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In-Season Sipping

Cheeseburger in Paradise celebrates its island-holiday theme on the drink menu year-round, so summer is always in season. Photo courtesy of cheeseburger in paradise. Cocktail cravings make seasonal swings, but sometimes tastes don’t match the weather

By Jack Robertiello

Seasonality plays a major role on today’s drink menus, just as it does with food. At many fine-dining restaurants, updating the drink menu, stocking up on seasonal beers and shifting orders for certain wine styles are necessary components of both a menu and a marketing plan.

Leave aside for the moment the argument about what “seasonality” really means; just as chefs today change ingredient mixes more often and base their menus on their region’s current food harvest, bartenders and other beverage professionals have seized fresh, local and in-season produce as essential elements for drink making.

But do consumers really care that much about what’s in their drink, where ingredients come from and when they were gathered? Do drinks made with raspberries or strawberries in season have much impact when the international food-supply system keeps them in rotation almost constantly? More importantly, do customer taste preferences change significantly enough to justify a wholesale menu makeover?

The answers seem to depend on a restaurant’s culinary concept, region, neighborhood, customer base and price point, rather than on the current media obsession with locavore seasonality as an important and socially relevant concept.

Whatever your food politics, restaurants often struggle to balance the conflicting notions of touting their hard-won share of local heirloom tomatoes and squash in season and featuring asparagus and blueberries year-round. But changes in menus and purchase patterns can range from the subtle to the dramatic, if recent interviews with beverage professionals across the country are any indication.

Led by chef Jose Andres, ThinkFood Group — with Jaleo, Oyamel, Café Atlantico and others in the Washington, D.C., area — adjusts its cocktail menus based on seasonality, partly due to the established connection between the restaurants’ kitchens, local farms and farmers’ markets.

“Using the fruits and vegetables already available to us gives us the chance to create natural accompaniments to our dishes,” says Jill Zimorski, ThinkFood’s beverage director.

Seasonality is a significant factor at many bars across the country, she notes, and bartenders who ignore that do so at their own peril.

“D.C. is a very savvy cocktail market, and partially it’s [driven by] peer pressure. As everyone changes their menus, customers begin to expect it of you; you’d begin to suffer if you weren’t part of that expectation. I don’t know where it started, but many of us take advantage of it and are better for it.”

Most bars that go beyond the obvious seasonal ingredients (like melon, berries and such) tend to be tied to similar culinary programs. But the Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, where food is limited to such dishes as hummus, pizza, cheese and charcuterie, shows a serious seasonal connection in a portion of its frequently changing drink menu. Barman Bobby Heugel last winter featured such drinks as the Drooling Date (aquavit, date molasses, orgeat and orange bitters), the Butternut Squash Flip (butternut squash-infused rum, hefeweizen beer, whole egg and oats) and a toddy called the General Sherman (hazelnut-infused bourbon, Stone Pine liqueur, honey and butter).

No matter the temperature, specialty Margaritas like this jalapeño-rita retain their best-seller status. Photo courtesy of McIlhenny Company/TABASCO® Brand Products. David Strauss, bartender at Starr Restaurants’ Ranstead Room in Philadelphia, says menus like these are driven by the belief that “people do change their palate when the weather changes. Once fall comes in, people switch from the lighter, more refreshing, crisper flavors to the darker, more robust flavors.”

So the Ranstead featured hot toddies, hot buttered rums and brandy skins (brandy, sugar, hot water and lemon) last winter, all big sellers.

Customers at places like these expect changes and take to them avidly. But the same can’t be said at most chain restaurants, many of which have eschewed all but the simplest alterations, and those generally more to keep the menu fresh than to lead sales.

At Old Chicago restaurants, despite frequent attempts to build on the national growth in bourbon sales in winter, for instance, vodka and tequila drinks are better sellers regardless of season, says Tracy Finklang, corporate beverage manager for the Old Chicago division of CraftWorks Restaurants and Breweries.

“We keep trying [winter spirits], but it has not yet worked for us. Yet if we put a specialty Margarita or rum or vodka drink on the menu, people just eat it up, even in February.”

Finklang persists in tweaking her cocktail menu; last December, her drink specials were a collection of vodka, gin and dessert martinis, since, for Old Chicago customers, martinis are considered a celebratory drink. But some logical winter items simply don’t work.

“We’ve done coffee drinks, and fairly delicious ones, that nobody would buy,” she says.

Still, even slight seasonal changes must be catered to. While the best-selling drinks year-round tend to be the fruity, summery items — Margaritas, Old Chicago Iced Tea and Strawberry Limoné — sales do slacken somewhat in the winter.

The situation is similar for the Back Bay Restaurant Group, which operates six concepts and 13 units in all, says VP of Beverage David Alphonse. Prosecco cocktails, usually associated with summer, are popular, regardless of the weather. So are other quaffable cocktails.

“Sales may spike in the summer, but that’s due more to our patios being open,” says Alphonse. “I still sell a ton of Magaritas and Sangria during the winter.”

Photo courtesy of monin. WINE IS MORE PREDICTABLE
Overall, seasonal wine trends tend to be less complicated. Beyond the emergence each summer of rosés, sales by type tend to be steady and predictable. At P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Shauna Beyer, manager of financial planning and analysis, recently tracked company-wide wine sales week by week and charted them against temperature changes. “We found that as the U.S. temperature goes up, our proportion of white wine sales goes up with it.”

Sales rise from about 50/50 white to red in January to a high of two-thirds white in July. And, despite the trumpeted changing American palate, Chardonnay is still boss: While accounting for only about 15 percent of the wines listed, it drives more than 35 percent of total wine poured.

There’s a more pronounced shift at the ThinkFood operations to full-bodied, spicy reds in cooler months and high-acid, refreshing whites as the weather warms. Zimorski says it’s hard to pin down whether that’s due to the higher tannins and alcohol in reds, the way red wines match hearty winter dishes, or some unknown psychological factor.

To accommodate the change, she’ll wait for a new vintage to buy some whites as they run out, remove or increase rosés and add a number of whites or reds based on season, both to mirror sales trends and to provide guests with new options.

But for Alphonse, wine sales stay as steady as those for cocktails. “I recently looked at our sales trends, and in certain markets like Florida, the patterns are always the same. In fall I see an increase in certain reds and a decrease in certain whites, but overall it’s pretty steady.”

Perhaps due to unfettered experimentation among American craft brewers, seasonality in beer is more common in restaurants today. Pumpkin beers, a fall favorite, are a prime example. Alphonse plans each year to carry one for a month but usually his units run out in a couple of weeks.

“People do move in small percentages to darker, more chewy beers in winter, and light beers lose a small percentage,” says Finklang, who has long featured seasonal beer tour promotions that encourage sampling. As winter moves in, she adds ciders, cherry beers and other darker styles. But there is a perception issue among inexperienced customers, who incorrectly believe stout and porter to be heavy brews, stronger in alcohol.

“Our challenge is to find the sweet spot where we want to help educate people on things they might enjoy but they don‘t know about,” Finklang says.

To do so, Old Chicago has been working with various Colorado craft brewers to develop brews exclusive to the chain, including a hoppy Colorado IPA Nouveau, made with hops fresh from the Colorado fall harvest with a subtle connection to the annual fall release of Beaujolais Nouveau. Mary Melton, the director of beverage at

P.F. Chang’s, notes that craft beers are surpassing imported beers in popularity, and her company has expanded the options for units to select craft-made seasonal brews.

“I’ve noticed hand-crafted beers and heartier brews are gaining a lot over many of the light beers, especially in the winter,” Melton notes.

While seasonality can be difficult for a national chain to manage in fresh fruit drinks, for example, it’s a different story with beer. “The growth in hand-crafted beers has allowed us to play more with seasonal and wheat beers, because people gravitate to them.”

As craft-beer makers create more limited-time offerings, an operation that focuses on seasonality has a wider range of options.

“Concept-specific, local and seasonal are our beer philosophy,” says ThinkFood’s Zimorski. “You don’t see wines marketed as seasonal, but with beer, we have a rotating section of seasonal and local to our area.”

She points out that even with such seasonally tied concepts as those of ThinkFood, beverage decisions still need to be closely audited.

“We look at sales trends all the time, because if something isn’t contributing to sales, we have to look at what it’s doing for us.”

But sometimes what a seasonal beverage does for an operation can’t be quantified only by sales. “We do have some beverage items because we need to, but it would be a poor idea to make all decisions based on sales; marketing has to play a part,” says Zimorski.


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About The Author

Jack Robertiello

Jack Robertiello writes about spirits, cocktails, wine, beer and food from Brooklyn, N.Y.