Cocktails for the at-home drinker

When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. When life gives you a global pandemic, tells you to stay indoors, puts you in charge of your little angels’ education and closes the pub, you’ll need something far stronger than lemonade.

See the boom in mail order cocktail offerings for proof. Everyone from big spirits brands to indie bar operators are using a growing array of innovative packaging to get their products to drinkers and counteract the disastrous impact of yet another lockdown.

Grey Goose is shipping kits containing the elements of Pornstar Martinis with access to an online video guide by the cocktail’s creator, Douglas Ankrah. Monkey Shoulder posted kits to 130 bartenders around the world for its November Lock In Live event. Black Tot marked its 50th anniversary with the launch of a tasting kit and a 24-hour rum festival on Facebook.

“It’s all about liquid on lips for brands – using pouches and tasting kits allows them to reach more people for less spend,” says Steph DiCamillo, a former bartender and brand ambassador for coffee-infused Colón Salvadoreño rum, who founded mail order business Cocktails by Mail (CBM) last November.

“When Colón launched in April 2020, it wasn’t able to use any of the normal sampling mechanics. So, I created cocktail pouch tasting kits using the format of slim bags in slim boxes that are small enough to fit through a letterbox. We soon discovered that there is huge demand for real, quality cocktails sent direct to people’s homes.”

Following the success of online mixing classes using the kits to support the rum’s launch, DiCamillo began hatching plans for CBM – with one key difference: CBM uses biodegradable pouches, instead of the heat-sealed plastic pouches and miniature glass bottles in wider use (Grey Goose, Monkey Shoulder and Black Tot all use glass in the above examples).

“Every time I filled a plastic pouch my heart died a little,” she says. “Technically they’re recyclable with supermarket bags, but I knew I couldn’t count on people to go out of their way to do this. When I started forming CBM as a company, priority number one was finding a more eco-friendly packaging solution.”

CROWDED MARKET

Having a point of difference is crucial. Home cocktails is an increasingly crowded market as operators left reeling by the closure of Britain’s bars look for new ways to do business. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And everyone knows mother likes her gin.

“By far our most popular cocktail over Christmas was our Superfruit Negroni, a mix of Whitley Neill Rhubarb & Ginger gin, Campari, Martini Rosso, hibiscus shrub, sea buckthorn and rhubarb bitters,” says Chris Edwards, founder of Brixton’s Shrub & Shutter bar and First Aid Box in Herne Hill, which has not opened its doors since the first lockdown.

“First Aid Box was just too small to accommodate the 2m distancing rule, so we had to close. But people still wanted our cocktails, so we started selling in the local area and ended up selling loads.

When full lockdown came in again, we had to temporarily close Shrub & Shutter. Now we have widened deliveries out across the UK mainland.”

Transparent Pina Coladas, Blueberry Sours and Sazer-Quacks (all packaged in trademark apothecary-style bottled complete with child-proof lids) have also been taking the edge off lockdown for Edwards’ punters. Canned versions of Shrub & Shutter cocktails with Chapel Down wines, such as Dry Flint Negronis and Granny Smith Gimlets, are also on the cards.

Edwards, who built his ecommerce site himself with the platform Squarespace, is not alone in having to adapt fast.

David Wood, founder of premium drinks importer & distributor The Liana Collection, says: “In May, we had a really hard decision to make after the collapse of our on-trade business: either let our team go or fight on and react to this new climate.”

He chose the latter, launching The Liana Cocktail Company in June.

With punters unable to get into the bar, the venture aims to bring the bar to them with doorstep deliveries of premixed, quality cocktails in pouches with a novel twist: QR codes linked to online videos of “virtual bartenders” explaining the stories behind the drinks.

“It continues our mission to help tell the stories of exceptional, small producers and, for the first time ever, consumers can hear these stories in their living room, kitchen or local park through the magic of QR codes,” says Wood. “This is a technology I believe we will see a lot more of in consumer goods in the coming months.”

Indeed, Becky Davies, head of commercial at spirits distributor Ten Locks, says punters aren’t only missing the theatre of having cocktails mixed before their eyes, they’re also missing the patter of bartenders and the knowledge they share.

“Communication with end users is still key,” she says. “While they can’t spend time asking questions in a venue before they make their choice, players should consider including an information card with online orders. Details about a brand, its values and the venue itself will help build loyalty and encourage visits in person once restrictions are lifted.”

LASTING IMPACT

The questions on everyone’s minds (if not their lips) are how long the on-trade will take to recover and what that means for the longevity of doorstep cocktails. When restrictions were loosened last summer many drinkers flocked to bars while they could, but online cocktail delivery companies say demand remained strong.

It seems likely that Covid will have a lasting impact on the way we socialise. That’s why newcomers should view home delivery as more than just a stop gap to get them through the current difficulties. Communication and ensuring deliveries are made on time and undamaged will be neglected at their peril.

“Delivery companies have been operating at higher capacities and we’ve experienced more damage as a result,” says Richard Sager, UK general manager at Nio Cocktails, which began distributing premixed cocktails in recyclable, responsibly sourced paper sleeves that fit through letterboxes in the UK in 2019, after launching in Italy two years earlier.

Sager says the company “strengthened elements of [its] packaging to minimise damage during delivery and reduce any risk of customer disappointment”. He adds: “It’s the fact that we had developed robust working practices that allowed us to meet the increased demand without risking tarnishing our brand.”

Supping cocktails at home could well become the new normal. If operators that have made the switch to home deliveries in recent months are to stay the course, they’ll need to develop similar practices.

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