-inspired Teen Spirit. That said, in the past, new cocktail collections may not have considered a non-alcoholic cocktail at all, so it’s at least a nod to the trend that we’re hearing so much about.
If research and your own sales suggest that people are drinking less alcohol, the potential for low- and no-alcohol cocktails should not be ignored. Above all, restaurant activity shows that cocktails are being elevated to new heights, with no stopping on creativity and experimentation whatever the ABV.