Summer, with its long days and thirsty punters, is the time to sell mixed drinks. Ben Canaider investigates what’s hot—and whether anyone still drinks Kahlúa.
Longer daylight hours and warmer weather are an undisputed boon to any liquor licensee. With your operational hours more fully frequented, you serve more food and wine and drinks. As such, you also need to offer a broader array of refreshments, to maintain the interest of your ever-distracted customer. Of course, it is easy to be cynical about summertime drinks and trends and customers, but on the other hand every cloud has a silver lining.
On the back of locavore food trends, more and more drinkers are walking into bars, cafes, and restaurants and wondering what you might serve by way of a locally produced beer or wine or spirit. Particularly spirit. Australia’s recent and massive growth in home-distilled gins is a perfect case in point. It is the point of connection that more customers are seeking—convincing themselves that a distilled white spirit made a few kilometres away (and using a few uniquely Australian botanicals such as wattle seed, lemon myrtle, and pepper berry) is somehow more enjoyable and genuine than a gin distilled in a factory on Planet Bong. This thought process works just as well for beer—if you have a local boutique brewery—or for wine. Try a wine list that resonates with your geographical positioning. Local drinks for local people.
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The complete reverse of this locavore thing involves spirits and wines from far, far away. More and more cocktails—particularly summertime ones—are drawing on a sense of place that can help transport people. The weird and wonderful Chinese Baijiu—which is distilled from wheat, sorghum and rice—has a tradition as old as wine. Used as a white spirit base for myriad cocktails, it has an earthy and bucolic aroma and taste, and can pack a punch at up to 60 per cent ABV. Yet it is a discovery drink, a drink that connects customers to China, to the past, and to flavours and ingredients that are not mainstream. Such discovery drinks need to be taken up and served by your bar while the drink’s newly acquired and impressive veneer is still highly burnished.
Mixed drinks, summer, cocktails, longer hours at the bar—you need staff who can be a little bit barista, a little bit chef, a little bit circus master, a little bit acrobat, a little bit psychologist, and a little bit of an instant friend to those customers that need help and guidance in getting into the spirit of things, so to speak. There’s never been a better time in local hospitality to be investing in the best staff you can find to run your bars and wine lists. You set an internal staff culture that expects professionalism; you get people turning up for work; and you get an appreciation from your customers by way of patronage and bigger spends. Another aspect of this involves better glasses, service ware, ice programs, and mixed drink garnishing. Better mixers, too. Bottled mixers, not post-mix. They cost more, but pass the cost on to customers so they actually get a better drink.
“More and more cocktails—particularly summertime ones—are drawing on a sense of place that can help transport people.”
Theatrical settings in your bar, back bar, entrances, lobbies, even the toilets. We’ve seen this in the Melbourne cocktail bar scene over the last five years or so: old vitreous enamel sinks being used as mixed drinks stations. In the US, pH additives are going into white spirits which, when they have a shot of sparkling wine added, turn glow-in-the-dark fluoro. Or you consider the borderline inappropriate fake CCTV cameras they’ve installed in the toilet cubicles in Singapore’s Operation Dagger. Or not.
Trends towards dry and more savoury mixed drinks continue in Australia, perhaps because the notion of using a bitter building block in a mixed drink is perceived as being trés European. And while Campari, Aperol and various vermouths are still featuring strongly in mixed drinks, some new variants are emerging. Sherry as a cocktail or mixed drink ingredient is particularly useful, as you can work through this fortified wine’s range of flavours—from the nutty, acetic austerity of fino to the indulgent and treacly excess of Pedro Ximenez. And a play on the vermouth routine could be happily executed by using rosé styles. Belsazar Vermouth Rosé from Germany is probably the category leader, but an excellent local option comes from the Adelaide Hills Distillery. Made from chenin blanc, grenache and shiraz, it is flavoured with native thyme, karkalla and wattle seed, to name a few ingredients.
The positive side effect of this new trend is moderation. Many of these drinks have much lower ABV percentages than standard mixers, such as gin or rum or whisk(e)y.
Non-alcoholic drinks are a small glitchy trend, but a trend that’s growing nevertheless. 2017 saw Seedlip, a drink which claimed to be the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit. Distilled in Lincolnshire in the UK, Seedlip is based on century old herbal remedy potions, and utilises ingredients grown on the distiller’s working farm such as peas! There are two flavours, Spice 94 and Garden 108. The former is matured in American oak barrels for some nuttiness. The latter has the distillation of the steeped peas in it. Stocked in some of the world’s leading bars, Seedlip retails in Australia at about $49.99. The bottle labels are superb. The sort of visual antithesis of Kahlúa. Which, by the way, sold 18 million bottles worldwide in 2016.