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The reopening of hospitality this summer was extremely welcome news from the British drinks industry. However, producers had not been resting on their laurels for the past 18 months. After the closure of restaurants, bars and pubs caused on-trade sales to disappear overnight, drinks businesses sought out ways to bolster off-trade sales through the medium of retailers.
Fine food shops stepped up to the plate, and consumers were more than willing to raise a glass to a homemade post-work cocktail or a tipple with friends over Zoom. In fact, according to research by Craft Gin Club, 65% said they were making cocktails more in 2020 than they did previously.
While the opening of the economy has been good news for drinks companies and foodservice operators, it won’t signal an exodus from the spirits aisles of retailers, as Craft Gin Club’s research found: a whopping 90% of respondents plan to continue creating cocktails at home. “We’re very pleased that bars and restaurants are opening again, but as restrictions ease, we believe that our customers will want to experience all the fun of mixology at the bar in their home environment, too,” says Russell Evans, founder of Bullards Spirits. This trend will only be enhanced by this year’s staycation trend. “The summer season is the perfect time to enjoy cocktails al fresco and to enjoy with guests. The theatre of cocktail making adds extra enjoyment to occasions,” he added.
Plato Moysiadis, brand ambassador for Cabal rum, says the pandemic unlocked consumers’ creativity for experimenting with food and drink. “I believe that creativity is good for the soul and that people who caught the creativity bug will keep it,” Plato said. But after the reopening of restaurants will consumers be happy to let bartenders do all of the work? Plato doesn’t think so. Instead, those who are returning to their favourite drinking establishments will take inspiration from the latest cocktail menus. “No doubt, they will be taking some of those ideas away to experiment and take their home bars to the next level,” he said.
Indy Anand, director of Skylark Spirits, agrees that the home drinking trend will evolve to be more focused on quality cocktails. “This is because lockdown has awoken a customer who is paying more attention to what they drink. The days of having the cheapest spirit in cocktails are slowly moving away as these customers become more savvy and premium products become the norm,” he said. Today’s consumer has become “increasingly discerning with their at-home alcohol choices,” adds Dima Deinega, founder of Dima’s Vodka, and the home cocktail hour is now a key occasion that retailers should consider with their offering and marketing.
How a product is made and packaged can be as compelling to customers as unique flavours. Bullards Spirits last year unveiled an Eco-Refill Pouch, and these now account for almost 60% of all its gin sales. “Customers love the concept and we’re happy to be doing what we can to reduce our carbon footprint as a business,” Russell says. “The pouches were developed so that we can offer a more sustainable solution to buying our gin.”
Elsewhere, spirits brands are making waves with their ingredient choice, from eco-distiller Wildjac’s use of locally sourced and seasonal ingredients, to Discarded Spirits Co’s use of waste-products recovered from the winemaking process.
For Leon Pullin, retail and e-commerce channel manager at Cambridge Distillery, today’s home cocktail trends are all about “education and elevation”. He says, “Consumers will continue to educate themselves on the best-in-class ingredients, on-trade techniques, the history behind each serve, and why a bartender created it.” Retailers can therefore lean into education by helping customers discover more about cocktails and stocking products with key points of difference from what can be found at supermarkets. “Diversifying lines stocked away from the mainstream and grocery lines will lead to higher cash margins for the retailer,” says Indy, and also help give customers “fresh and enticing” products to enjoy.
Thankfully, there are numerous brands today for retailers to choose from. “The pandemic has opened doors to new incumbents, a reflection of the consumer demand for smaller, independent and interesting brands that have a unique and authentic story to tell,” Dima says. “Without the ability to travel, consumers have been particularly inspired and captivated by niche brands that offer a sense of escapism and provide insights into new cultures.”
Stocking unique and eye-catching products is a surefire way to capture the imagination of today’s consumer. “Here at Skylark Spirits, we have found that there has been an increase in consumers who are seeking out brands with a discernible point of difference to the general everyday selection, to try something unique,” Indy said. “Whether this is in regards to flavour profiles, production types, different countries or ethical practices, the general consumer is paying more attention to what they eat and drink. This will, and already has, started to lead consumers away from the entry level of the category into the more premium offerings.”
With so much variety to choose from, which spirits are must-stock products for retailers? The Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) crowned rum the “drink of lockdown” as it saw the biggest growth across all spirits during April to June 2020, 38% more than the same period in 2019. “Rum is a mainstay in the cocktail world. It has always been incredibly diverse and used to enhance a variety of cocktails,” says Indy. “Whatever your palate prefers, from tiki to tart, or sweet to fruity, the rum category has an amazing product to help create your perfect tipple.”
Plato agrees that the rum sector is an exciting space. “The incredible variety that exists in the rum world makes it a spirit that is accessible to everyone. There is definitely a much bigger market now for rums that are made with respect for the end consumer, and rum drinkers are rewarding producers who are transparent about the way they make and market their liquids,” he says.
Yet the mainstay of the British spirits scene over recent years has been gin. Over 2020, the WSTA said combined sales of gin and flavoured gin in shops, supermarkets and online rose by 22% in value, breaking the billion-pound-mark for the first time by reaching £1.2bn. Thanks to lockdown, Brits bought more than 10 million extra bottles of gin from UK retailers in 2020. “Gin is so versatile, which makes it a consumer favourite,” says Bullards’ Russell. “Bullards Spirits’ gins are classic with a contemporary twist – Norfolk honey in our Old Tom, samphire in our Coastal gin.”
According to Leon, “It is the complexity and diversity of flavours that make people come back to gin.” Flavour, he says, is at the heart of what Cambridge Distillery does. Indeed, its flavours have gone where few others have ventured – from insects to truffles – winning it the title of World’s Most Innovative Distillery. Wild and unique innovations certainly have a place on the shelves of retailers, but the classics still have plenty to give – especially when they are revived with a touch of something different. “There’s a trend of reinventing simple classics – evoking the nostalgia of traditional cocktails in new contemporary formats,” Dima says.
Another way to liven up a tried and tested spirit offering? Mixers. Dima says retailers can elevate basic offerings with a larger selection of mixers, garnishes and bitters. “Retailers can also adapt by showcasing more of the information that the consumer now appreciates, and hence supporting the category-wide education drive – sharing details of the origins and provenance of the spirits sold, as well as tasting notes, signature serves and an explanation of how to drink it and what to pair it with,” he says. Talula White, founder of Sekforde Drinks agrees that in-store displays, which feature all the ingredients needed to make a certain cocktail, can be very effective.
Leon believes education should be at the heart of the spirits industry. “We are firm believers that through consumer education we can work with retailers to lift the category, and in turn increase their customers’ understanding of how to assess spirits.” Sekforde mixers take a unique approach to education, as they are designed with specific pairings in mind, with suggested pairings indicated right on the label. “I believe our specific recommendations work brilliantly at guiding consumers and inspiring them to try something different,” Talula says. “People tell us Sekforde’s tailoring to specific spirits makes everything clear and encourages them to try something that usually wouldn’t have occurred to them, or that they wouldn’t have felt confident enough to try,” she says.
“Mixers are critical to creating delicious and simple drinks at home. The G&T has taught everyone that,” Talula adds. “Now it’s time to mix it up, and everyone wants to try something different.” By stocking a careful mix of unique flavours and traditional favourites, bolstered by educational displays and tailored content, retailers will keep the home mixology trend alive in the months and years to come.