Bottled cocktails are helping bars fill revenue gaps

11 June, 2020 by
Madeline Woolway

While bars were forced to close their doors temporarily, governments and councils around the country extended a lifeline in the shape of relaxed licensing laws. The result? More drinks professionals turning their attention to bottled cocktails. Already a bonafide industry trend, they’ve become the sole focus and only source of revenue for many businesses. Unable to rely on the usual crowd of customers, bartenders have found a way to imbue their packaged imbibes with character.

Continental Deli in Sydney’s Newtown and the CBD has built a reputation that extends beyond its four walls. The brand is known for its canned goods, which include fish, soup and everything in between. Even dessert is covered with the recent addition of flan. Cocktails are a natural extension, and the team has been creating canned classics from the get go. It made the move from bar to general store a little smoother.

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“We were already doing them as part of our menu anyway, but the transition to retail [only] has meant it’s higher volume now,” says head bartender-cum-shopkeeper Michael Nicolian.

In South East Queensland, Toowoomba’s Santé Cocktail Bar had plans to develop bottled cocktails when they opened in December 2019, but licensing costs proved prohibitive. When COVID-19 restrictions forced the bar to close less than six months later, owners Alexandra Percy and Loïc Mouchelin initially put out a range of non-alcoholic bases for consumers to use at home. Customers would send in a photo of their home liquor cabinet, from which Percy and Mouchelin would craft bespoke mixers.

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“If you’ve got vodka, rum or gin, it’s fairly straightforward, but we had some quite interesting ones like smoked gin and peanut brittle liqueur and all that kind of stuff,” says Percy. “Then [the Queensland government] changed the restrictions, so we started doing takeaway.”

Takeaway options haven’t made up for lost revenue from bar service, but it’s still worth the time and logistics. It’s hard to compare serving drinks in-house to serving takeaway drinks, says Nicolian. To begin with, there’s the difference in price. “We charge less for [takeaway],” he says. “We wanted to make it approachable and a price point where people can buy them and then come back.” Accessibility means people can make a purchase week in, week out, not just as a one-off novelty to support a local business. That’s what makes Continental’s canned cocktail range viable long term.

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With just Percy and Mouchelin on staff, Santé is a lean business. “The takeaway has been going quite well, better than we expected,” says Percy. “And it’s basically been keeping us afloat. It covers rent and it covers food.”

Generating revenue is just one concern. Making bottled cocktails might fulfil immediate cashflow needs, but the service side of bartending simply isn’t there. “How long is it going to keep me or other people captivated and interested and motivated to keep doing it all?” asks Nicolian. “Certainly a few months. But after that, you lose the sense of the thing that you love and the reason you got into the industry, which is making people happy and excited and creating a fun thing for them to enjoy.”

Find out how Continental Deli and Santé Cocktail Bar have risen to the challenge of providing an experience through retail in Hospitality’s June/July issue. Sign up to receive the digital magazine. 

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