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Published:  23 July, 2008

The explosion of the style bar market is turning Brits into a nation of Martini-lovers who can tell their Absolut from their Zubrowka, their Bombay from their Plymouth. And as the drinks companies make long-term investments in training, the cocktail trend looks set to go from strength to strength. Julie Sheppard reports

Since the first cocktail shaker was patented in the US in 1872, trends for mixed drinks have come and gone with the decades. From the 1920s Prohibition days of disguising harsh hooch with fruit juice and sugar syrup in speakeasies, via war-time shortages in the '40s, to disco glamour in the '70s and the birth of the Pina Colada, the cocktail market has been particularly susceptible to outside influences and fashion trends. Not a safe bet for brand longevity then. But that situation seems to be changing in the UK. The 1980s cocktail phenomenon was a bit tacky, with its umbrellas and all that. Now we are seeing a more serious trend, with an American influence,' says Huw Pennell, marketing director at Maxxium UK. The current trend can be traced back to 1990s New York, where canny Absolut marketing men noticed the vogue for vodka-based fruit Martinis and decided to introduce them to the UK. At the same time Dick Bradsell's Dick's Bar in The Atlantic Bar & Grill brought New York standards of service and knowledge to London's drinking out scene. When the Met Bar opened in 1997, the age of the style bar was well and truly under way and the rest, as they say, is history. From Soho's Lab to Mayfair's Zeta, the capital is now spoilt for choice when it comes to design-led bars where the emphasis is on quality cocktails. And the style bar concept has quickly spread its wings UK-wide with venues such as The Monkey Bar in Glasgow (opened in 1995), Birmingham's 52 North (1999) and Manchester's Sugar Lounge (2001). Drinks companies haven't been slow to recognise that the growth of the style bar market is a driver for the cocktail sector, which in turn promotes spirits sales. We looked at research by AC Nielsen on spirits usage and worked out that cocktails account for volume sales of around 470,000 cases annually,' says Pennell. Little wonder then that spirits brands are attempting to reposition themselves in the on-trade as cocktail products, with drinks as unlikely as Pernod trying to grab a slice of the action.

Liqueurs live it up The liqueur sector in particular has responded to the trend, seeing cocktails as a way of attracting new drinkers and helping liqueurs to shed their limited apritif/digestive image. We recognise the need to drive sales and encourage consumers to think of liqueurs in a more contemporary way,' says Lionnel Ehrmann, marketing manager for Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge. Currently 70% of Grand Marnier sold in the on-trade is drunk after dinner as a digestive, with only 30% consumed in cocktails. We are positioning Grand Marnier as a premium orange liqueur and a cocktail partner, aiming at a more sophisticated market of 28- to 35-year-old drinkers,' explains Ehrmann. With this aim, Fior Brands launched the Grand Experience' marketing campaign, worth over 1 million, in June this year. Activities - which are intended to both educate target consumers and incentivise bar staff - include an extensive in-bar sampling programme, with consumer giveaways such as CDs, dinner at a Conran restaurant or weekend breaks. Other liqueurs are already benefiting from the rise of cocktail culture. Frangelico is definitely being used more. It has come out of Italian restaurants and hit the bar backs in London - and in all the major urban conurbations across the UK - hugely hard,' says Adam Wyartt, brand manager at Inspirit Brands. Pennell paints a similarly up-beat picture at Maxxium. In the past two to three years, progression for our liqueurs including Cointreau, Galliano and Bols, has been linked to cocktails. Sales of Galliano are 100% cocktail volume,' he states. Bartenders are using liqueurs a lot more in cocktails,' agrees Sarah Foster, on-trade controller with First Drinks Brands. Five years ago one bottle of a liqueur would last for ages, with bartenders only using a few nips every week. Now they will be using a bottle a week.' First Drinks Brands products include the De Kuyper fruit liqueur range and Italian liqueur Disaronno, which saw a UK sales increase of 12% last year (AC Nielsen MAT 2002).

Premium provisions But it's not just liqueurs that are benefiting from the increased popularity of cocktails. Our premium spirits have seen the greatest growth off the back of the cocktail trend,' continues Foster. Increasing consumer awareness in the food and drink sector has created a boom-time for brands focusing on top-end on-trade sales. Consumer interest in high quality ingredients has definitely increased. When people order a cocktail they now want it made with freshly squeezed fruit juices or fresh herbs and premium spirits,' says Andrew Notcutt, brand manager for Belvedere, the premium vodka brand launched by Mot Hennessey in September 2002. Although Belvedere is available in select off-trade outlets such as Selfridges, marketing strategy has focused on gaining listings in exclusive style bars in key cities across the UK. We are making Belvedere exclusive in the on-trade, so that customers can recognise a quality difference,' explains Notcutt. Like other premium spirits brands, Belvedere is now being listed by name on top cocktail lists across the UK. Justin Smyth's latest cocktail menu at Zeta includes a Premium Cocktails' section, where all drinks are priced 12.50 and named products include Belvedere and Ketel One, Tanqueray 10, Chivas Revolve and Matusalem. We always try to get our products listed by name on cocktail menus,' says Wyartt of Inspirit Brands, which distributes Matusalem. Such blatant brand exposure is nothing new in the on-trade, but according to Foster the emphasis is changing. Bars used to request a lot of cash to list products and in the past few years the market has been quite cut-throat. But now listings are becoming more about the quality of the product.'

Investing in training The emphasis on quality is dependent on both increased consumer knowledge and expertise behind the bar. Spirits are 20 to 25 years behind wine in terms of consumers wanting to know more about them. But nowadays two out of ten people do take note of what spirit brands are being used. So obviously bartenders also need to be more clued-up,' says Wyartt. For this reason drinks companies are going out of their way to work with bar staff. We are looking at longer term investment in training,' says Foster, adding that First Drinks Brands now has four brand executives who liaise solely with the style bar sector. We work very closely with bartenders and bar managers, almost offering a consultancy service. Developing relationships in the trade is key for our brands,' explains Foster. Others agree, so much that all of the major drinks companies are investing in expertise in the cocktail sector. Pernod Ricard employs seasoned bar professionals like Daniel Undhammar as brand ambassadors'. Working with Chivas Regal, Undhammar visits style bars and teaches bar staff about both whisky and mixology in general, rather than just focusing on Chivas. To be a good bartender you have to get beyond just knowing a brand - you need to know the bar trade,' says Undhammar. Maxxium also has a resident mixologist, Wayne Collins, who travels the UK giving cocktail master classes on a specially converted 1950s airstream bus. The company is putting 1 million behind the project. Such long-term investment in training makes a great deal of sense given the traditionally high turnover of bar staff. While a bar might lose money training staff who subsequently leave, big companies can see a return on their investment as bartenders travel from bar to bar promoting their brands. People used to go into a bar and ask for a gin and tonic. They might have specified Gordons, but usually they wouldn't ask for a certain brand and the bartender would just pour the house gin,' explains Pennell. Now bartenders will ask "Which gin do you want?" which makes the consumer aware that there is a choice. Five years ago people didn't even know the differences between spirits brands. Now they are much more brand aware. Brand calling is beginning to happen, although it's by no means universal.' Arguably the current leaders in the brand calling stakes are the vodka brands. Due to its neutrality as a base spirit, vodka led the current cocktail resurgence, which is reflected in the rapid growth of Inventive Leisure's vodka bar chain Revolution, which opened its first venue in Manchester in 1996 and has since expanded to 33 sites across the UK. According to Revolution's vodka princess' Miranda Dickson, cocktails are propelling vodka sales across the chain. Over the last year cocktail sales have been a massive driver for us. We've seen almost 100% growth,' she says. Vodka is the classic driver in this sector,' agrees Pennell. But there has been quite a strong gin revival too.' While he admits that the market is led by white spirits, he believes the next cocktail trend will be for brown spirits. There is a renaissance happening with rum. Sales of Mount Gay have seen over 80% growth in bars. Using rum in cocktails opens the way for Bourbon and even Scotch,' he says. Foster agrees. Five years ago no-one was talking about rum or Bourbon. Now you have Rockwell [in London's Trafalagar Square], a dedicated Bourbon bar, which has been collecting all the awards,' she says. The trend looks set to continue with the October opening of James Robson's Salt in London, a bar which will stock over 200 whiskies and Bourbons with a menu of bespoke cocktails. But whatever the next big thing turns out to be, one thing is for sure: the cocktail market is showing no signs of slowing. Our expectations are for conservative growth of around 4-5% each year,' says Maxxium's Pennell. The appeal of cocktails is broadening. They aren't just being drunk in style bars anymore. More attention is being paid to cocktail lists in mainstream venues like Bar 38 and the Weatherspoons pubs.' Foster endorses this view. Big companies like Six Continents and Scottish & Newcastle are catching on. They are realising that you can make a large gross profit on every cocktail sold,' she says. So while cocktail trends may have come and gone - from the early classic Manhattans and Martinis through to Del Boy's Pina Colada - the current vogue could have staying power.