‘Drinking less, but drinking better' is a phrase increasingly heard in relation to changing drinking habits, as volume sales of alcohol dip and value edges up as consumers switch to premium options
Using its definition of a cocktail as a spirit drink with three or more ingredients, on-trade analyst CGA calculates that 39,000 outlets now stock cocktails, "and that distribution trend is not slowing down," says Jonathan Jones, CGA's director of client services.
"We've seen 13% growth in the past year. It's becoming a much more mainstream trend, and outlets that offer cocktails tend to see significantly higher rates of sales for spirits." While the mojito remains the best-selling on-trade cocktail, the market is evolving, says Jones, with smirk-inducing cocktails such as Sex on the Beach making way for drinks such as the espresso martini. "Drinkers are becoming more discerning and we're starting to see some of those older mainstream serves lose share," Jones adds.
Faith Holland, head of category development at spirits market leader Diageo GB, reports a growing trend for pared-back authenticity. "As young people are drinking less, they seek higher quality in their purchases and serves are going through a ‘make-under'. Wow-factor cocktails will always be sought-after, but lately, bartenders and mixologists are going back to basics with simple, no-frills cocktails, focusing on quality spirits and making consumers think twice about what's actually in their glass."
Under CGA's ‘rules', a gin and tonic doesn't qualify as a cocktail, but that distinction is probably lost on most consumers as they peruse increasingly sophisticated G&T menus. Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, says: "It wasn't that many years ago when a pub would stock one gin brand, and now a gin menu offering a range of gins and mixers is commonplace."
A market where an estimated 500 UK gin brands are competing for consumer loyalty is clearly a challenge. Angus Lugsdin, co-founder of Devon-based Salcombe Distilling, says: "With so many gin variations now available, thanks to the bewildering array of botanicals used in the distillation process, there is huge interest in this quintessentially British spirit.
The business has also raised its profile by opening a bar in front of the distillery, "which has certainly helped build awareness of our brand, as it enables us to showcase our products and provides the perfect training venue for on-trade customers," Lugsdin adds.
Both consumers and operators could be forgiven if they've struggled to entirely appreciate the differences between terms such as biodynamic, organic and natural wines, which may have held back the growth of a trend that has been forecast for a while. However, with customers taking an ever greater interest in what's in their food and drink, impetus is growing.
Fuller's, which supplies wine to the independent trade as well as to its own pubs and restaurants, has added to its 'ethical' wine range this year. Muriel Chatel, owner and founder of Borough Wines & Beers, says: "The overriding trend in wine - both in the on- and off-trade - is a move towards less, but better drinking. The demand for low-intervention and organic wine is in many ways associated with this, tied up as it is with concepts of provenance, authenticity, health and sustainability.
"Wine bars and restaurants have much to do with the rise in popularity of natural wine, as it was sommeliers and chefs who first taught consumers the language of low intervention. Now that customers have been trained to scrutinise the source of a wine, demand for natural wines will only continue to grow, on both sides of the bar."
Craft beer goes mainstream
With an ever-more diverse range of beers available, the advantage in serving craft beer to hop-happy customers favours operators who can maximise choice. Fuller's is rolling out a new bar format pioneered at the Hydrant, located in the City, which offers beers from a range of brewers alongside Fuller's own brews.
Jane Jones, director of marketing at Fuller's, says: "Today's consumer is a far more promiscuous drinker than we've seen before, and they are looking for interesting and authentic beers. Today's pub needs to ensure it can meet these demands with a carefully chosen range.
"Without doubt, people are drinking less but drinking better, and younger consumers particularly will happily spend more per pint - but they are spending less overall on alcohol than the preceding generation.
"Social media is a whole new way to shout about what's new with an immediacy that helps drive the speed of innovation. I don't think there has been a better time to be involved in the brewing, marketing and celebration of beer."
Sophisticated soft drinks
Meeting the expectations of the new breed of consumers looking for interesting non-alcoholic option throws down the gauntlet to both suppliers and operators. Research undertaken by Britvic highlighted this opportunity: 39% of consumers drink less alcohol all year round, increasing to 41% of those aged 25-34 and to 46% of those aged over 55.
Russell Goldman, commercial director, foodservice and licensed at Britvic, says: "Evolving habits and consumer trends, geared towards a healthier and balanced lifestyle, means soft drinks now have an even greater role to play than ever before. Adults are increasingly looking for a more sophisticated soft drink specifically for them."
Matching soft drinks with food offers another opportunity; Britvic's research shows that 72% of customers would order soft drink specials if they were highlighted on the menu, and 80% like the idea of staff recommendations for soft drinks that complement their meal. "Whether your outlet offers a full menu or simple bar snacks, offering ideas for the perfect food and soft drinks pairings will help to elevate the consumer experience and spend," says Goldman.
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