As we near the end of the year, people will be looking to throw off the problems of 2020 and cautiously drink to a return to normality. John Porter discovers which drinks and trends will bring cheer for guests and operators alike.
Is that Champagne glass half-full or half-empty? Is the hospitality sector likely to be toasting success or drowning its sorrows by year's end? It's fair to say that 2020 hasn't given operators very many reasons to raise a celebratory glass so far, but the final quarter of the year is traditionally the time when consumers break out their party gear and push the boat out when it comes to ordering drinks.
While Christmas and New Year are the most established celebrations, effectively taking up most of December in terms of office parties and friends meeting up for drinks, Halloween is also now a significant party occasion for the on-trade. Black Friday, imported from the US, has generated an uptick in hospitality promotions in recent years, but, with the high street dealing with its own severe challenges, this year's discount season is likely to start earlier than ever – which, if it brings out the bargain hunters, also creates opportunities for hospitality operators in retail locations.
For many consumers, such occasions will be their first time back in restaurants and pubs post-lockdown. So what are the prospects for consumer confidence and spending? "Premiumisation has been a hugely significant trend in drinking out for several years now," says Mark Newton of industry analyst CGA, but he now expects to see more polarisation in the market.
The latest CGA BrandTrack survey shows that while many consumers continue to trade up to premium drinks, slightly more have traded down post-lockdown. In all, nearly one in five has shifted to either end of the price scale, with 11% buying cheaper drinks than usual and 8% treating themselves to more expensive premium brands.
In response, operators will need to offer a carefully selected mix of premium, mainstream and value drinks this year, says Newton.
"The new wave of premium consumers indicate that they are likely to take the habit with them when they return to drink in the on-trade, which presents pubs, bars and restaurants with a great opportunity to capture their spend.
He adds: "The craft beer and cider movement has provided an obvious trajectory for drinkers from mainstream to premium choices. It's a slightly different story in wine, where well-known brands tend to be at the budget end of the market, and trading up requires an increased knowledge of varietals and countries.
The craft beer and cider movement has provided an obvious trajectory path for drinkers from mainstream to premium choices
"Education and premium on-trade-only branding could both help to push drinkers up the price range here."
When it comes to celebratory occasions, "it shouldn't be forgotten that value isn't only connected to price," he explains. "While the level of disposable income is pivotal, a high-price drink can also be a good value one if the quality exceeds expectations. As drinking out becomes a less spontaneous and more organised activity in the months ahead, these premium drinks can help consumers to maximise their experience."
A high-price drink can also be a good-value one if the quality exceeds expectation
Familiar drinks brands are using a range of approaches to re-engage consumers with making drinks a core part of celebration drinks. The Asahi-owned Peroni Italian lager brand has launched the Walk With Us advertising campaign to celebrate the return of activities consumers once took for granted. Meanwhile, Moët & Chandon is offering customers purchasing Champagne from online retailer the Bottle Club an e-voucher for two complimentary glasses at any of the Alchemist group's bars.
Pernod Ricard UK is offering practical support in the form of festive serves and vessels, including enamel mugs and sustainable single-use Christmas-themed paper vessels, from brands including Absolut, Beefeater Blood Orange and the Glenlivet, to provide easy-serve solutions in bar and outdoor areas.
Some brands believe the convenience of premixed cocktails, enjoyed by many during lockdown, can translate into a party experience in the on-trade. Among them is pub entrepreneur Tom Soden, whose latest venture Ace+Freak is a range of canned cocktails made using craft spirits. With recipes including watermelon and cucumber sangria; mint and elderflower spritz and ginger and lemongrass mule, Ace+Freak is stocked in venues such as Secret Cinema, Fold London and Village Underground, and targets the event and party market.
Soden says: "My social life often revolves around music and the options for tasty drinks made with natural ingredients were zero, so we decided to do something about it. Accessible, no fuss and really tasty. We're genuinely very proud of what we made because we've done it properly without a single corner cut."
In the same spirit, Annie Mitchell, co-founder of coffee-based Bottleshot Cold Brew, says: "We're forming more partnerships with restaurants to create innovative and fun drink recipes and food and beverage pairings. Themed cocktails, for instance, are the perfect way to spark excitement and give people the chance to try new things."
Health and sustainability
Health is also part of the party drinks mix in the post-Covid world. Kamila Sitwell, co-founder of botanical soft drink brand Kolibri, says: "The 2020 festive celebrations will be unlike anything we have ever experienced. While we all crave human interactions and good reasons to be jolly, the level of societal anxiety is sky-high as the battle against coronavirus is far from over.
"Health has become the government's and the nation's number one priority, with a new obesity strategy at its heart, and with that, a more mindful approach to drinking will be considered by many.
Health has become the government's and the nation's number one priority
"Discerning consumers in bars and restaurants need to be offered exciting, non-alcoholic and low-sugar options. This year this category is more important than ever."
Vishal Sodha, co-founder of vitamin- and mineral-enhanced soft drink DRGN, says: "For an innovative product like DRGN, which is enjoyable for any occasion, the festive season is the perfect time to show its versatility – for example, as a healthier mixer to create ‘super cocktails'; as a premium adult soft drink with health benefits; or even as a perfect pick-me-up the morning after, as our superfood, vitamin and electrolyte blend can certainly help reboot."
Appealing to consumers' sense of social responsibility is also a tactic. Flawsome! is a sustainable range of sparkling cold-pressed juices made with imperfect and surplus fruit. Co-founder Karina Sudenyte says she is "on a mission to make other people as passionate about sustainable craft drinks as we are, and having Flawsome! products on menus shows consumers establishments care about the same social and political issues as them."
Nick Gillett, managing director of spirits distributor Mangrove UK, believes the on-trade will rise to the challenge of making the party season swing with compelling drinks offers. "We're looking forward to the festive season with optimism," he says.
Gillett forecasts demand for winter-themed spritzes made with Prosecco or Champagne and soda water, as well as premium ready-to-drink cocktails, such as the bottled mixes Mangrove offers through its partnership with White Label Cocktails.
He adds: "After all we've been through, no one will leave 2020 unchanged, and I think there will be a nod at Christmas to the simpler things in life. My trend is a pared-back, simple serve. For example G&T, Martini or whisky, which, done well, will always be a winner."
Czech beer brand Budweiser Budvar is expanding the group of venues that serve its Tankové Pivo tank beer this autumn, as part of its Greetings from the Republic of Beer campaign. Also highlighting the importance of premium beer as part of a party drinks menu is importer Euroboozer, which is promoting a range of beer cocktails.
Martyn Railton, managing director, says: "The festive season is about the best. It's a time to treat friends, colleagues, family and clients – a time to eat and drink out of the ordinary and raise the bar in the celebratory stakes. The right beer is vital to an operator's success. Forget the boring, bog-standard, insipid slush and really look for some showstoppers that can leave a lasting memory on your guests.
"Beer lovers will always hunt down venues that have a colourful, high-quality selection, so try to excite, intrigue and get people talking about your beer. We recently created some incredible beer cocktails that have worked brilliantly in creating a bit of theatre in venues. The key is to be creative.
"Promotion of beer is essential, so make sure you're shouting about your beer-wares in-outlet, on social and on your website, as more and more consumers will be booking in advance. A venue's beer selection can give the consumer a good idea of what to expect from an outlet, so get it right if you want to succeed."
Railton advises that another key trend to be aware of is low- and no-alcohol products. "This is an area venues need be on top of. The trend for these types of drinks only grows stronger and the festive season is core. The quality and choice now available in beer alone is astounding, but there are also some duds out there."
Ultimately, potential factors beyond the sector's control, from a looming no-deal Brexit to a fresh wave of Covid, may conspire to dampen the mood, but if so, it won't be for want of drinks suppliers' determination to get the party started.
Asahi UK uk.asahibeer.co.uk
Bottleshot Cold Brew Coffee www.bottleshotbrew.com
Budweiser Budvar UK www.budweiserbudvar.com/uk/
Mangrove UK www.mangroveuk.com
Moët & Chandon www.moet.com/en-int
Pernod Ricard UK www.pernod-ricard.com/en-uk/