Raising the Bar

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Expert advice on cocktail trends and pairing ideas that can create buzz and boost profits

By Sara Perez Webber

In your catering business, do you follow beverage trends like you follow food trends? Are you incorporating cocktails, wines and food-and-beverage pairings throughout your sales pitches? Will guests at your events remember what they drank as much as what they ate?

If the answer to any of those questions is “no,” it may be time to raise your bar game. When you create interesting food-and-beverage pairings and serve cocktails that showcase the latest mixology trends, you’re bound to create buzz and increase sales, according to Sharon Charny Woschitz and Jessica Bernosky of the Breakthru Beverage Group (breakthrubev.com), a wholesale distribution company representing a broad portfolio of premier wine, spirits and beer brands.

“This is what the customer of today is looking for,” says Woschitz, hotel headquarter director for Breakthru, whose clients include the top 20 hotel and resort headquarter beverage buyers in the U.S. She helps those companies enhance their beverage programs through wine and spirits education and creative concepts, concentrating on the catering and banquet side of the business. It’s a side of the business Woschitz knows well, having previously worked as a director of catering and food-and-beverage director at a Baltimore hotel.

“If I were a director of catering again, I wouldn’t get rid of the classics, and I wouldn’t get rid of the traditional four-hour open bar, but my menus would expand by pages offering these pairings and creative catering beverage stations that are interactive,” says Woschitz. “I’d offer a bourbon tasting station, an interactive Bloody Mary station, a Bellini station. It depends on who your customer is, of course, but I’d enhance that traditional four-hour open bar with so many other choices, so that you’re meeting the needs of everyone. There should be a choice for everyone on catering menus.”

Woschitz and Bernosky recently spoke at the NACE Experience convention in July, giving tips to attendees on how to turn their catering operations into showcases for beverage trends. “This is a huge opportunity to set yourself apart,” says Bernosky, director of beverage development for Breakthru Beverage Group, who’s responsible for crafting and presenting cocktails for national and regional buyers, including hotel catering directors. She also handles training development for bartenders and banquet staff.

Palate-Pleasing Pairings

To give NACE attendees a taste of how creative cocktails can be paired with complementary foods, Bernosky created three drinks served during the cocktail hour of the convention’s gala, each paired with an appetizer. Guests could choose from a “Florida’s Finest” cocktail (a nod to the convention’s location in Fort Lauderdale), made with St. Augustine vodka and clementine juice, served in a mini Mason jar and paired with deviled eggs with caviar; a “Razzling with Woodford,” made with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, raspberry juice and lemon juice, served in a small milk bottle and paired with beef satay with spicy peanut sauce; or a “Hendrick’s Farm to Glass,” made with Hendrick’s gin, fresh lemon juice and lemon rosemary simple syrup, paired with fried shrimp with gin horseradish sauce.

Cocktail Trends

In addition to creative pairings, incorporating the latest mixology trends into the cocktails you offer will add sizzle to your events and set you apart from the competition. According to Bernosky and Woschitz, the top five cocktail trends that their customers have been requesting to add into their beverage offerings are:

1. Fresh ingredients
Consumers are “shopping the perimeter of the store for fresh products like never before,” according to market research firm IRi, and their aversion to canned or processed ingredients extends to the bar menu. “We’re talking about things like freshly squeezed juice, as opposed to using [bottled] orange juice or grapefruit juice,” says Woschitz. In short, the “farm-to-table” concept is extending beyond the kitchen to the bar as well.

2. Tea time
The U.S. may be coffee crazy, but tea sales have grown steadily in the past five years (in fact, according to the Tea Association of the U.S.A., 87 percent of Millennials drink tea, so the numbers most likely will continue to rise). The growing taste for tea extends to cocktails as well. “Incorporating tea into cocktails and cocktail menus is a trend that is very hot-to-trot right now,” says Bernosky. This concept goes far beyond “the Arnold Palmers of the world,” she points out, with bartenders experimenting with tea infusions. In fact, tea mixes well with many different types of spirits, say Bernosky and Woschitz, including bourbon, tequila, gin and vodka.

“An example would be tea infused with bourbon and honey,” says Woschitz. “And the thing about tea is it’s already batched; no one makes it a la carte behind the bar. It’s so easy to use in catering and extremely popular right now.”

3. Creative garnishes
Move over, lemon and lime wedges. Creative cocktail garnishes are in, providing another opportunity to add an interesting twist (so to speak) to a drink.

For example, says Bernosky, a vodka clementine cocktail—with freshly squeezed clementine juice—could be topped with a smoked clementine rind, which can be prepped in advance. “It would add an aroma to the drink, and it would add flair,” she says. “It’s bringing the sizzle to a cocktail.”

Not only are garnishes becoming more interesting, they’re increasingly edible. “Another example would be a little Caprese skewer over a Bloody Mary—it’s so classic and fairly simple,” says Woschitz. “You’re seeing bacon being served with a Bloody Mary, you’re seeing green beans and bacon, and mozzarella. Those are also fresh ingredients, so all the trends are tying in together.”

4. Seasonal ingredients
Another trend that’s migrating from the kitchen to the bar is the preference for seasonal ingredients.

“You’re not going to use pumpkin in the middle of July in a cocktail,” says Woschitz. “You’re going to use it in the fall, and you’re going to use ingredients like cranberry and pomegranate in the fall and winter.”

Woschitz points out that it makes sense for caterers and hotels to update their beverage selections when they’re rotating their menus to reflect the season. “Every time you change your menu, change your cocktails and change your wine,” she advises. Using her home base of Maryland as an example, she notes that rosé is the wine of choice for many during the summer, paired with the state’s famous crab cakes and soft-shell crab. But during the cooler fall and chilly winter months, customers are more likely to order a deeper red wine or heavier chardonnay.

5. Big demand for tiny bubbles
Consumers are giddy over bubbly these days, and the preference for champagne, prosecco and other sparkling wines is impacting cocktail menus. “My favorite trend right now is that a lot of people are asking for champagne cocktails,” says Bernosky, who’s created a variety of them. “This is going beyond the Kir Royale and beyond just the glass of brut and incorporating champagne into the cocktails, which brings all of these trends together. You can do seasonal ingredients in champagne cocktails, you can do fresh ingredients in champagne cocktails. Prosecco is so hot right now, and it’s being utilized in a lot of different beverages as well. Bartenders and mixologists have taken bubbly to a whole new level.”

Champagne is being mixed with a variety of spirits, including gin, vodka, tequila and bourbon, says Bernosky. “It’s very easy implementing this from a catering perspective, because you can batch the cocktail beforehand and then champagne actually becomes the topper, replacing soda water,” she says. “It brings a whole different zest and effervescence to cocktails that’s incredible.”

Sparkling wine’s versatility adds to its appeal. “You have so many different levels of sweetness with champagne and sparkling wine, so you may finish one cocktail with a dry brut and another with a prosecco,” points out Woschitz.

“And different colors, too,” adds Bernosky. “I recently started using a lot of brut rosé, because if the cocktail just looks clear and there’s not a lot of pizzazz to it, you put a brut rosé in it, and it has a different flavor profile and looks absolutely beautiful.”

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Selling Strategies

Whatever creative ideas you come up with to enhance your beverage offerings, you must build them in from the beginning of your sales presentations and scatter them throughout your menus, say Woschitz and Bernosky. If you tack on wines and cocktail offerings to the end of a proposed menu, customers are less likely to see them as essential, and more likely to react negatively due to sticker shock.

“You have to build a package around what the customer is looking for, and that includes a cocktail at the beginning, it includes some type of creative catering beverage station, and it includes wine service with dinner,” says Woschitz, who suggests bundling all the proposed food-and-beverage offerings at an event into one per-person price. “They all have to be discussed up front, in the beginning.”

What it all boils down to, they say, is paying attention to your market and your customer, and finding ways to exceed their expectations with innovative beverage offerings that will enhance the entire catering experience. “Not every hotel has a customer that is looking for something as sophisticated as a smoked clementine rind, but you can still be creative with your cocktails by using fresh ingredients, by being creative with the garnishes, and by staying seasonal and staying local,” says Woschitz. “That’s what this next generation of customers is looking for.”