Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

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Low Proof, Big Payoff Low-alcohol drinks are poised to add high-octane opportunity to beverage menus

The warm spice notes from hard cider play well with the tang of fresh grapefruit, pomegranate and a touch of rum in this low-proof Ruby Cider Cocktail, developed by consultant Kathy Casey.
PHOTO CREDIT: Kathy Casey

In this age of the well-crafted cocktail, guests are looking to sample, appreciate and enjoy more than one drink. But they’re not necessarily chasing a buzz. Instead of losing that second or even third sale with those guests, progressive beverage programs are giving them lower-proof options. These low-alcohol drinks still fall under the craft cocktail umbrella, but invite session drinking, allowing guests to enjoy multiple beverages without the worry or displeasure of overindulging. This gives options not only to the session drinker, but to the guest who just prefers a lighter-style cocktail. “Operators need to jump feet first into this arena,” says chef/mixologist Kathy Casey. “The profit margins for low alcohol are huge.”

Although the evening daypart still rules here, lower-alcohol drinks are also finding their way into the light of day. “Aperol spritzes, punches and other lower-proof drinks offer a great way to incorporate a few different beverages onto the menu,” says beverage consultant and writer Jack Robertiello. “They can be consumed in the daytime because they’re low alcohol, but succeeding during the day requires the operator to create an atmosphere that makes sense for daytime drinks. For instance, create a low-alcohol beverage list, feature it on the menu and promote it within the operation and by server suggestion,” he adds. “This will help create ‘permission’ for guests to consider lightly alcoholic drinks during the day at a time when societal pressures make such consumption iffy.”

The key to the low-alcohol beverage trend is flavor. Lower-proof drinks have to be as well crafted as their boozier counterparts. “Low alcohol strength is gaining the same merit as full strength due to drinkability,” says chef-consultant Rob Corliss. “Drinkability means truly being able to sip, taste and enjoy the flavor of a favorite beverage, along with your food, as a true complement.”

The time is right for this trend with a number of big influencers coming into play. The first two reflect cultural shifts and the others speak to ingredient innovation. First up, the return of sociability to the dining scene. This is perhaps best expressed in both the small plates movement and the modern brunch phenomenon. Each moves session drinking into a significant part of today’s social restaurant culture. Another cultural influencer is the seismic shift in what the consumer seeks out, swinging almost violently from value to quality. Just as margaritas made with sour out of a gun are no longer cutting it, a basic white wine spritzer just doesn’t entice the consumer looking to enjoy a low-alcohol cocktail.

“As a main form of modern entertainment and social and cultural interaction, tipplers of every demographic really have a desire to drink more variety for longer because they like the experiential act and flavor—as much as, if not more than, the buzz,” says consultant Robin Schempp, president of Right Stuff Enterprises. “For obvious reasons, this offers a terrific opportunity to operators.”

Two other drivers come from the ingredient side of beverage innovation. The boom in craft sodas and fresh juices practically demands a build out of creative low-alcohol drinks. Refreshing, flavor-forward and artisanal craft sodas and fresh juices make easy work of a premium base for lower-proof drinks. The second ingredient driver behind this trend is the proliferation of European aperitifs. Sliding nicely between wines and spirits, these classic before-dinner drinks are wine-based and offer delicious bases for lower-proof drinks. They can be as simple as a Campari and soda with a twist or as sophisticated as Lillet Rose with ginger beer and a wedge of grapefruit as a garnish.

What counts as a lower-proof cocktail? “The well-made average cocktail—not the giant margarita schooner, but the usual 4- to 6-ounce drink—arrives at around 20 percent alcohol,” says Robertiello. “Strong-stirred drinks get up to 25 percent. I’d say a drink classified as low in alcohol is anything below 12 or 13 percent alcohol.”  So that Campari and soda? Most aperitifs start out at 16 percent, but with the dilution of soda, it’s brought down to roughly 8 percent.

Foolproof Strategies
To play in this arena and entice today’s savvy consumer, the execution of a lower-proof cocktail strategy has to be well thought out. Perhaps most apparent: Make the drinks menu brand-relevant. “Think outside the box and allow your cocktail menu to express your brand and culinary perspective,” says Lily Gile, account manager at The Culinary Edge. “Elixir Bar in San Francisco offers an entire category of low-ABV [alcohol by volume] beverages for the guest seeking a lighter option.” Elixir’s Pimm’s Cup, for instance, relays the brand’s craftsmanship and freshness cues with a build of Pimm’s, lemon, ginger beer, cucumber and a fresh fruit garnish.

At Mud Hen Tavern in Los Angeles, the Strawberry Rhubarb Spritz, with Prosecco, Aperol, spring strawberries and rhubarb, expresses the restaurant’s ties to seasonality and creativity. “For us, the lower-alcohol drinks still have to be about the mixology,” says Kajsa Alger, co-owner and chef of Mud Hen. “And we always try to incorporate lower-alcohol choices for the drinker who’s in it for the social side of things, or who wants to try a number of our cocktails without getting drunk.” That focus on craftsmanship and experience is the most important element for success behind this trend.

Menu engineering plays a big part in conveying the option of lower-alcohol drinks to the consumer. “Operators really focused on their cocktail programs are smart to provide consumers with enough information to decide between either high or low alcohol,” says Maeve Webster, senior director at Datassential. One example is at Acorn in Denver, where guests can choose from “booze free, low booze or high booze.” Clearly identifying lower-alcohol options, or creating dedicated menus or sections eliminates obstacles and intimidation in ordering.

What’s on the Menu?
Tall drinks are an easy way into this trend, but they need premium characteristics. Reimagined spritzers find a happy home here, maybe subbing boozy bubbles for the soda bubbles. Examples include Denver’s Snooze, which runs a Pear Spritz with sparkling wine, pear nectar and Aperol. “We really embrace and promote the ‘It’s 5:00 somewhere’ vibe,” says Spencer Lomax, director of sourcing for Snooze. So although it’s a breakfast-brunch concept, it has developed a good selection of lower-proof cocktails. “We make it about the refreshing flavors of the drinks rather than the alcohol—but we still get the sale.”

Another option in tall drinks is bitter liqueurs mixed with soda water. Indeed, these liqueurs (think Campari or Aperol) offer herbaceous flavors that appeal to today’s modern drinker. Premium cues can also come from the mixers—housemade sodas and fresh-squeezed juices are two on-trend ways to volumize a lower-proof cocktail.

Vermouth and other aperitif wines like sherry do well in lower-proof drinks, too. At Polite Provisions in San Diego, guests can order the Sherry Lemonade, a Collins made with fino sherry, lemon juice, sugar and sparkling water. Or instead, a Jango Rhinehart, a dry vermouth sour with muddled orange. “Everybody is so mobile and so active, we want to offer them good premium drinks that they know won’t inhibit their busy lifestyles,” says Erick Castro, bartender and co-owner of Polite Provisions.

Tying the craft beer movement to the lower-proof cocktail trend is as easy as a summer shandy, or a German-inspired Radler, maybe with housemade grapefruit soda. At Radler in Chicago, variety helps entice. Look to the Blood Orange Radler Ayinger Brau Weisse with blood orange soda as example. “As a modern German concept, we have a huge selection of craft beers, but the Radlers help us offer lower-proof alternatives while still staying in our wheelhouse,” says chef-owner Nathan Sears.

Another beer-centric, lower-proof drink is the spicy Michelada, a refreshing blend of beer, tomato juice and hot sauce. At Snooze, guests can order a Brewmosa, a craft Belgian-style wheat beer with fresh orange juice. “Beer-based drinks are making a comeback, and the inclusion of non-alcoholic beverage ingredients lower the ABV per serving, adding opportunities for flavor and ingredient innovation,” says The Culinary Edge’s Gile.

Expanding beverage menus to include lower-proof, well-crafted cocktails offers a sound road to higher profits. “This is not about replacing your existing drink menu,” says Rob Corliss. “It is about listening to consumer needs and diversifying your beverage strategy.  Lower-alcohol beverages can drive sales, entice new customers and provide options for core consumers, while insulating your menu for the future.”

About The Author

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Katie Ayoub is managing editor of Flavor & The Menu. She has been working in foodservice publishing for more than 16 years and on the Flavor team since 2006. She won a 2015 Folio award for her Flavor & The Menu article, Heritage Matters. In 2006, she won “Best Culinary Article” from the Cordon D’Or for an article on offal.