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Published:  23 July, 2008

No-one has a post-prandial drink any more. Oh really? asks James Aufenast

To suggest that the after-dinner drink sector had a future would, for most people, be like praising the potential of a new Sinclair C5 Mark II - this time with wings attached. Cognac's share of the market is in long-term decline, down from 3.6% in 1992 to 3.5% in 1999, Armagnac is down from 0.2% to 0.1% and whisky went down too in that period, from 43.6% to 37.9% (AC Nielsen). Liqueurs are expected to grow by 0.2% by 2004, but driven by non-dinner occasions, while Port and Sherry are forecast to decline by 3% (Datamonitor). Such downward trends explain the decline of the after-dinner drinking occasion. Fortified wines, brown spirits and liqueurs are the traditional after-dinner beverages. Concerns over health and drink-driving, and the greater popularity of wine, have added to the lack of uptake for a drink after food. According to figures from marketing consultant, New Solutions, 550 million meals were bought in non-fast food restaurants in 1999 and only 20% of those people had a drink after dinner. Few brand managers want to be associated with the image of after-dinner excess: ancient, red-faced men in musty panelled rooms holding balloon glasses of Cognac. The marketing departments of leading drinks companies are scrambling over themselves to move their brands away from this stereotype. The new target audience, for Baileys, Tia Maria, Hennessy, is young twentysomethings in Gucci sunglasses in a modern style-bar. The after-dinner drink as an occasion could, however, survive, and with it potential extra revenues for the trade. Seven months ago, one of the world's largest drinks companies, UDV, appointed an after-dinner drinks brand manager, Kirsten Yates. UDV's relative silence on the subject is indicative of the opportunity the company feels is present. "There is a lot of money to be made after people have eaten," said Yates. "No-one is addressing the occasion. We researched the subject and there's clearly a series of missed opportunities. People used to be prompted to have a glass after dinner, but not any more. You hear that after-dinner drinking is in decline, but we believe otherwise." Two distinct kinds of drinker have been identified for targeting by UDV. The first is "semi-formal". This describes men and women aged 25-40, C1 and C2, with a low disposable income who dine out a maximum of twice a month. "They are looking for the low-income equivalent of the AB dining habit," said Yates. "They go to places like Beefeater and Harvester, and are looking to reward themselves. So they will go the whole hog: have starter, main course, dessert and then coffee. We want to encourage them to have one extra stage."

Easy pickings

The other category, "drinkers", is a slightly younger, 25-35, female, pre-family, BC1 group. "They tend to dine at places like Pizza Express and Caf Rouge and are groups of women who like chatting over dinner and catching up. Drinking is more important to them than the food and they are experimental in what they drink. They're what we call low-hanging fruit' - easy to reach because of their willingness to try different things," explained Yates. The project has just finished a one-month trial period, begun on 1 February, in selected Eldridge Pope pub outlets, and UDV is looking at other trade partners. The six UDV brands under Yates's after-dinner banner are Baileys, Sheridan's, Talisker, Drambuie, Johnny Walker and Romana Sambuca. Yates admits that Baileys "is carrying a lot of the weight" of the promotion, "but in Eldridge Pope sales of Sheridan's and Talisker have been more marked". Yates denies that promoting Baileys for after dinner will send out a confused message to consumers. Recent TV and cinema advertising has shown a couple in a modern bar on a Friday or Saturday night. But the after-dinner promotion "is not the main strategy for Baileys," said Yates. "We just don't want to eliminate other potential customers." The way in which diners are being encouraged to drink is imaginative. Menus in Eldridge Pope outlets are held by dice, with the six brands on them. Each is accompanied by a word link, "Sensuous" for Baileys, "Indulgence" for Sheridan's. "People can play around with it. It's a conversation point. They can roll the die and choose a drink. It's not everyone's thing, and some will think it's tacky, but we think it will work." Tacky or not, UDV is looking to have a sales uplift of 20% of its brands in the selected outlets. Furthermore, there could be big sales across the board. The research has shown that while average retailer margins for after-dinner drinks are the same as for desserts (75p), and less than for coffee (85p), the cash margin is high, 1.77 compared with 1.59 for desserts and 75p for coffee. In the same way, albeit at a more rarefied level, Mentzendorff has also been pursuing the after-dinner goal. Prestige business manager, Alan Montague-Denis, rolled off a list of restaurants with which the company has been working to get people drinking after dinner: Ptrus, Le Gavroche, City Rhodes, Pied Terre, Gordon Ramsay, Hush. "We're interested in restaurants that can afford a sommelier," said Montague-Denis. With brands that include Fonseca, Taylor's and Delamain Cognac, Mentzendorff has been conducting master classes with restaurants to try to encourage customers to experiment with after-dinner drinks. There were four classes last year, and four will take place this spring. "People need to be prompted. Philippe Marques at Foliage is good because he will let people try something at the end of the meal, without charge. Salvatore Calabrese at The Lanesborough has some of the biggest sales of vintage Cognac over 100. His sales below XO are minimal - because he's so enthusiastic and such a good salesman. [Calabrese has also recently published a book in the USA, After-Dinner Drinks.] I wish more places tried different things, but decent staff who actually care about this are hard to find in London." Montague-Denis believes the future for after-dinner drinks is in the set meal. "People come into a restaurant prepared to spend a certain amount of money. If they're thinking of around 100 per head, and you have a set dinner for 28.50, then they're going to spend more on wine and more on drinks after the meal. More wine and more drinks by the glass mean higher margins." People who try after-dinner drinks are not guided by price, and Montague-Denis can see no reason why they should not sell: "You've got people in a restaurant, in a feel-good environment, and they're on a roll. Restaurants should be taking advantage of that." Mentzendorff has also been promoting chilled Taylor's 20-year-old Tawny with desserts in Claridge's, Nobu, Ubon and Hush.

Trolley not jolly

The cause of the decline in the post-dining occasion is partly blamed on the old-fashioned drinks trolley, in the same way that the dessert trolley has not done any favours for puddings. It is another negative image: a shaky waiter pushing an even more rickety trolley crammed with half-finished, sticky bottles. But Claire Crosby, co-owner and drinks buyer at the newly Michelin-starred Hibiscus restaurant in Ludlow, Shropshire, would like to bring the drinks trolley back. "I'd love to have a trolley. People in the UK just don't know enough about Armagnacs and liqueurs. Like having a cheese trolley, it would be a way of teaching them." Crosby says that her most common sellers are Cognac and Armagnac, but she also gets through eaux de vie, grappa, Poire William, as well as Grand Marnier and Cointreau. Part of the success is due to the fact that many diners are from London. "They are surprised to see the prices are, by comparison, so low. Most are staying the night in Ludlow, so they can just roll up the hill on foot." UK country house hotels show good sales of after-dinner drinks for precisely this reason - the proximity of the bedroom. It removes one of the major inhibitors of drinking after a meal: having to drive home afterwards. At the top end, however, consumption of quality spirits is not unusual. The most surprising thing about UDV's recent promotion of after-dinner drinking is that it is aimed at the mass market. Most large drinks companies have shifted budgets out of this area because, as Richard Hayes, brand manager for spirits at Allied Domecq, explained in relation to liqueurs: "Suppliers have got consumers to drink liqueurs more often by demonstrating them as long drinks. In that situation they are more sessionable than if they're drunk after dinner, when one or two may be consumed." Sheer quantity makes the bar or pub drinking occasion far more attractive than after dinner to the large drinks multinational. Phil Epps, brand manager at First Drinks Brands, added that of his products: "Benedictine is hard to market anywhere other than after dinner, being such a traditional liqueur, but De Kuyper is made for the on-trade. Di Saronno and Amarula will also be strong there." "Long term, we're trying to recruit the next generation," said Carl Stephenson, Hennessy senior brand manager at Mot Hennessy. That is being done via the company's new, clear Cognac, Pure White. "It is building a bridge to younger consumers, who are looking for an alternative to vodka or gin," said Stephenson. John Graham, drinks writer for Tatler, wrote on Pure White's launch: "We always knew Cognac's tan was a fake one." White Cognac could be seen to undermine Cognac. "No, it's a separate thing," argued Stephenson. "We will try to get younger consumers to graduate through the Hennessy range as they get older." XO is also being served chilled in style-bars in the UK. Grand Marnier, another Mot Hennessy brand with a traditional image, recently had a sampling programme in London bars Jerusalem (W1) and The Light (Shoreditch). Telephone research showed that 16% of people tried Grand Marnier on the night, according to Toni Lightoller, Grand Marnier trade development manager at Mot Hennessy. However, Gavin Richards, manager at Fudge bar in Leeds, thinks the brand managers are on the wrong tack. "Some drinks aren't young people drinks. Don't try to be something you aren't. People think: Oh, we must go after a younger market,' but if you have a market of old people, then get more old people drinking your product." Richards has been working in bars in Leeds for about 13 years and says he has seen sampling programmes for traditional drinks in night clubs that were totally wrong for the product. Although the on-trade is the sexy, trendy end for drinks suppliers, it is worth looking at off-trade figures that appear relatively healthy for liqueurs, and for certain aspects of the spirits market too. The latest from AC Nielsen show non-cream liqueurs down 2% (Nov/Dec 00, MAT). This looks good when the fact that sales where higher than usual over the Millennium period is factored in. Drinking occasions are harder to discern in the off-trade. As Jonathan Butt, wine communications manager/PR at First Quench said: "We don't follow people home." The closest research that has been done in terms of drinking occasions in the off-trade is that by Key Note. Last year's its UK Drinks Market report found that - for alcoholic drinks in general - most adults enjoyed a drink with a meal (58%). Some 52% enjoyed a drink while relaxing in the garden, 45% while watching television and 20% before bed. It is hard to draw too much from these figures, except that the after-dinner drink is not forming a dominant part of at-home drinking. Latest First Quench figures show a healthy glow to liqueurs, up 6% on the previous year, which Butt partly puts down to "women getting together before a night out". However, he added a 4% yearly rise of malts at First Quench into the equation and postulated that they are also being drunk after dinner. "People are entertaining at home more and having more dinner parties. I can see a situation where the guys are sitting round after dinner having their malts, and the girls are drinking their cream liqueurs. In fact, girls are drinking malts as well, which explains its growth." While brown spirits and fortified wines are not set to challenge vodka's growth, there is increasing interest in reviving parts of the after-dinner custom.