According to Dale DeGroff, the craft cocktail movement was born sometime in the late nineties as the result of the popularity of the television series Sex and the City and the seemingly perpetual presence of a Cosmopolitan in the hand of one or all of the show’s main characters. The Cosmo re-introduced the American drinking public to cool glassware and the even cooler stuff inside. The Cosmopolitan was a fad, a product that by definition comes very quickly, takes the world by storm, and disappears just as quickly.
Building on the acceptance of the cocktail created by the cosmopolitan, a generation of talented, committed, passionate and creative mixologists took it upon themselves to combine new and classic spirits and ingredients in new and classic recipes, creating the craft cocktail trend. According to Miriam-Webster, a trend is defined as a way of behaving that is developing and becoming more common. That trend made the Cosmo fad seem silly, and killed it.
The craft cocktail trend is now just as dead as the Cosmo fad. The craft cocktail movement can no longer be described as a trend. It’s not really developing and becoming more common. It is instead a “way of behaving” that is common, is woven into the fabric of the food and beverage industry, has already become a cornerstone category of products offered in at least some form or another by most operators, and is expected, to some degree, by most consumers (just like better coffee or cable television or phones without cords).
The craft cocktail has entered into the maturity phase of the product lifecycle and this shift has ramifications for you now and going forward. How can I be so sure, and what are these ramifications? I’m glad you asked.
HOW CAN YOU TELL?
Everyone’s Doing It
The beginnings of a growing product or market are driven by creative, passionate individuals willing to take a chance on something that might not even exist yet (think the Steves building Apples in a garage). Once an idea hits, and a niche demonstrates sufficient and long-term consumer demand, everyone wants in, particularly corporations. That’s where we are right now with craft cocktails: chains have rolled out margaritas made with Patrón, 1800, and fresh juices. Marriott has a slick new program at 200 of their hotels focused on premium bourbon, premium glassware, premium ice, and four signature cocktails; their financial commitment to the tip of this iceberg is impressive. Another hotel chain has recommended specific clothing for their bar staff that evokes the worst clichés of the craft bartender’s “uniform.” A good friend who manages a local country club asked me about putting together a limited craft cocktail menu for his member bar.
Fast casual restaurants, hotel chains and, in particular, country clubs are not organizations normally recognized as being ahead of any curve; they are conservative and slow to adapt. Craft cocktails need to have arrived for them to get involved.
You’re Ugly and You Mother Dresses You Funny
There has been a backlash in the mainstream against beverage douches. There’s the guy in the hard apple cider commercial drinking red wine at a tailgate party dressed like an Ivy League douche. There are the guys in the Budweiser Super Bowl ad fussing over their pumpkin peach ale. They have douchey handlebar moustaches. There’s the craft bartender in the Smirnoff ad curating his herbs for his deconstructed martini. What a douche...
Every revolution is extreme – that’s part of what makes change. When it becomes mainstream after the change, the extreme seems, well…you know.
I have a 19-year-old son. He likes alternative music. Really great alternative music can become popular music. When a song he likes becomes popular, he doesn’t like it any more. He’s young to be a hipster, but that’s a hipster thing. You drink craft beer until everyone drinks craft beer, then you drink a different craft beer, or PBR. Everyone drinks vodka, you drink bourbon. Everyone drinks bourbon, you drink rye. Everyone drinks rye, you drink vodka – Burnett’s, in punch! Their new patron saint of drink? The Tipsy Bartender.
It’s tough to be a thing that’s known for being new, innovative, cutting edge: you attract consumers who like new and innovative and cutting edge. They need you to constantly move the needle or they will get their new elsewhere.
WHAT’S IT MEAN?
There are a number of ramifications to the shift in craft cocktails from fad to trend to mature industry segment, and each of them needs to be considered as you operate through the change.
- Consumers are more knowledgeable. So many have worked so hard to educate their customers about the world of craft cocktails, so many of them are knowledgeable about the craft of bartending. Handlebar moustaches, suspenders, pork pie hats, and bitters on the bar don’t cut it anymore. Balanced, flavorful, beautifully crafted drinks do.
- Consumers want the next great thing, and they want you to introduce them to it. Members of all of the key demographics that have grown the craft cocktail industry share an adventurous nature; they want to try new things. They followed you at the beginning because that’s what you gave them, and they expect you to keep it up.
- Consumers are more abundant. Most of the early practitioners of craft cocktails can’t believe their good fortune. I like to play poker and I have followed it since The Moneymaker Effect changed it from a game played by a few shady weird dudes to one played and watched on TV by millions. Many of those shady weird dudes are now celebrities, and some of them still can’t believe they’re famous. It’s the same in the craft cocktail business: There are great bartenders with great local followings, brand ambassadors, celebrities, and rock stars. Remember that 30 years ago Mr. DeGroff was doing his thing in relative anonymity because, well, because. The opportunities have become endless and there for the taking.
- More players means more price competition. More involvement in the craft, no matter how tepid, means more price competition. While the customer for our offerings seems more concerned with quality than with price, the possibility does exist that over time more opportunity in the industry means more supply from excellent establishments staffed with excellent craftsmen. Getting $14.00 in the suburbs for your bartender’s choice may not persist forever.
- Keep leading. This article is really about the product lifecycle, where the craft cocktail industry falls on that curve, and what that means. The industry has gone through the stages of introduction and growth and is now in the maturity stage. Great products, produced by great innovators, can continue in a series of renewal stages, extending the success of the product almost indefinitely. Innovation is a hallmark of the industry and the best people in it. The product lifecycle should look like this: