A drinks list designed to warm customers is a smart way of boosting business during the winter months. By Ben Canaider.
If you work behind the bar in a part of Australia that suffers from cold winters, when the days are short, the nights are long and the rain sends customers straight home to their ThermoChefs, you have two options: you can either run restricted services, waiting out the cold and hoping for the best, or, more positively, you can use the season to your advantage. Think fireplaces, soft lighting and cosy nooks; on the menu, think pies, stews, hotpots and even curries; and of course on the drinks list, you’ll want the full array of winter beverages. All these things can turn your bar into a winter wonderland, allowing you to use the climatic conditions to spruik the sorts of beverages that not only add a sense of fun, but also turn a dollar.
Drinks that you can push at this time of year run the full liquid gamut: beer, wine, cocktails and spirits. It’s also a good time to promote those sorts of daggy, retro drinks that are a bit of a hard sell during the rest of the year: liqueurs, ports and of course the winter drink that refuses to die, mulled wine.
Winter’s the time to cash in on Australia’s unique and most fabulous contribution to the world of sparkling wine: sparkling shiraz. Made nowhere else on earth, it’s a red wine with something of champagne’s cachet (and bubbles), and all of Australian shiraz’s depth and full, generous flavour. With that extra hit of slight sweetness you get thanks to the sweetened wine that the winemaker adds just before the cork goes in to balance the base wine’s acidity, you get a very approachable, winter-friendly 120mls of instant lift-off. Both Bleasdale (Langhorne Creek, South Australia) and Peter Rumball (Coonawarra) make excellent examples at below $20 LUC; and Turkey Flat from the Barossa make a textured, dry and very grown-up example that lands in the mid $20s.
Stouts, brown ales, Scotch ales, black and tans. Match these with the menu, particularly stews and pies. Yorkshire pudding filled with steak and kidney, for instance, is a walk-up start for such beers. It’s the chewy texture and, in some cases, almost porridge-like consistency of darker, heavier ales that suit winter so much. But you’ve got to go to some effort to sell them and establish a beer-geek clientele. Like some of the more poncy wine connoisseurs, beer geeks reckon different beers need different glasses. Similarly, such beers are to be contemplated and discussed—not just thrown back as if they were a sessionable lager. You’ll need to do some promotion if you’re going to get the beer geeks in, so it’s crucial that your bar staff know the secrets of the ale.
Fuller bodied white wines are particularly well suited to winter, as they have a chewy texture that just gets in the way during the hot and humid seasons, making them taste flabby and too alcoholic. They offer no refreshment in summer, but come winter they can be savoured with more complex first-course dishes. Think richer chardonnays, the nutty and apricot flavours of viognier (which is a good foil for curried or chilli-infused food), and the oilier, pear-like tastes of the richer Pinot gris. Pinot gris is currently rising on a wave of popularity among wine trendoids, who have moved on from the social death that is sauvignon blanc.
And, of course, winter is the time to roll out the headier reds that, just like their heavier white cousins, tend to taste too jammy and alcoholic in summer. Barossa shiraz is your default red here, as it holds enough regional brand-awareness among customers to sell itself. It’s trusted. Hunter Valley and McLaren Vale can do the same thing. And don’t be shy to offer some older cabernets for your more discerning diner during winter. This time of year is ideally suited to advertising bottle-aged reds like cabernet, whose endemically long and dry tannins need such bottle maturation to knock the harder edges off them.
Of course, you don’t need to establish your own cellar to make such offerings; you can rely on the secondary wine market to buy in mature reds. (See the May 2016 issue of Restaurant & Catering magazine for an overview of how to cellar wines.)
Much of this drinks strategy goes hand in hand with menu planning and your dining room, so it can be used as a way of bringing together your front- and back-of-house staff. You can use winter and its drinks and menu matching to get everyone on the same page.
If you’re looking to boost bar takings, then winter is when you need to revisit those complex, bartender-built cocktails. Whisky is your dominant spirit here. Think of those deeper and richer cocktails that rely on whisky (Scottish), whiskey (the Irish and USA makes and spelling), rye and bourbon to get them going. Cocktails containing house-infused, exotic or super-food ingredients continue to be très modish and popular, so you’d be a fool not to embrace them. And the ever-evolving professionalism of bartenders is bringing a theatrical element to the production of cocktails, many of which now require two bartenders, a range of glasses, stainless steel equipment, safety goggles and a naked flame. And if you’re going to spend 15 minutes making a mixed drink that you then charge $28 dollars for, you’d better make sure the show is top class.
And for the retro, daggy fun and sort of silliness that should probably be regulated against? Mulled wine. Hot toddies. Glühwein. I used to drink in an inner-city pub that, during the cold season, would pretend to be a ski chalet for the week around the Queen’s Birthday Holiday. Staff wore 1970s-style acrylic snow-lodge jumpers and stuck sets of skis on the walls. It not only sold lots of mulled wine, but it brought in extra customers and generated a lot of, let’s call it ‘undergraduate’ fun. It was sillier than Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day and more raucous than Bon Scott Day. And you can only do it in winter.