With the cocktail market burgeoning, demand for exciting and unexpected concoctions has shot up. But with the hangover of the recession still lingering, drinking experiences will have to be exceptional for consumers to order the same again. 

by Dominic Burke, Managing Director

Originally published in Marketing Week

Cocktails are considered one of the highest marks of sophistication in the world of alcohol: synonymous with decadence and glamour. The Harvey Wallbanger. The Vodka Martini. The Old Fashioned. Names that have been uttered over dimly lit bars to finely clad gents across the globe for decades, perhaps over a century.

The statement made by each of these drinks is arguably as important as the spirit that makes up the base of the beverage itself. Traditionally, the nature of cocktails has been one of aspiration, with perceptions of image at its core.

The time, effort and level of human interaction required in preparing such a drink translates into an indulgent experience, one to be savoured and not chugged back in wild abandon. But by making this drinking experience more ubiquitous and accessible, its premium connotations are inevitably diluted.

A trip to one of the events at London Cocktail Week this month saw a plethora of spirit, liqueur and mixer brands vying for the attention of thirsty cocktail lovers. Removed from their classic setting of the secluded speakeasy, the glamorous rooftop hangout, or the molecular mixology bar, these beverages are separated from their associated environment, a key contributor to the overall cocktail experience.

This move towards the mainstream is a sign of their growing popularity and an indication of where the market is going. Ultimately, the format that they previously existed in was never intended for scaling; in fact, it arguably undermines their status and significance if they are positioned as an accessible alcoholic drink. So if quality of experience cannot be guaranteed through a situation owing to excess in demand, the product has to deliver this exceptional experience itself.

Short but sweet

An increasing number of consumers are cutting back on their alcohol intake because of price increases and health concerns, a trend that is particularly prevalent in the under-35s market. This is leading to a stagnation or even decline in the volume of booze people are buying.

However, the fact that this has not affected the market’s value in the same way is noteworthy, as many consumers have been trading up to more premium products in a move away from the austerity of recent times. This is relevant because it signals a desire to exchange more alcohol for better experiences; something that the varied, refined and exciting flavours and stories of liqueurs lend themselves well to.

Easy on the ABV

Liqueurs offer bartenders the opportunity to create exciting twists on cocktails by substituting them for spirits, thanks to their lower alcohol levels, creating the classics at a fraction of the overall alcohol by volume (ABV). Drinks such as the Sour from Kahlúa and the Mojito from Grand Marnier offer an increasingly abstemious demographic of drinkers options that compromise only on strength, never experience.

The lower ABV of liqueurs not only makes them highly versatile as a constituent part in other drinks, it also makes them more accessible and viable to drink neat, with their sweet flavour profile aiding in this. As such, young drinkers offer a particularly enticing target market, as they start discovering and experimenting in the world of alcohol: the embodiment of the liqueur industry.

Out-of-home consumption on ice

With on-trade prices still scaring many away from drinking in bars, pubs and restaurants, the in-home opportunity is thriving for certain brands.

Cream-based liqueurs perform well in relation to this as they are often drunk on their own, thus providing an indulgent yet simple-to-prepare option; Baileys has a firm grip on this market with a 22% share, according to Mintel, and rarely seeing so much as a splash of mixer.

However, we are increasingly seeing non-cream-based liqueurs trickle into this market by satisfying their customers’ desire for education around achievable serving suggestions: for example, Chambord’s championing of the French Martini, Drambuie and its Rusty Nail. These are not drinks that require a certificate in cocktail making to create simple yet surprising concoctions that deliver adventurous drinking experiences.

Drambuie – classic replenishment

Iconic liqueur brand Drambuie was in need of refreshment, having gathered dust over a couple of decades, forgotten in the depths of the drinks cabinet. Through on-trade and aspirational consumer research, Webb deVlam identified love for the product but a misunderstanding of the brand.

Many bartenders had deep respect for Drambuie and a fascination for its rich heritage but felt it was lacking a profile, a reason for them to use the liqueur. For consumers, the drink was stuck on the wrong side of the whiskey category; people needed to know how and when they should use it. It needed to honour the past to reflect the future by leveraging the true vintage credentials and the romance of the secret elixir, rich and complex, much like the brand’s 270-year history.

Marrying this expansive pedigree with accessibility, brought through by the drink’s delicate arrangement of herbal, spicy, sweet and honey notes, results in an approachable, versatile product; embodied perfectly by the Rusty Nail, the brand’s signature cocktail and the world’s only trademarked serve. It is a seductive spirit with a rebellious soul, serving up an experience that is unmistakable and truly unique.

Business is booming for the cocktail trade. Never before have cocktails had such mass appeal and accessibility. But if a key part of their identity is aspiration, when these drinks flow in the mainstream they have to work harder than ever before to deliver this exceptional experience. So if you cannot ensure each tipple will be served in a cut-glass tumbler by a bow-tie attired waiter, you had better make sure the contents are going to leave your audience lost for words.


Dominic will be speaking at the inaugural Spirits Summit and attending the Canadean Alcohol Innovation Congress later this month. 


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