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2013 Chain Cocktail List Trends

by Charles Gill

Having reported on wine distribution for over a decade, and having been previously employed selling the world’s most prestigious spirits brands on-premise, I thought I had a more than fair understanding of the content of cocktail lists. My primary assumption was that most cocktail lists would have a certain level of predictability. Just as most wine lists have Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon as their most popular varieties, a majority of drink lists would have a similar hierarchy with cocktail “varieties.” That, apparently, is not the case. 

chain cocktail list trends

While the Margarita dominates the drink variety hierarchy by more than a 2:1 margin over the second place Martini, the variation among lists is dramatic. A few lists are nearly exclusively Margaritas while others shine the spotlight almost exclusively on Martinis. This would be the equivalent of a wine list having just Chardonnay to the virtual exclusion of Cabernet Sauvignon. After Margaritas and Martinis, I had thought the next-ranked drink variety would be the increasingly popular Mojito. Again, I was wrong. Teas (as in Long Island Iced Teas) rank third and the Mojito placed a distant sixth.

With Margarita as the dominant drink variety in our survey, one would naturally assume that tequila would therefore be the leading spirit type on cocktail lists. Not so. The leading spirit category is liqueurs, which makes sense as in any given cocktail, often one or more liqueurs are used. The subsequent spirit rankings offer no surprises, as vodka and rum come in at #3 and #4 respectively.

As far as leading brands go, I was again mistaken. My assumption was that Jose Cuervo, Bacardi or perhaps Grey Goose, would lead the pack. It turns out that the generic category (i.e., no brand affiliations) is #1, with a 2:1 lead over the #2 brand. Spirit listings without designations represent a huge opportunity for additional branding for spirit suppliers. Some chains have remarkably little branding on their lists, which is puzzling. Is a customer more likely to order a Margarita with no-name bulk products or one that brands the tequila and triple sec? From my experience, branded is always better, for the same reason that restaurants have largely abandoned the “house wine” designation on wine lists. Customers, especially more affluent ones, want to know exactly what they are drinking, regardless of the price.

Getting back to the brand rankings, Beam’s Sauza is the #2 brand on cocktail lists, behind generic, followed closely by independent Patrón at #3! I did not expect this independently-owned tequila brand to outpace the leading brands of gigantic, multi-national suppliers, but apparently they have found a way.

In addition to cocktail and brand rankings, Winemetrics’ 2013 Cocktail Report lists the top brands in specific drink varieties, as well as profiles of the top 15 suppliers on-premise. It also provides drink list profiles on the leading 60 chains, illustrating composition by drink variety, spirit type and supplier share. Again, the variation is much wider in these areas than anything we have seen in our wine list surveys. Winemetrics’ 2013 Cocktail List Report is our first foray into the spirits side of the on-premise beverage business, but we already have more detailed reports planned for later this year. For more information please visit us at winemetrics.com or contact me at cgill@winemetrics.com.

The information in this article was derived from Winemetrics’ recently released 2013 Cocktail List Report, which was compiled from March to May, 2013 from our survey of 165 chains and restaurant groups, comprising over 12,000 accounts nationwide.

Charles Gill is the founder and CEO of Winemetrics, LLC, which, for the past decade, has been the premier source of on-premise wine distribution information. He began his wine career after college with the Taylor Wine Company in Hammondsport, NY as a viticulturist and has spent the subsequent 30 years involved in wine production, sales, wine education, marketing and consulting.