James Kerslake, 23rd May 2021
Premixed or ready-to-drink (RTD) beverages have been part of the consumer landscape for over two decades. Launched into super stardom by Hooper’s Hooch, a British icon that launched in 1995 as one of the first ‘alcopops’, it was originally marketed as alcoholic lemonade. This began an industry-wide trend towards demand for drinks with the same alcoholic content as beer or wine, with fewer calories. This shameless wave of brightly coloured bottles splashed its presence all over my childhood life, including memorable brands such as Bacardi Breezer, Smirnoff Ice, Sub Zero and WKD. Hooch sales peaked at 2.5 million bottles a week in the UK, before fading in popularity and being discontinued in 2003.
Since the mania of the 90’s, the RTD category has been in considerable decline, as consumers began to shy away from the high sugar content of these drinks, and strong resistance to chemical based artificial flavours and tastes. The early part of the century is synonymous with the rise of the health-conscious consumer, and a significant increase in international travel for people of all social backgrounds. It’s only natural that this newly sophisticated, well-travelled audience, would lose interest in the RTD category. Exceptions can be seen at student bars, where the cheap and cheerful angle has always gone down well; not to mention the soft-drink-like taste for those who have yet to acquire the taste of alcohol.
Jump ahead 10 years and it is this association that has lingered on in people’s minds, from bar owners who have worked shifts in student towns, to consumers who, like me, reminisce on their own childhood, drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade down at the park after dark; in a time where curfews didn’t exist. Mention the word premixed cocktails to anyone, and the typical response is to think sugary, artificial tasting and poor quality.
But has this belief itself become the only thing still stuck in the past? Have we inadvertently missed the birth of something new and exciting?
The world has had a tumultuous year, and old habits have been ripped up and cast to the wind. At the same time, it has also been the genesis for a rethink on how we live, how we interact with others and what we truly value. I know my own weekly routine has changed dramatically, in ways that will certainly extend well beyond lockdown. Entertaining at home has increased, as has the desire for experiences, a heightened interest in provenance and the ability to host gatherings outside of the traditional pub and bar environment.
The consumer today is much more discerning about their purchases, expects everything to fit conveniently into their busy lifestyles, and demands top quality choices, no matter if it’s from a high-end restaurant, a local grocery store, or from an online catalogue. We see this in all areas of the marketplace, from five star restaurants offering meal-kits, to virtual Peloton classes and workout sessions with top rated trainers, to freshly prepared all-natural meals for our beloved dog companions (which my lockdown pup Loki the Pomsky loves!)
In the drinks space, we are seeing everything from alcohol-free spirits inspired by coastland botanicals to craft tequilas and CBD seltzers, but one category that has grown significantly in the past ten years, is cocktails.
Some recent industry stats show that 25% of consumers now make cocktails at home themselves, with the same amount saying they are now drinking more cocktails than they were six months ago. The younger market in particular is driving the consistent growth in the cocktail market, down to their desire for more exciting tastes and flavours, and the connection with travel.
Cocktails, inspired by travel
A cocktail represents everything foodies like me love about the world; a blend of exciting and exotic flavours that remind us of amazing holidays in incredible places around the globe. If you look at the bar scene just 10 years ago, the cocktail scene was significantly smaller, and the quality on offer very uneven. It was more of a hotel bar or a night out with the girls type of occasion. Having cocktails with food was rarely done, but now is a hugely growing trend that started in the states, and with the explosion of craft spirits in the last ten years, has suddenly become an exciting landscape allowing bartenders to be increasingly creative.
But how difficult is it to get your hands on a truly good cocktail? Mixology is most definitely an artform, and without a skilled bartender to hand, or with twenty other people demanding cocktails from a single server, how are modern consumers to fulfil their desires for top quality drinks?
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
For many years, making premium dishes ahead of time has been a secret of the foodservice industry. For five star banquets, most of the prep is done in advance, so that plating up and temperature are the only concerns when trying to serve 500 people a Michelin star worthy meal. Even bars such as the world famous Artesian have regularly pre-batched their Negroni’s during busy periods, their head bartender mixing up a batch to ensure that wait times are not excessive during cocktail hour rushes. How then, do we escape the association that pre-mixed cocktails have, with their delinquent, RTD past?
The answer lies in a new stamp of branding; Batchology. No longer the lazy approach to mixing a drink, the vast canon of craft spirits, recipe innovations and provenance hunting means that mixing a cocktail can now transcend from being an artform, to a science.
Imagine the precision of being able to tweak the balance of a bitter aperitif liqueur in a cocktail by milligrams and achieve the perfect balance, or to blend hero spirits with a precise ratio, creating tasting notes so complex they’d be impossible to achieve through a single spirit. Picture the possibilities of precisely infusing fresh ingredients such as mint to a specific intensity, or to blend organic citrus components for a consistent acidity with shelf-life, without concern for how overripe or underripe the fruit is?
Many will still resist this idea, holding on to the view that nothing will compare to the theatre and experience of a real bartender mixing and shaking before your eyes. I would challenge this. As enjoyable as that part of the ritual is, my real-world experience is that 95% of the cocktails I have paid top prices for in all levels of bars, are disappointing. For a start there is no consistency. The same cocktail from the same bartender an hour apart might taste completely different as a result of free pouring, difference in raw ingredients, and the degree of dilution.
As a bar manager, you must contend with a varying skill levels among bar staff, and high turnover. A good cocktail bartender is as rare as hens teeth amongst a sea of early twenty-somethings looking to fill time between studies. Let us not forget, of course, the time to serve. We’ve all been stuck at a bar four deep, trying to order a gin and tonic while the poor bartender is pulled away for ten minutes to make three cocktails. Given the choice between a speedily served, perfect-tasting cocktail, or a bit of bar theatre and an inconsistent tasting drink, I would choose the taste every time. The theatre is a nice-to-have, the experience of drinking and enjoying the cocktail is why I bought the ticket.
No compromise on craft
Does that mean you have to sacrifice quality, experience and authenticity? Absolutely not. At Tom Savano, every cocktail has been designed over a minimum period of four months. It begins with the choice of a hero spirit, to tell the main storyline. Delving into the cocktails origins and history, we research as many boutique and undiscovered spirits as possible that may fit the brief. Once we have a shortlist of contenders, we then build out the profile of the cocktail, layering in multiple notes of complexity, aroma, mouthfeel and aftertaste, all to the creative brief of evoking a beautiful travel destination from around the world.
If one of our creations isn’t comparable to a cocktail you could get at one of the world’s best bars, we don’t release it. One of the first recipes we wanted to launch was the Mojito, as it was a personal favourite, yet we have been unable to get the perfect batched recipe. Two and a half years on, we are well into the 2,000’s for recipes and may now be getting close to the perfect Mojito (so watch this space!)
Those same things you get from a freshly mixed cocktail; a nose of fresh mint leaf, the crunch of demerara sugar, silken layers of vermouth and gin, are all possible to achieve with a Batchology recipe, it is just significantly more difficult than doing it fresh. For those who love a challenge, and who have the determination to innovate new and exciting ways to deliver unforgettable tastes and immersive experiences, the sky really is the limit. You have no constraints to what you use in your recipe or process, and you can take as long as you like to get it right without worrying about impatient customers tapping their feet at the bar.
Now, this isn’t a first – for years top bartenders have pushed the boundaries such as Ryan Chetiyawardana of Dandelyan, whose bone-dry martini is made with a dissolved chicken bone tincture, or the famous mirror margarita from Hacha which is completely clear despite having the acidity of a true margarita. Many bartenders also spend weeks practising different infusion methods, creating their own bitters, syrups or herbal liqueurs by hand to bring something new and different to their cocktail menu.
Now it can finally start to be recognised in the mainstream for what it is: a precise, deeply knowledgeable and highly respected science, which from this moment on I encourage the industry to refer to as ‘Batchology’ to keep clear in our minds how big a departure this is from the early halcyon days of Hooch.
Batchology: The future
What does the brave new world of Batchology hold? Everything from limited edition “vintage” batches, ageing cocktails in various materials, and blending spirits to achieve new flavour profiles to developing sustainable and natural infusion methods so bartenders can start using more local ingredients without the need to transport them large distances; something that until now would require daily deliveries to ensure freshness. Imagine being able to infuse a lime flower from Mexico, and use that unique and precise flavour in your cocktails anywhere in the world, as if it had been picked fresh?
But most importantly it allows you to be precise, to carefully curate a recipe for the perfect balance rather than depending on free pouring or the typical industry practice of “1oz of this, 1/2oz of that”. Half a gram less of one ingredient can make a crucial difference in the balance of a drink, allowing more of the true flavour profiles to come out rather than being dominated by a single spirit.
Not only does Batchology let you craft a more perfect cocktail, it allows you to share it with more people through a variety of channels, rather than that handful of people who can get to the bar on a Friday night. Now you can take your world class cocktails away with you on holiday or when camping, you can send them as a gift to friends, or simply ensure you always have a few to hand in the fridge for when you want to relax after a hard day, not spend ten minutes mixing a fresh cocktail by hand.
With industry and consumer habits changing to demand more home entertaining, luxury on-demand, and the flexibility to enjoy the same experience while on the go, it’s easy to see why Batchology is growing in popularity, and how it addresses all of these needs while actually allowing the industry to evolve into something more exciting, full of new challenges and unwilling to compromise the amazing flavours that got all of us into the drinks industry in the first place.
The opportunities for premium Batchology are broad: foodservice, corporate events, weddings, festivals, dinner parties, private hire chefs to name a few. Some of the worlds top chefs have already begun designing meal kits to replicate the same five star restaurant service from home, and it’s time for the drinks industry to catch up. With more and more people choosing the life of a digital nomad, or working from home, the need to have the same high level of experience anywhere and everywhere, at the push of a button, has never been more important to the success of business in an evolving world.
Batchology is in it’s infancy, but has enormous potential. We need to realise as an industry that it doesn’t herald the death of the bartender, but rather introducess a new and exciting era of discovery and innovation. Most of all, it is a chance for those who are truly passionate about drinks, their provenance, and exciting flavours, to develop their knowledge and craft to a whole new level of creativity – to surprise and delight customers every day.
If you’d like to know more about Batchology or talk about how it could help your business, drop me a message at email@example.com. Happy batching!