Spirited Trends: Classics remain, but cocktail programs are getting bolder

By Sophie Mir

Some things never change, and guests sipping spirits and cocktails during a night on the town is one of them. According to Technomic’s 2017 Adult Beverage Canadian Insights, a collection of data, surveys and analyses of restaurant customers drinking preferences, enjoying alcoholic beverages continues to be a staple guest experience in restaurants. Forty-one per cent of consumers reported that they purchased an alcoholic beverage during their last restaurant visit, and 43 per cent agreed that it’s important for full-service restaurants to offer a wide variety of them.

The conclusion is simple enough: bar programs are here to stay. But what guests expect from them is evolving. Having a pair of bottom and top shelf options won’t cut it, and simple highballs won’t satisfy all your guests. While classic cocktails are still the most dominant beverage category, consumer demand is driving significant change elsewhere on cocktail lists.

Key Trends in Cocktails

Three major trends have emerged in specialty drinks on Canadian cocktail menus: cocktail mashups, plant-forward cocktails and Instagrammable drinks.

Cocktail mashups featuring one alcohol category mixed with another, or with non-alcoholic beverages, are trending. Beer cocktails are leading the trend, with 13.6 per cent growth — Moxie’s Grill & Bar’s Mexican Bulldog, which features a lime margarita topped with an upside-down Coronita bottle, is particularly telling of the trend. Frozen and slushy cocktails continue to grow in popularity as well, showing 5.4 per cent growth.

The mashups are especially appealing to younger consumers. According to Technomic’s 2017 Canadian Flavour Consumer Trend Report, 34 per cent of 18- to 34-year-olds say that they would like more places to offer drinks featuring a combination of flavours, such as sweet and sour or sweet and salty, compared to just 19 per cent of consumers age 35 and up. Because mashups have a certain “wow factor,” restauranteurs should highlight them as seasonal drinks and advertise them on online and in-store menus. Operators can also leverage social media to encourage customer engagement, whether through simple promotion or contests, like allowing guests to name new drinks.

Focus on Flora

Plant-based flavours dominate five fastest-growing tastes in specialty drinks. Pomegranate, cucumber and apple flavours are indicative of the trend, rising 26.3 per cent, 18.2 per cent and 9.4 per cent, respectively. They’re all readily adaptable to familiar drinks, with operators adding them to sangria, margaritas and martinis. The Vancouver-based Boathouse restaurant chain, for example, serves Strawberry Pomegranate Margaritas, and Fox & Fiddle recently debuted its Thyme and Tonic, which features apple juice. Cucumber typically shows up in gin- and vodka-based drinks.

Herbal and spice influences are also infusing beverage menus. Basil and ginger are seeing rapid growth, increasing by 25 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively. These additions offer consumers a burst of bold flavour — a Millennial favourite — in their drinks without relying on added sugar. Herbal flavours are especially appealing to women. Over one-third of women — 35 per cent — report craving herbal flavours in their food and beverages, compared to just 28 per cent of men. To further drive traffic with women, operators should incorporate herbal flavours on cocktail menus that are especially curated for women and take advantage of special occasions like Mother’s Day.

Instagram-Worthy Beverages

Unsurprisingly, a substantial 39 per cent of Millennials reported that they sometimes post pictures of food at restaurants, according to Technomic’s 2016 Canadian Generational Consumer Trend Report. Operators are driving traffic with younger consumers by creating eye-catching, conversation-generating drinks that provide buzzworthy social media posts.

Nostalgic, eye-catching concoctions, such as slushies and milkshakes, are making their way onto the ‘Gram via beverage menus. Cactus Club Cafe offers Frosé, which it describes as the “grown-up slushy drink of the summer,” and Red Robin Gourmet Burgers and Brews recently debuted its Irish Beer Shake, which features Guinness stout blended with Jameson whisky and chocolate syrup. These youth-inspired drinks often appeal to like-craving younger consumers by stoking childhood memories that can be widely-shared on social media. They also enable operators to connect with their consumers on an emotional level.

The emphasis on social media-friendly drinks is also driving new, inventive presentations. Moxie’s isn’t alone in stashing upended bottles into slushy cocktails — Mr Mikes SteakhouseCasual’s Pink Elephant includes an open bottle of grenadine-infused Smirnoff Ice plunged into a glass. And what’s friendly for guests’ social media channels is friendly for operators’ as well, who need to advertise and engage their guests online.

Change it Up

Cocktails continue to be models for menu innovation in Canadian restaurants, and for good reason: 65 per cent of consumers agree that they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers new flavours, and 62 per cent say they are likely to return to the same restaurant if they like a new flavour. Drinks are like death and taxes: they’re going to be with us to end, but operators can’t let the beverage menu take care of itself. They need to frequently update it to include new and bold tastes that align with today’s trends. Concepts that evolve and contemporize their cocktail and spirit selections will differentiate themselves from their competition and drive repeat business — the rest will fall behind.


Sophie Mir is an Associate Editor for Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm. Technomic provides clients with the facts, insights and consulting support they need to enhance their business strategies, decisions and results. The company’s services include publications and digital products as well as proprietary studies and ongoing research on all aspects of the food industry. Visit technomic.com for more information.