It's the white spirits – gin, vodka and rum – that have become customer favourites throughout lockdown, acting as a base to premium cocktails shaken at the bar or delivered to mix it up at home. John Porter reports.
Reports in the more excitable quarters of the national media suggesting that UK consumers drank their way through the pandemic have proven to be exaggerated. In fact, alcohol sales fell during 2020, with the inevitable lockdown increase in off-trade sales falling well short of making up for hospitality sales lost to prolonged closures and restrictions.
Spirits were no exception to this trend. In its annual report on the market, spirits brand owner William Grant & Sons quotes Nielsen figures showing a 16% decline in total UK spirits sales last year. However, a deeper dive into these figures, as well as those from the Wine & Spirits Trade Association (WSTA), shows some interesting trends.
William Grant reports that premium spirits are performing ahead of the market, while gin and rum are the better-performing categories. The WSTA notes that flavoured variants of vodka, gin and rum are doing well, which suggests that back bars will need to be more colourful than ever in order to meet customer expectations of this choice of flavours.
Spirits market leader Diageo has recently added blackcurrant- flavoured Tanqueray Royale to a growing choice of flavoured gins across both its Gordon's and Tanqueray brands. Faith Holland, head of category development, on-trade, believes "there is a wealth of opportunity for operators to not only unlock sales, but also to create great experiences which people have missed.
"If operators are able to get the quality, service and choices correct, they will unlock a fantastic profit opportunity. White spirits play an important part in this: due to their versatility, they can be used as a base to countless cocktails."
With gin-based serves an important driver of on-trade sales, Holland says: "It has never been more important to ensure that you stock the best-sellers from each category, for example Gordon's, because these are the brands that consumers are most likely to choose and therefore have the highest rate of sale. Operators can also drive gin exploration by ranging new innovations, such as Gordon's Sicilian lemon distilled gin and Gordon's Mediterranean orange distilled gin."
Back bar tactics
With social distancing measures still very much in place, "operators may want to consider different ways to engage and excite customers about serves beyond the back bar display. Showcasing drinks options at the table via disposable menus or across visual touchpoints, for instance large chalkboard menus, offers an effective way to enhance visibility of your gin range," adds Holland.
Chris Seale, managing director of distributor Speciality Brands, says: "White spirits is made up of a number of spirit categories in their own right. Gin and vodka remain popular with consumers, but we've started to see a growing demand for cocktails made with premium white rums, pisco and agave spirits.
"The product needs to work hard; operators shouldn't have bottles sitting on the back bar, they need to rotate to be economically attractive and for that will have to be both relevant to the outlet and appeal to the venue's customer base.
"From gin to rum or vodka, operators should seek drinks that work well in a cocktail setting. Working closely with brands to develop cocktail menus and targeted offers is also a great way to introduce new spirits and fresh concepts. They enable the venue to showcase a brand, its story and create an exciting drinks proposition that will build loyalty."
Justin Shore, head of UK sales at Symposium Spirits, the distribution arm of Hayman Distillers, advises: "Operators can maximise the resources made available to them by drinks brands, for example cocktail competitions, masterclasses and consumer events. The key is to avoid any one particular company dominating this, as you want to ensure your bar team offer customers a balanced view when recommending and upselling products. Customers appreciate genuine and informed suggestions rather than shallow upsells."
Customers appreciate genuine and informed suggestions rather than shallow upsells
Lockdown wasn't an entirely fallow period for operators who could embrace the delivery trend. Managed pub group Yummy Pub Co launched a range of Letterbox Cocktails, delivering the liquid and garnish for customers to make cocktails such as the gin-based lemon meringue pie and blood orange negroni, and the vodka-based French martini and cherry blossom pornstar martini at home.
Tim Foster, director, says sales have been 75% to females, with both individual and corporate gifting drivers of sales. "It's a huge new market for us. Having a nationwide courier service has made a huge impact, and we're getting customers from around the world buying for relatives and friends in the UK."
Once its pubs reopen, the most popular of the dessert-themed cocktails will be added to the pudding menu, and what Foster calls a "Hestonesque lab" has been installed at the company's Wiremill pub in Surrey. "The entire production, packing boxes, etc,will be on show behind a glass wall, along with a customised bar where we'll do cocktail experience evenings for groups. It will be a shop window for customers to buy gift boxes to take away, or send to friends."
Pic of the bunch
Audemus Spirits has launched a limited-edition gin in collaboration with French Michelin-starred chef Anne-Sophie Pic. While Audemus founder and distiller Miko Abouaf acknowledges the new gin is likely to be "that bottle that's kept on the shelf for that special client," it's the company's flagship pink pepper gin that has found its way onto the back bars of hotels and restaurants, including the Bloomsbury, Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons, and Rules. It is also one of 500 gins offered at the Gin Bar at the Holborn Dining Room in London, where bartender Eleonora Biason describes it as "a smooth and elegant gin that works well in many ways."
Biason adds: "Customers are becoming more and more knowledgeable about cocktails and spirits, and have higher expectations from drinks and cocktail lists. Engaging with the customers is the key to discover what their favourite flavours are, and then demonstrating our skills to deliver the best cocktails."
Also at the premium end of the gin shelf is Seven Crofts, a small-batch dry gin distilled in Ullapool by the Highland Liquor Company. Co-owner Robert Hicks says: "Consumers' cocktail tastes have matured over the years, with aperitivo-style cocktails like negronis and less sugary options selling well. We've seen evidence that customers are confident to experiment with different serves and gins too. At the same time, classic cocktails have never gone out of fashion and premium gin works well with this.
"Premium spirits and cocktails go hand in hand. Coronavirus has seen this grow and we've seen more and more consumers confidently making a range of cocktails at home using premium gins, other spirits and higher-end mixers too. I do think that classic cocktails like martinis and negronis are proving particularly popular with those making their own cocktails, and our gin has certainly benefitted from this.
Classic cocktails like martinis and negronis are proving particularly popular with those making their own cocktails
"For operators reopening, these first few months will be challenging and those that flourish will be those that are experience-led, providing something that customers can't get by staying in. It goes beyond great drinks, so great staff will be key."
The WSTA declared rum the "drink of lockdown" after an extra 1.3 million bottles were sold in the three months from March last year. Devon-based Two Drifters Distillery produces five rums including a white rum, and bills itself as the first carbon negative distillery, achieved by working with a company that captures and stores CO2.
Gemma Wakeham, director, says: "As much as spiced rum is leading the way in rum sales, it is also encouraging consumers to try out other rums. Distilleries make white rum before they go on to spice it, so it is worthwhile making the base rum as delicious as possible as it will carry through in every recipe.
"Gin and tonic has seen a huge boom, as it is simple and easy to make; however I believe that white rum and a sparkling fruit soda is as good as any elaborate cocktail. For instance, Two Drifters white rum with elderflower soda is summer in a glass."
Taking innovation a step further, rather than products that fit the established spirit categories, Highland Boundary creates botanical spirits that combine Scottish flowers, leaves and berries with local grain spirit and highland spring water, with its varieties including Birch & Elderflower and Larch & Honeysuckle.
Among the stockists are Edinburgh restaurant Merienda, where owner and head chef Campbell Mickel says: "New white spirits have excited us at Merienda for some time. They are fantastic as a standalone base spirit for cocktails, but as a chef I also get very inspired using the Birch & Elderflower in the kitchen. It provides us such an interesting depth of flavour."
Highland Boundary director Simon Montador says: "Botanical spirits are a relatively new category for the UK but these types of spirits exist in Scandinavia, Alpine Europe and Eastern Europe. They work well as an aperitif, especially in long drinks, martini-style cocktails or flavour twists on well-known cocktails like a mojito.
"Many bars and restaurants are cluttered with under-performing gins gathering dust on the bar. Customers want drinks with a difference from brands that care."
Audemus Spirits www.audemus-spirits.com
Highland Boundary www.highlandboundary.com
Highland Liquor Company www.highlandliquorcompany.com
Speciality Brands www.specialitybrands.com
Two Drifters Distillery www.twodriftersrum.com
William Grant & Sons www.williamgrant.com
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