High on flavour, low on ABV: capitalise on in-demand serves

Guest writer & on-trade expert, Jonathan Watt, talks about how low alcohol and nonalcoholic drinks are thriving within the food and drink industry.

Reading time 8 minutes

It’s no exaggeration to say the thirst for great low and no-alcohol serves is snowballing. On-trade sales of low and no options rocketed by 48% in 2019 alone, while completely alcohol-free options such as mocktails or ‘virgin cocktails’ has almost doubled, enjoying 80% growth, according to CGA data.

This year, the trend towards healthier drinks in the on-trade has only been boosted. With health at the forefront of the public’s mind, for obvious reasons, and the changing role of hospitality venues as a place to catch up and enjoy oneself more responsibly. There really is a golden opportunity for operators to cash in on this thriving category, which offers superb margins.

A shift in emphasis from ABV to flavours

Multi-award winning bartender, Kesia McHardy, has noticed a shift in emphasis in how consumers use their local bars and what they are looking for from them regarding drinks and this is less about high ABV and more about interesting flavours.

She said: “This year alone has seen us separated from our loved ones and close friends, so many people aren't out to let loose in a big way but more so for the enjoyment of each other’s company and actually being allowed to go to somewhere outside.

“The general attitude towards drinking has shifted in the past year or so. Guests are more interested in the flavour profiles and creativity that goes into a drink instead of how much alcohol it contains.”


Project One

Jon Lee, co-founder of renowned Leeds cocktail bar The Hedonist, agrees. “Low and no serves are pretty crucial at the moment,” he said. “Outside of London in smaller cities we don’t have that super high level of midweek trade.


“There’s not the same number of people and everyone’s working so what we have found is that a lot of our lower ABV serves from the one-unit drinks menu we’ve created, Project One, are selling really well.  It means that customers can go out and not have to worry about wasting tomorrow because they’ve had too much to drink.”


Project One was created by Jon and fellow co-owner Dan Crowther to offer low-alcohol options that didn’t compromise on flavour and allow the increasing number of customers monitoring their intake to know exactly how much they’ve had to drink. Each drink on the menu is carefully created to contain just one unit of alcohol while pushing flavour to the fore.

And it’s an approach he believes operators can easily adopt to cater to the growing demand for great low-alcohol serves.

“I think for bars the great thing about one-unit drinks is they don’t have to be complicated, said Jon. “Some of our drinks only contain two ingredients but they’re still really solid options. I think trusting flavour is the best way to add these drinks to your menu. If you know certain flavours work together it doesn’t need to be about alcohol or the lack of it. I think this approach will become more and more mainstream as time goes on."


“All of the Britvic products have been great for us when creating our one-unit drinks. The London Essence Company range has been fantastic for bars as they’ve expanded their unusual and wonderful flavours. The White Peach and Jasmine Crafted Soda works well with a lot of products and mixes perfectly with Prosecco, while Pepsi Max - due in part to its low sugar content - allows the flavours of a spirit to really carry through so you don’t need a lot of alcohol to create a good drink with it.”

Creating the X factor

Essential to adding value to mixed drinks in bars is the uniqueness the drinks are imbued with, that special X factor that increasingly savvy drinkers want to see when their drink is being prepared. Whether it’s theatre through an experienced bartender’s level of skill and care, a rarely-seen garnish which complements the taste of the final liquid or how it’s prepared; an elevated drink allows licensees to better please their clientele and charge more for their low and no serves.

“Considering how we serve our drinks is really important,” said Jon. “What we’ve found since we opened back up after lockdown was that there were less orders for G&Ts and customers were asking for more cocktails as those were the drinks they couldn’t make as well at home.

“We always spend time thinking about how we’ll serve our drinks, whether its garnish, glassware or the type of ice we use. We like to make it a bit more special for them by adding a little bit of invention. That helps lift the serve and makes your bar stand out.

Naturally, with a great garnish playing an important role on the overall presentation of a mixed drink, Jon singled out a few options for consideration that are on-trend right now and can help serve shine whatever the venue.

“I find blackberry leaves are really good, they have a really earthy kind of tartness to them. Honeycomb is a bit more expensive but it’s great. Less costly garnishes include fresh thyme and rosemary, which are always good and really easy to get hold of. I’d also suggest using basil with pink peppercorns depending on the drink.”


Customers will pay more for creativity

Building on that view, serial cocktail competition winner and bar manager, Lachlan Rooney, who has previously worked in top Parisian bar Le Syndicat, said that as people will pay more for creativity, for example, he has produced a great alcohol-free alternative to the classic Piña Colada with a bit of innovation.

He said: “Apart from basic vodkas, most spirits are in specific cocktails for their unique flavour. Identically recreating the flavours of premium gins, whiskies, rums, or bison-grass vodka isn’t really doable so don’t focus too much on that. Think about what you can emphasise and what these spirits bring when combined with other ingredients. I did so for my 0% ABV Piña Colada. The rum in a Piña Colada brings notes of tropical fruit, molasses and holiday vibes in a bottle. So, I thought what can I add that represents these without using the actual rum.


“The recipe I’ve come up with consists of cream of coconut, Britvic Pineapple Juice, star anise, lemon peel, demerara sugar syrup, lime juice, pomegranate, molasses and milk. It makes a pretty mean, tropical milk punch and although it costs around £1.50 per serve, you could sell a milk punch for around £6-7 regardless if it has alcohol in it or not.”


Finally, when it comes to ramping up interest and letting customers know there’s new and exciting low and no-alcohol serves available in your bar, there are several ways to promote these money makers.


“Menu inserts always work a treat, they guide customers’ eyes towards a focal point on a menu,” said Lachlan. “LIMITED EDITION always works wonders as people don’t want to miss out on things… FOMO and all that. And remember to use seasonal ingredients. Marketing works for bars in calculated, broken down sections."

“If your customers are seeing lots of Halloween marketing in shops, think about autumn ingredients, Halloween promotions and ghoulish names, etc. Social media is a free marketing tool that’s usually flooded with food pics, table set-ups, events and menus; but not as often for promoting a meaningful message that creates a connection with your audience. To catch consumers’ attention online switch it up. Use special editions and limited time offers, remember to add jokes and some personality where appropriate. In sending these messages include your unique low and no serves. People will have them in the back of their mind next time they think back to what they saw on their feeds that day.”

Reinforcing the wisdom of smartly placed menu inserts for special low-alcohol serves, Kesia said she has seen such an approach “resonate with the many customers who want to look after their wellbeing more. These inserts weren’t to say that the drinking of alcohol has been discredited in any way and they seemed to work extremely well,” she said. “It opened up the conversation of low/no serves tremendously and gave us the opportunity to discuss our ideas with that menu. One of our best-selling drinks was from this section too. It proved that, as aforementioned, consumers are more interested in depth and flavour profiles rather than the alcoholic content.”

Suggested Serves

Coffee & Tonic

  • 40ml coffee liqueur
  • 150ml Britvic Light Tonic
  • Orange twist or orange wedge to garnish

“The simplicity of the Coffee & Tonic is what makes it work so effectively. The flavours are bittersweet with a hint of fresh orange zest to lift it. It’s a “build" serve, which means put the ingredients in a glass over ice, stir & serve. Easy!”

Strawberries & Cream

  • 10ml Belvedere Smogory Rye Vodka 
  • 20ml Cambryzette Wild Strawberry Vermouth 
  • 100ml R Whites Lemonade 
  • Basil leaf to garnish 

“The Strawberries & Cream serve is a very popular drink for early evening. A great libation to enjoy after dinner. The wild strawberry vermouth and creamy vodka combine perfectly with R Whites Lemonade. The basil gives a beautiful lift of freshness on the nose.”

Eastside (with a twist)

  • 25ml lemon Juice
  • 20ml cold peppermint tea
  • 15ml macerated strawberry syrup*
  • 40ml Britvic Ginger Ale
  • 4 small chunks of cucumber
  • 4 mint leaves

*Simply mash together a small amount strawberries and equal weight sugar, put the mixture into a tub overnight until it's like a stew, then blend and strain it.

“Muddle the all the ingredients, barring the ginger ale together, dry shake then wet shake, double strain into a coupette glass, then top up with ginger ale and garnish with a mint leaf."

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