Danny Varley has been stuffing crackers all morning when Restaurant calls, but not with paper crowns and plastic toys. The brand manager for Middle Eastern restaurant Berber & Q, which has sites in Haggerston, Exmouth Market and Spitalfields, is preparing for Christmas to go with a bang by filling the home-made crackers with booze.
Each of the brown paper tubes, which are stamped with the restaurant’s logo, contain a 50ml recyclable bottle of negroni, made in-house with vermouth infused with cinnamon, orange, cloves and nutmeg. Other Christmas drinks are in the pipeline, including a striking green blend of tequila, Chartreuse and pistachio syrup.
“The drinks will all have Christmas colours, so when the crackers pop, they look great on the table,” says Varley. “I’m fed up that the welcome drink at Christmas is usually the restaurant’s choice. This way they can order what they want and it’s a bit of fun.”
It also makes serving easier for restaurant staff, who simply bring glasses with ice and a garnish to the table, and the customers do the rest. Each cracker costs £6, which is cheaper than a standard cocktail, but still represents a decent margin of around 65%. “The GP is a little lower than we’d like, but it’s Christmas and it’s about boosting spend,” he says.
They are also a good marketing tool with Varley hand-delivering them to local businesses in the run-up to Christmas to encourage them to book their parties at the restaurants.
Gin and darker spirits
Berber & Q isn’t the only restaurant upping its Christmas drinks game this year. Spanish restaurant Camino has joined forces with Sipsmith to create a pop-up Winter Sipping Bar on the terrace at its Bankside restaurant, specialising in hot gin-based drinks, which are warmed in urns and served in tin camper-style mugs.
“Gin is obviously so popular, but hot serves are something a bit different,” says Hannah Duffy Russo, Camino’s head of training and drinks.
The drinks include a hot gin and tonic, made with sloe and London dry gin plus tonic syrup, still mineral water and a lemon garnish. There’s also a hot gingerbread version made with gingerbread syrup, and sloe gin with mulled spiced apple juice. The drinks are served at sipping temperature (80°C) with 35ml of spirits at £8 each compared to £11 for a classic G&T with 50ml of gin.
“We want it to be good margin for us but also an attractive price point for people to try it,” she says.
Beyond gin, darker spirits come into their own when the nights draw in, says senior whisky specialist David Miles at supplier Edrington- Beam Suntory UK. “Whisky always goes down really well with consumers at Christmas,” he says. “Traditional cocktails like the Old Fashioned should be a staple on any good drinks menu, but particularly over the festive season when diners tend to indulge in deeper flavours.
“More and more we’re seeing bartenders take inspiration from the coffee industry, experimenting with different flavours to create new festive cocktails – chestnut, eggnog and gingerbread all work well.”
That’s exactly what’s happening at vegan pub and restaurant The Spread Eagle in Hackney, which is serving a Chestnut Old Fashioned, made with home-made chestnut syrup, bourbon and brandy. The pub has also created a Douglas Fir Gimlet and Mince Pie Mojito using home-made syrups infused with foraged fir from St Albans and a mince pie mix made by co-owner Luke McLoughlin’s mum.
“The syrups are easy to make and give a really good kick of flavour,” he says. “We have two stations at the bar for cocktails with two members of staff who will pretty much mix cocktails all night. It’s all about the pre-prep and setting up the bar to be efficient.”
Presentation is also key, he adds, with specific glassware, straws and garnishes for different drinks, which are then promoted via Instagram. The downside is that the extras make it harder to keep track of margins on cocktails (which are priced around £8.50).
“If we’re being honest, we don’t know exactly what it costs to make a cocktail when you’ve got people foraging Douglas fir for us to make syrup,” says McLoughlin. “Ideally, we’d like 70-80%, but when you factor in glassware and man hours you’re probably looking at 70%.”
Increased demand for cocktails
Schweppes 1783’s recently launched Muscavado variant is a good fit for a warming winter cocktail. The mixer is naturally flavoured to deliver hints of vanilla, caramel and butterscotch. One of the suggested serves is the Choc and Rye (50ml rye whiskey, two dashes of walnut bitters, 25ml sweet vermouth, 10ml lemon juice and one 200ml bottle Schweppes 1783 Muscavado). The new variant joins the five-strong 1783 range which includes Crisp Tonic Water, Light Tonic Water, Golder Ginger Ale, as well as two flavoured tonics; Salty Lemon Tonic Water and Quenching Cucumber Tonic Water. The 1783 range was launched last year as part of the Schweppes brand’s biggest investment in its 235-year history.
Going the extra mile with Christmas drinks is money well spent, according to Funkin Cocktails, which supplies fruit purées, syrups and pre-batched cocktail mixers. “Cocktails are going to be in higher demand than ever over the festive period,” says Ben Anderson, Funkin head of marketing. “It is important to theme serves for Christmas. No matter the type of outlet, attention to detail is fundamental.”
North comfort: Egg-Not at the Lovat Loch Ness hotel is made with Southern Comfort
Christmas decorations and desiccated coconut as snow all feature in Funkin’s cocktail ideas, while its Snow Spiked Stiletto recipe combines prosecco, pomegranate purée and rhubarb syrup, plus edible white glitter around the rim and a candy cane garnish.
The Lovat Loch Ness hotel in the Highlands doesn’t go quite as far as glitter and candy canes, but seasonal garnishes and winter flavours are a big part of the festive cocktails in the restaurant and bar. Giffard ginger syrup and Mozart chocolate bitters are key ingredients in its eggnog-inspired Egg-not, made with Southern Comfort 100 and vanilla vodka.
“People seem to want sweeter flavours at Christmas,” says assistant manager Marty Salkauskas. “So our Old Fashioned is made with rum [Ron Zacapa 23] because it blends really nicely with Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur) and chocolate bitters, and doesn’t overpower the sweet flavours.”
Get the combination of festive flavours and eye-catching presentation right and Christmas drinks can become hot stuff during a cold snap, says McLoughlin back at The Spread Eagle.
“A cocktail is a bit of theatre. Everyone will be drinking gin and beer then someone will order a cocktail and it’s like a domino effect. Half an hour later, half the bar will be drinking them.”
Zero-tolerance: taking a more sober approach
While Andy from accounts might be necking Old Fashioneds like they are going out of fashion at the office party, there’s just as likely to be guests that don’t want to drink alcohol at all.
The proportion of people who are teetotal in the UK almost doubled between 2005 and 2015, according to the annual Health Survey for England, to reach 17% of the population with the figure even higher among millennials.
Franklin & Sons has tapped into this trend with its range of premium soft drinks, in flavours such as wild strawberry and Scottish raspberry with cracked black pepper, which are designed to be served over ice in a tall wine glass, and garnished with fresh fruit.
“We know that mindful drinking has become increasingly popular over the past year, but there are still very few options for those who want the premium, alcohol-free experience in bar,” says head of marketing Jen Draper.
The products follow research by the soft drinks and mixers company into drinking habits, which found that almost half (46%) of under-35s say they would be likely to order a mocktail.
Lower alcohol mixed drinks are also becoming more popular, says the company, including vermouth, port or sherry mixed with tonic. “Both port and sherry offer less than 20% of alcohol by volume – perfect for mixing with tonic water over the winter season,” says Draper.