mixed feelings

Post-lockdown, what kind of serve does the consumer want? Could simplicity provide clarity amid a confused picture, asks Lucy Britner

All bets are off. Navigating drinks trends in this strange era is nearly impossible. Both the trade and consumers are living with a level of anxiety that exists in the background – and often creeps to the fore. At the same time, there is a general yearning to get back to something that resembles normal life.

A Covid cloud hovers over two very different approaches to drinking. On one hand, people may gravitate towards the perceived safety of a spirit and mixer over watching bartenders handle multiple ingredients for a cocktail. But on the other, drinkers who have been missing the on-premise will shun the simple serve to enjoy the creativity of more complex drinks.

It’s clear that as people start to go out again, their drinking habits are being shaped by more than just their taste references.  According to CGA’s Consumer Pulse survey from early August, only 27% of those who normally consume cocktails have chosen one since the market reopened, while numbers are not much higher among vodka drinkers (35%) and gin drinkers (40%). Meanwhile, separate research for CGA’s Drinks Recovery Tracker shows that beer sales have outperformed other categories since lockdown. After all, not many of us have access to a cold pint of draught beer at home.

Spirit and mixer

Neil Donachie, out-of-home marketing manager at Fentimans and former bartender, says the biggest opportunity in mixers is still in standard tonic, which holds nearly 70% of total mixers volumes in the on-trade. Speaking to Class ahead of the publication of the Fentimans 2020 Market Report, he says the popularity of tonic is here to stay “as gin continues to grow and premiumise”.

“There are some interesting new products emerging in the dark spirit/mixer category as people continue to talk about spiced rum as the next big thing,” he adds, highlighting Coca-Cola’s mixers range as well as his own company’s Tropical Soda, but he also points out there hasn’t yet been the same ‘boom’ that we saw with gin.

Donachie says the immediate post-lockdown reaction from operators will most likely be to optimise ranges and focus on the most profitable products to make venues more efficient. “This could see many mixer ranges shortened, particularly when standard tonic is dominant,” he explains.

Bang for buck

Dan Dove, founder of the newly-created Global Bartending Talent Agency, agrees that profitability will be even more central. While he doesn't believe Covid has driven particular interest in simple serves, he says it has left the on-trade with some important things to consider. “For instance, we are going to see bars significantly reduce their cocktail menus and use ingredients that ensure profitability to make up for revenue that has been lost.”

Products that provide the most bang for buck will therefore be important, and Donachie says versatile drinks that can act as a mixer, soft drink and cocktail ingredient – with consumer appeal and recognition – will be on the money. “These products justify their space in the range easily,” he adds, giving the example of Fentimans Rose Lemonade.

Business as usual? While the CGA stats show an overall dip in cocktail interest, the two sides to consumer behaviour mean that for the bars at the top of their game, drinkers are thirsty for what they have been missing. Trailer Happiness managing director Sly Augustin says customers’ taste preferences remain largely consistent with pre-lockdown. “On the whole, guests are just excited to get back through our doors and order their favourite signature serve or classic rum cocktail,” he says.

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At The Gibson, director Marian Beke adds that, while consumers have done a great job mixing their own simple serves at home, they are now looking for more complex drinks. “We’re always innovating and experimenting, changing our complex menu weekly – which is no small task, I can tell you. This helps us to keep customers interested as they demand more intelligent, different and delicious serves each time they come to see us.

When it comes to mixer choices, the team at Trailer don’t tend to favour any particular brands, instead preferring those they believe excel at a particular style of mixer. “We choose accordingly, making sure that the mixer complements a range of spirits [and] serves,” says Augustin. Beke says The Gibson uses premium mixers, “particularly Schweppes – its Salty Lemon and Cucumber flavoured tonics are great. We also use [Suntory’s] Merchant’s Heart and Beebolin.” Beebolin is a range from Sweden that certainly meets the call for versatility – the range includes Rosehip Ginger Ale, Woodruff Bitter and Dry Spruce Tonic.

Future facing

Looking forward, spirit-mixers serves may also start to feel a bit of pressure from elsewhere in the drinks world, including from the likes of the burgeoning hard seltzers category. Hard seltzer brands largely boast a low-calorie and carb count, which will tick boxes with more health-conscious consumers.

“While more and more consumers seek low-calorie options, flavour is still the biggest driving factor in choice,” says Donachie. “Understanding how to deliver flavour with fewer or zero calories is an area that we will start to see new innovation in the coming years, because there is a clear consumer need.” He gives the example of Fever-Tree’s new range of sodas as an early innovation.

The likes of Two Keys mixers are also getting ahead in terms of both flavour and calorie count with its range of Lemon, Pink Grapefruit, Green Tea and Black Tea – under 40 calories per serve. As the hard seltzers category develops, it’ll be interesting to see how communication around spirit and mixer calories develops. After all, a spirit and light mixer can actually contain fewer calories than a hard seltzer.

For now, this weird world we find ourselves in will continue to inspire caution for some consumers. This caution may manifest itself in simple serves or perhaps greater interest in health and wellness. But it could also spell fewer trips to bars except for special occasions, meaning more sophisticated drinks. Elsewhere, fans of top-end cocktails are unlikely to visit their favourite bars to just order a gin and tonic.

While the jury may be out on the dominance of the simple serve, one thing is for sure: operators and consumers alike will be looking for added value.