Cocktails to-go offer premium drinking experiences in lockdown

Cocktail take-away and delivery options are providing a lifeline to businesses during lockdown, but will the trend survive after regulations ease?


The closure of the on-trade in many global markets during Covid-19 has prompted a number of operators to swiftly move into cocktail to-go offerings, whether through delivery or take-away options, for the first time. While restaurants have long benefited from offering home deliveries, particularly with the rise of on-demand platforms such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats, bars have historically made little use of the channel. However, bar owners are now finding that beer, wine and cocktail deliveries or take-away options are providing a vital lifeline to keep their businesses afloat and their customers engaged while lockdown measures remain in place.

Currently, more than 30 US States plus the District of Columbia have relaxed their regulations to allow restaurants and/or bars to sell cocktails to-go and/or bottled spirits to-go. The legislative fine print differs state to state, but most require that alcoholic drinks are purchased with food. In markets such as the UK, there are not the same regulatory hurdles to overcome, but bars around the world are facing similar challenges in pivoting to delivery nonetheless.

“We had to change our entire business model,” says Linden Pride, co-owner of New York City restaurant-bar Dante. “As opposed to following a restaurant model, where our main focus was servicing and accommodating guests, we had to shift to a retail business model – they’re completely different. Suddenly, we had to start thinking about how to bottle our drinks, how to package our to-go items, and how to get our offerings to our customers. Another major consideration was organising the logistics of the delivery model. From working with third-party delivery platforms to coordinating our own in-house deliveries with drivers, we had to completely restructure how we run. We’ve become completely dependant on the internet to operate.”

Along with its complete à la carte menu, Dante is offering a wide selection of cocktails for delivery. While its single-serve cocktails are available for take-out only, the bar offers its larger format bottled cocktails, which contain between two and 10 servings, for delivery. “Demand for cocktails is high – it’s a necessary part of our new delivery model,” adds Pride. “People order something off our dinner menu and almost always order a cocktail with it.”

While Dante mostly delivers directly to consumers, other bars have partnered with third-party platforms. For many, the question has been one of cost-saving versus logistical-ease. Some delivery services have moved to free up cash flow for businesses: for example, Deliveroo has reduced its joining fee for new restaurants in the UK, while Uber Eats has waived delivery fees for more than 100,000 independent restaurants across the US and Canada, and created a new daily payment option for venues that want to opt out of weekly billing cycles. However, some business owners believe the commissions that apps take are still too high, reportedly up to 35%.

According to Martyn Simpson, owner of London-based specialist whisky retailer Milroy’s of Soho and bar The Proofing Room, Deliveroo is “more geared to restaurants than bars” due to its requirement for certain licences and ratings. The Proofing Room was, however, able to use Milroy’s established ecommerce platform to offer its bottled cocktail range, which was significantly expanded after lockdown measures were introduced in the UK. Delivering its cocktails this way has allowed The Proofing Room to reach a global audience, adds Simpson.

According to IWSR analysis, strong demand for RTDs (Ready to Drink) continues around the world. “It is not surprising to see consumers, especially those in the US, choosing to purchase RTDs in the current climate,” says Brandy Rand, COO for the Americas at IWSR. “The sessionability, increasingly sophisticated flavours and convenient format offered by RTDs add to their appeal. Canned or bottled cocktails are particularly well positioned to resonate with consumers during lockdowns. They mimic an easy cocktail experience for consumers missing the on-premise.”

Canned or bottled cocktails are particularly well positioned to resonate with consumers during lockdowns. They mimic an easy cocktail experience for consumers missing the on-premise.

This is precisely what London venue Shrub & Shutter is aiming to achieve with its cocktail delivery model. The restaurant-bar started its drinks delivery operation by servicing its local community, taking orders via email. According to co-owner Dave Tregenza, Gin Mare parent company Vantguard Premium Brands later offered to cover Shrub & Shutter’s Deliveroo joining fee and provide bottles for pre-batched cocktails in return for product listings. “Forfeiting 25% of the sales hasn’t been that much of a worry as the delivery is covered by Deliveroo and is guaranteed to get there quickly and safely,” says Tregenza.

Other producers have partnered with bars to aid their move into delivery, gaining brand exposure in the process. In early April, Bacardi launched the Cocktails at Home ‘virtual bar’ via Deliveroo Editions, offering drinks made by some of London’s leading independent bars. All profits from the drinks, made with Bacardi ingredients, go back to the bar teams that created them.

Also in April, drinks distributor Highball Brands launched a not-for-profit initiative called The Drinks Drop. The cocktail delivery service, operating in London and Manchester, gives customers a choice of mixed drinks that have been developed by renowned bars and packaged in single-serve pouches. The venues taking part in the scheme will all share 100% of the profits.

UK wholesaler Speciality Drinks also launched its Bring the Bar Home campaign last month, asking bartenders to submit cocktail recipes that are easy to replicate and do not require many fresh ingredients. Cocktail kits for the winning serves are then listed with its retail business, The Whisky Exchange. As part of the initiative, Speciality Drinks supplies all the bottled ingredients for the cocktail kits, and evenly splits the proceeds from each kit with the bar that created the recipe.

According to The Whisky Exchange’s head buyer, Dawn Davies, the concept has longevity. She says: “At the moment it’s about helping the bars out and keeping them front of mind, but post-lockdown, once everyone is back at work, we’ll be able to work closer with the bars to create more video content, look towards bringing in more classic cocktail sets and maybe work directly with some of the brands involved in the kits.”

But what about the bars themselves? Do business owners want to continue offering cocktail deliveries once their doors reopen?

“In the US, legislative red tape and inconsistencies between different states could limit the permanency of cocktails to-go. However, the convenience that take-away cocktails offer could tap into consumers’ preference for on-the-go formats,” remarks Rand.

Some operators think demand for deliveries will continue, particularly as consumers are expected to take a cautious approach to drinking and dining out as social distancing measures loosen. As such, they would like to see temporary liquor law changes in the US made permanent.

“Cocktail delivery is not sustainable on its own, but I do believe it will help as we transition out of this,” adds Dante’s Pride. “After the lockdown has lifted, we’re still going to see people practising social distancing. Restaurants are hard enough to operate at full capacity, let alone during a time when people want to limit their interaction with others. While we don’t want to become reliant on cocktails to-go, I believe there will still be a demand for it, so we hope we can still offer it as an option to our customers.”


You may also be interested in reading:

Covid-19 spurs ecommerce channel development in new markets

Consumers may be slow to return to the on-premise even as regulations ease

RTDs resonate with consumers looking for a taste of the on-premise during lockdown


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