The Cocktail Bar of Tomorrow

Evidently, one of the hot topics at Tales of the Cocktail 2012 was cocktails on tap.

This is exactly what it sounds like — pre-batched cocktails pulled from a tap, a la beer (or in some cases these days, wine). And sure, there’s a bit of novelty here for cocktail geeks, but the real reasons for the discussion is that this serving method has a few business advantages:

  1. Service times are reduced to the time it takes to pull a beer (let’s say 1min)
  2. Bartenders don’t need to be as skilled or knowledgeable, thus reducing labor costs
  3. Mistakes are reduced, increasing drink consistency
  4. Prices are (likely) reduced to reflect all of the above

For the customer, this means less of a wait for a cheaper, more consistent product served by a staff member who is no longer spending their time making drinks and can instead focus on things like customer service.

Great, right? So why does it feel so wrong?

Craft cocktail drinkers seem to love the ritual of it all: the careful building of ingredients, the stirring or shaking, the garnishing. Part of what you pay for is the show, the experience. And considering the power of the “X Factor” — the emotional and mental perception of taste — there’s some validity to the claim that this ritual enhances the taste.

There also may be a fear that this will alter the atmosphere and the clientele of one’s favorite bar. For better or worse, prices act as a gating factor, whether the payment is in dollars or just in time spent waiting. If a bar suddenly lowers both cost and wait times, an influx of new customers will follow.

But that’s the point. Bars are a business like any other, and it’s no surprise that many have their eyes set on higher revenues. And there are only so many ways you can make more money:

  1. More volume
  2. Lower costs
  3. Higher prices

We already discussed how cocktails on tap will achieve #2. And by courting new customers, #1 will follow as well. So what about #3?

Well, in NYC, $15 is now pretty standard for a craft cocktail at a top notch place, and Grub Street thinks $20 is not that far off. Cocktails on tap will create another tier for cocktail bars, much the way Champagne Cocktails are priced at a premium at places like Pegu Club.

Towards this goal of tiering and increased revenues, I also think we’ll see more flights and half-sized cocktails. Flights allow for presentation and pairing to up the price, whereas half-sized cocktails allow customers to try cocktails without committing to an entire $15 (or $20, when the time comes) purchase.

Besides tiering within a bar, I think we’ll see even more bar stratification, allowing venues with only “to order” service to raise prices. And there will be even greater pressure on bars to differentiate themselves from their neighbors: custom ice, homemade ingredients, unique glassware and much much more.

As is always the case with disruption, there will be a lot of businesses that won’t be able to move fast enough to keep up and a lot of opportunity for those willing to embrace innovation.


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