As the UK has moved indoors, we have taken our drinking habits with us – and this has extended to more than simply stocking up on booze. Now the steadily-growing appetite for cocktails, it seems, is moving from the hotel bar to the sitting room.
“People don’t want to spend too much money right now but they want a nice drink – and they have more time,” said Dawn Davies, buyer at major distributor Speciality Drinks, owner of the Whisky Exchange group. So, perhaps inspired by the Tucci effect, people are buying classic cocktail ingredients – Campari, Martini Rosso (“that says Negroni to me”); Angostura Bitters and Bourbon (“they’re making Old-Fashioneds”). The UK, it seems, is being transformed into a nation of cocktail-makers – to an extent, at least.
At one level people are seeking simplicity, like a Champagne cocktail – “something easy and delicious” as Kristiane Sherry at Master of Malt says. “They don’t want to get involved in complex equipment and difficult mixes”. Davies told Club Oenologique that sales of the entry-level whisky Famous Grouse have shot up, while at London’s Gin Foundry, which sells a huge array of gins, co-founder Olivier Ward reports a trend towards “lower-end gins and big (1.5l) bottle formats.” Supermarkets are reporting a similar story. Pete Newton, the buyer for spirits and beers at Booths, which has 28 branches in the north of England, said there has been “a substantial increase in the lower-priced gins”.
But Newton and others also note that drinkers are tending to buy what they are used to: “If you’re used to drinking premium gin in bars, then you’re going to continue buying it to drink at home.” And this holds true at all levels: in the more exclusive parts of London, and in the countryside where lockdown is endured in large second homes, the demand for higher-end fare continues unabated.
In the more exclusive parts of London, the demand for higher-end fare continues unabated
Will Gau, former wine director at luxury caterer the Cellar Society, is now delivering fine foods, wines and spirits around the country to an eclectic clientele which includes hedge-fund managers as well as “out-of-work actors.”
Gau knows how to get hold of anything that you might ordinarily find in the food department of Harrods or Selfridges. One day he will be taking a bottle of rare Spanish gin and a couple of Label Anglais chickens to a “finance guy” in the Cotswolds, the next day, black truffles to Bermondsey.
He sees a definite trend towards “fancier cocktail ingredients. Everyone has the basic stuff but it’s the exotic bits and bobs they want – for example I’ll be asked to get a bottle of a rare Spanish gin, or [luxury vermouth] Antica Formula for someone who wants to go beyond the standard Martini Rosso.”
Our habits may have changed but some remain as entrenched as ever. The desire to share and to show one’s best self hasn’t gone away, and no-one wants to post pics of a Martini to their Instagram feed in a boring tumbler.
“People are buying loads of old-fashioned glasses, martini glasses and barware,” Davies reports, as does Sherry at Master of Malt: “Glassware sales have really surprised us – nice Martini glasses for example.” She says one of the top-selling glasses is the “retro fizz glass”, which has a classy, fin-de-siècle look. “People definitely want shiny new glassware in their homes.”
The most striking facet of lockdown is its unpredictability. Seasoned professionals with decades of experience in sales remark on how surprised they are by the statistics. For Davies, the everyday drama is gripping. “I’m fascinated watching this. There are so many interesting pockets of trends. We’re processing more than double the normal amount of orders per day and I spend my time analysing our customers’ spending patterns – why are they buying that tonic and not this, and why this vermouth and not the other. I feel like a psychologist.”