“I’ll have what she’s having” is a phrase that will always be linked with the 1989 movie “When Harry Met Sally.” But if a restaurant can induce a similar request—to have what she’s having—it’s doing something right.
An easy way to do this is with festive cocktails, whose eye appeal is often a big selling point and can lead to copycat orders as they’re paraded across a dining room.
The proverbial cherry on top can be a strawberry, a cranberry, orange rind, cinnamon, whipped cream or a drizzle of honey or chocolate.
For the holidays, bd’s Mongolian Grill, a 34-unit chain that’s headquartered in Burnsville, Minnesota, serves a cider cocktail in a glass containing Captain Morgan Spiced Rum and cider, topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with cinnamon and sometimes adorned with a cinnamon stick.
It also offers a coffee cocktail, The Jolly Java, which is topped with whipped cream, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar then garnished with an orange twist.
“A good presentation is one of the simplest ways of selling drinks,” says Rachel Kasbrick, corporate mixologist/bartender for bd’s. “People these days have a shorter attention span, so creating visually appealing drinks is the easiest and quickest way to catch their attention.”
Wow with looks
“Presentation is key,” says JP Nguyen, beverage director at Xino, a Chinese restaurant in Santa Monica, California. “You want a cocktail to be balanced, but after that you’ve got to have something that looks good. We want to give the wow factor.”
Xino features a number of cocktails for the holidays, and Nguyen says he likes to follow what the kitchen’s doing, so he collaborates a lot with the chef.
For the holidays, he includes a lot of darker spirits such as bourbons and whiskies and spices them with flavors like cinnamon, pumpkin, pear and honey—“anything that reminds me of winter,” he says.
Pear nectar, apple, pomegranate, pumpkin, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon and rosemary are all flavors that summon the holiday spirit, says Elayne Duke, master mixologist for beverage company Diageo, whose U.S. business is based in Norwalk, Connecticut.
An ideal holiday beverage is apple cider, she says, and it can be served on the rocks or hot, garnished with a cinnamon stick. She makes it with bourbon, apple cider, some lemon juice to balance it out, maple syrup and a couple of dashes of Old Fashioned Aromatic Bitters, which add a cinnamon flavor.
The fizz factor
While these flavors all work well for the holidays, what also signals the holidays is fizz, says Tylor Field III, vice president of wine and spirits for Morton’s The Steakhouse, Chicago, “because sparkling adds to the feeling of festivity.”
Sparkling cocktail sales rise by 20 to 30 percent over regular cocktails during the holiday season, he adds. The festive cocktails cost $13 to $14. “Morton’s offers more sparkling cocktails as specials during the holidays so the sales rise is driven by our drink selection as much as it is for the guest preference of wanting sparkling cocktails,” Field says.
One of the chain’s popular winter drinks is the Sparkling Cinnamon Apple, which is served in a champagne flute with cinnamon sugar, making it taste like holiday apple pie, Field says. It contains Lindemans Pomme Lambic, Lunetta Prosecco, and honey syrup, with cinnamon sugar on the rim, and perhaps a tiny amount of thinned heavy cream.
Another drink is Morton’s Champagne Cocktail, which began as a festive cocktail but was so popular it has made it onto the permanent menu. It is especially popular in November and December.
The drink is made using cava, Pama (pomegranate flavored liqueur) and Grand Marnier, and has a cinnamon sugar rim.
Champagne: sexy, elegant, fun, celebratory
Tony Abou-Ganim, author of “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails,” says Champagne is the key to festive drinking. “It’s sexy, it’s elegant, it’s fun, it’s celebratory,” he says.
One of his favorites is the Champagne Celebration: Cointreau, Cognac, Peychaud’s Bitters and chilled sparking wine with a garnish of spiral of orange, highlighting the flavor of the Cointreau.
Diaego’s Duke suggests a Champagne cocktail of Tanqueray No. 10 gin muddled with rosemary, simple syrup and pear nectar, served in a Collins glass filled with ice, then topped with Champagne and garnished with rosemary.
Another popular cocktail that she recommends combines chocolate and Champagne. Godiva chocolate raspberry vodka is blended with a good brut Champagne and a drizzle of honey over the top, which will slide down into the glass. The cocktail is garnished with a strawberry or raspberry.
Holiday cocktails may look good, but they are also limited-time offers, which certainly helps sales, Kasbrick says.
“LTOs are good for business because it gives guests a timeframe of when they can actually order and experience the special cocktail, which leads them to order it before it is too late,” Kasbrick says.
At bd’s Mongolian Grill, the drinks will be launched shortly before Thanksgiving and run through New Year’s Eve. “Having them for a limited time makes them more interesting,” Kasbrick says.
Diners ready for festive cheer
But in general, diners are more receptive at this time of year.
Says Field: “Festive cocktails are a form of celebration … that capture the spirit of the season.”
“The guest on New Year’s Eve and the guest in December is different, and every restaurant has the opportunity to impress. Those are extremely busy weeks, so it’s a great time to win people as guests.”
Nguyen agrees, but thinks the drinks serve an even bigger purpose.
“People are very open to cocktails at Christmas because it’s festive, but it’s always good to have a change. We like to throw [festive cocktails] out there to keep the concept as fresh as possible,” he says.
Champagne may be the ideal ingredient for festive drinks, but what also work well are hot cocktails.
This year, bd’s Kasbrick is focusing on three: one using hot chocolate, one using coffee, and one using cider.
“I wanted to make sure I cover as many people’s palates as possible,” she says, adding that “hot drinks resemble the traditional Christmas drink of eggnog and can create nostalgia for a guest.”
The Jolly Java coffee cocktail includes Kahlua, Bailey’s, Grand Marnier and coffee. “Regular coffee works great; it’s the liqueur that you want to taste more,” Kasbrick says. “It’s the combination of the liquors that makes the drink.”
The Khan Fusion hot chocolate cocktail is a guilty pleasure, she says. It contains Chambord, Frangelico, Kahlua and hot chocolate (she uses Swiss Miss) topped with whipped cream and chocolate syrup.
The Spiked Cider features Captain Morgan Spiced Rum with cider and topped with whipped cream. “It’s amazing because you can’t taste the Captains—it tastes like spiced cider,” Kasbrick says.
The cocktails are topped with whipped cream and are all easy to make, Kasbrick says. They each run $5 to $6, and profit margins range between 20 and 33 percent.
Holiday cocktails at bd’s are more of an after-dinner drink. “They’re warm and comforting and are tasty. Sometimes the ladies who don’t drink a lot enjoy the sweet tooth, the flavor, and a little alcohol,” Kasbrick explains. “They are popular with men and women but more with women because they’re sweeter, and females tend to have sweeter taste buds.”
But men drink them too, she says. “Through the year people’s taste buds, and wants and needs, change for every season. For the holiday they indulge a little more and want warm and cozy. After the New Year they start thinking about the spring more.”
The drinks can be an extra sale after dinner, Kasbrick says. “I am trying to make drinks that are fun and that the servers can get behind and push.”
A special splurge
Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are the ideal time to try to boost cocktail sales because diners are keen to get into the spirit of the holidays and enjoy the celebratory feel they provide. They’re also more likely to splurge for a slightly more expensive drink, Kasbrick says.
“Many guests do splurge more during the holiday season because it is a time to rejoice and celebrate with friends and family around a healthy and hearty meal,” she explains. “People tend to associate holiday cocktails with holiday cheer.”
And in fact, a recent Technomic study concluded, “Today’s consumers may place more emphasis on the healthfulness of food, as many have cut back on beverages at restaurants due to the economy. As a result, some consumers may now view beverage ordering to be more of a special occasion, for which they are willing to splurge.”
Nguyen adds, “People are a little more laid-back and a little more willing to drink a little more during the holidays.
“People can enjoy one or even a couple and then have wine with their meal. When you are designing these drinks, you are looking for something to excite the palate but not get them drunk.”
And profit margins are particularly good on cocktails, he says, hovering around the 25 to 30 percent mark. Xino sells the drinks for $10 to $11, but at other times of the year cocktails can range from $7 to $12.
Festive cocktails are drunk more by women than men hands-down, says Morton’s Field, who says they’re the more adventurous sex when it comes to beverages. The cocktails are promoted on table tents in the restaurants and at the bars.
Hot or cold, preferably with a knockout presentation, festive cocktails have the potential to perk up sales at any restaurant.
Wildfish Seafood Grille in Newport Beach, California, jumps into the holiday spirit drinks-first with its “12 Drinks of Christmas” special. The beverages will roll out in the weeks leading up to Christmas and will have names such as The Disgruntled Elf, Five Golden Rings, and Arctic Kiss.
This is the fourth year of this promotion, and it’s a fun way to celebrate the season, says general manager Guenevere Wolfe.
“People can come in and get off their feet after a long day of Christmas shopping. It’s just a way we can spread the holiday cheer. People are more receptive at that time of year, too. We try to have a seasonal dessert as well—last year it was apple strudel with cinnamon ice cream. I think people appreciate options that are more festive than what you see every day.”
These drinks can also take the place of dessert, Wolfe adds.
“It’s an idea that appeals to [women] more because typically they’re the ones that want to get into the spirit of Christmas, and they’re more eager to celebrate,” she says.
The holiday cocktails cost $12, but each day one of them will be offered as a special at half-price. The profit margin on these is about 80 percent, so discounting one doesn’t hurt, Wolfe says.
“The profit margin won’t be as big with the half-price drinks, but it could just get people to come in and have more than one drink.”
The drinks are also promoted via a specially printed menu, chalkboards that feature the specials, and social media.