Bringing Light to Dark

With the help of industry experts, we delve into the dark and aged spirit category, revealing the growing curiosity among customers and how you can align your bar with this trend, and the benefits it can bring, in terms of increasing revenue.

Dark spirits, often referred to as aged spirits, bring huge value to venues through their versatility, premium price point and increasing demand among consumers, which means it is of growing importance that these spirits are being incorporated into your bar’s drinks menu.

Over recent years, the dark and aged spirit sector has seen huge expansion, and continues to grow, with the curiosity around the category from consumers being the driving force. Speaking on the growth of dark and aged spirits, Dawn Davies, Speciality Drinks Buying Director, explains: “We know in the aged spirit category we are seeing more interest from the consumer. Whisky, rum and aged tequilas are showing very positive increases, but smaller categories like Cognac and Armagnac are also slowly getting the attention of the consumer.”

Kieran Healey-Ryder, Head of Whisky Discovery, and Louise Easton, Marketing Manager at Whyte & Mackay, agree, commenting on the growing trend of dark spirits among consumers and how this is not expected to stop anytime soon: “Rum, whisky, cognac and brandy are experiencing strong consumer demand and we expect that to continue. We believe that Single Malt is the engine of the spirits category growth.”

Consumers’ curiosity around the category and their desire to experience new and unique tastes is evident through the growth of the category as a whole. However, it is clear that the increase in emerging global spirits, such as Japanese whisky, is also fuelling the growth. Kieran and Louise say: “It’s no secret that emerging global spirits markets have been crucial to growth in recent years. In fact, the Scotch Whisky Association reported that Asian whisky consumption surpassed that of Europe for the first time last year, with Asia Pacific estimated to be growing at a CAGR of 5.25% and set to reach 2.4 billion USD by 2028.”

This growth is why Dawn advises bars to align themselves with this trend, saying: “The end consumer is embracing dark spirits more and more and therefore so should venues, as they should be catering to the ever changing needs of the customer.”

But what triggered the category’s expansion? Kieran and Louise put it down to consumer habits as a result of the pandemic and people’s desire to experience new and unique tastes. They say: “Personally, I found in lockdown consumers were open to discover, to hear new stories, of different products. That curiosity remains a key factor in the spirits category growth now.”

Dark and aged spirits are the perfect category for curious customers to explore, providing rich and complex tastes, as well as a unique story behind the aging process, and often rich history behind the brands, which adds to the excitement surrounding the category. Dawn explains: “Aged spirits offer a real depth of flavour and complexity which make them appealing from a mixing perspective as well as holding a cachet in the customers’ eyes”.

As well as this, dark spirits are extremely versatile, meaning they can be enjoyed neat or in cocktails, by an array of different customers and demographics. Dawn says: “Aged spirits are very versatile and if we are looking across all aged spirits, there are lot of different flavours so there will be something for everyone.”

Florian Thireau, Director of Mixology at The Peninsula London, also highlights dark spirits’ versatility, particularly when they are handled with care: “They can be very versatile if you treat them the right way. First and foremost, serving them at the right temperature with the right percentage of dilution within a cocktail makes them more accessible and less harsh.”

Dark spirits’ versatility is a huge pull factor as to why embracing this liquid gold and expanding your offering is so important, and with the cocktail boom, there hasn’t been a better time to experiment with new tastes and flavours that the category offers. What’s more, cocktails are great to encourage the less curious customer to explore dark spirits, by creating a fun and engaging drink that appeals to their taste buds and opens up a new world of flavours.

Davide Zanardo, UK Head of Advocacy, Bacardi, highlights the role of dark spirits within cocktails, suggesting why venues should be embracing dark spirits within their serves. He says: “There has been a barrier – you either liked dark spirits or you didn’t, but that’s now changing. We are living in the golden era of cocktails. People are drinking cocktails more than ever before and obviously some of these cocktails are made with darker spirits.

“There is a greater appreciation of dark spirits and how they don’t have to be enjoyed on their own in an old school way, they can be enjoyed in more fun and engaging drinks,” he adds.

Speaking more, Davide comments on the changing target audience of dark spirits, suggesting the popularity of these amongst younger consumers: “The stereotypical consumer is not there anymore. Dark spirits are enjoyed by the younger generation. Spiced rum is skyrocketing in the UK especially with 20-30-year-olds as they are looking for premium rums that are a bit more adventurous with flavour.

“It’s always flavour first which is why this year we launched Bacardí Caribbean Spiced, a premium, aged rum with a flavour full of spices, pineapple and coconut.”

Florian offers some well-respected dark spirit cocktails to consider placing at the top of your venue’s cocktail menu, suggesting how these can elevate your venue. “Classics such as Old Fashioned, Vieux Carre or Presidente are at the top of the list and when well made, the complexity of it is outstanding and can create a unique drinking experience.”

By embracing these infamous classics, you can elevate your venue by providing guests with a great-tasting cocktail, while meeting the ongoing demand for the category. But what about for the consumer that lacks interest in dark spirits? There are a few different ways your bar can promote dark spirit offerings to guests, ensuring you are reaching a wider audience.

Pietro Rizzo, Bar Director at the Aubrey, advises venues to promote dark spirits through a more personal experience for guests. He says: “I would suggest a ‘flight’ or tasting of three to five small whiskey glasses as an excellent way of taking the guest on a journey through a specific region or getting them familiar with different distilleries.

“You need a great bartender leading the tasting who’s able to engage the guests and enhance their experience by sharing interesting insights and all their knowledge.”

Often, consumers can be overwhelmed by choice at the bar, and with endless options in front of them, ordering something they haven’t tried before, especially a spirit they know little about, can be daunting. This is why education and know-how of you and your bartenders is important – making suggestions of a dark spirit cocktail, and telling the customer a little more about the spirit can be the deciding factor in whether a customer orders the serve, and therefore decides whether that customer will explore all that the category has to offer.

Kieran and Louise advise venues on an exceptional entry-level whisky, Jura Single Malt – one to consider popping on your menu to encourage the not-so-curious consumer to explore all that the category has to offer. They explain: “Now UK’s number one Single Malt, it is a great entry level whisky offering consumers a fresh and lively experience. With a house style of fruity flavours and coastal notes, Jura offers a range of whiskies to suit wherever the drinker may be on their personal whisky journey while its origin story – created on its namesake island home to 260 people – plays into the provenance trend we’re seeing emerge across the spirits category. However, at its heart is respect for the liquid: a house style of fruity, aromatic and coastal notes.”

To further encourage consumers to explore the category, Alex Haslam, Head of Category Development, On Trade at Diageo GB, suggests stocking some well-recognised spirit brands. He says: “Operators can encourage adults to explore the category by stocking a few well-known iconic rum brands that people already know and enjoy, along with creative innovations introduced by leading brands. Captain Morgan, for example, is an iconic rum brand that has a range of unique rum-based spirit flavours for consumers to enjoy.”

Embracing and expanding these dark spirits on your bar’s menu can help you to appeal to a large audience and answer the growing customer demand, but it also provides a monetary benefit to your bar. Aged spirits’ value is considerably larger per serve than the standard spirit, so promoting these in your cocktails and serves can offer an opportunity for increased profits. Pietro explains: “Typically, the older a spirit is, the more expensive it becomes; as our lives progress hopefully we can all afford some of these luxuries a bit more easily!”

Furthermore, dark spirits such as whisky’s appeal as a digestif, offers further opportunity for increased revenue. Dawn Davies comments on how dark and aged spirits can aid the upsell in your bar. She says: “The upsell is one of the most important techniques a venue can do to increase revenue, and aged spirits are a great way to enhance this.  Be this the drinks trolley at the end of a dinner or a cheeky one for the road, the key is training in these spirits in order to give your staff the confidence to effectively sell.”

To conclude, it is imperative to embrace and expand your dark spirit offerings, as a category that can aid your bar in appealing to a wide audience, and can also align your bar with the increasing curiosity surrounding these spirits. This will ultimately elevate your bar, through providing a quality guest experience and also bringing increased revenue.

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