Five Insights to Drive Whiskey Sales at Bars and Restaurants

New data shows how Whiskey is being consumed at high-volume venues
Whiskey sales at bars and restaurants

The latest research from Union’s OnPrem Insights confirms that Whiskey, in all its forms, is a powerhouse spirit for high-volume bars and restaurants. We took a closer look at on-premise Whiskey orders to dive into customer behavior within this category, from the preferred types of Whiskey to what gets reordered the most.

“We already know that Whiskey is a huge aspect of cocktail bar culture, but with Union’s granular on premise ordering data we can confirm that the spirit thrives even in larger bar and restaurant settings,” said Layne Cox, Union’s Chief Marketing Officer. “By looking at actual guest purchases within Union’s network, we can see exactly what, and how, customers order Whiskey.”

Here are the five top insights that will help operators and brands fully leverage Whiskey’s popularity, based on real on-premise consumption data from thousands of Union venues across the United States.

Once a Whiskey Drinker, Often a Whiskey Drinker

The Whiskey drinkers have spoken. At Union venues, they are dedicated to their category, and repeat orderers are common. For guests that purchased Whiskey at least once within a five visit period, 84 percent came back to it, and 37 percent of those went on to order Whiskey on at least half of their subsequent visits. Union buckets consumers into three segments based on their adoption rate: “trial” drinkers, “repertoire” drinkers, and “go-to” drinkers. 

The Whiskey category has an overall retention of 53 percent, in line with Vodka, and well ahead of other spirits categories — meaning a guest is likely to consume Whiskey again on their next bar visit. So it comes as no surprise that Old Fashioneds were the No. 2 cocktail on Union’s list in 2022 with steady sales throughout the year. 

If a Whiskey drinker strays, Vodka is the next most likely spirit category for them to drink (22 percent) followed by Tequila (15 percent).

Irish Whiskey is a Shooting Star

Jameson shines in our data as a top Whiskey that is consumed at Union bars and restaurants. It has the strongest retention of any Whiskey brand at 48 percent. 

But Jameson is not your average Whiskey. In reality, Jameson competes less with the cocktail-style Whiskeys — the Bourbon, Scotch, and Rye poured drinks, for example — and more so with other shots. 

Perhaps no other holiday does more to promote Whiskey, particularly Irish Whiskey, than St. Patrick’s Day. In fact, Green Tea shots topped this year’s St. Patrick’s Day cocktail orders at Union bars and restaurants. The shot, typically made with Jameson, peach schnapps, sour mix, and lemon-lime soda, was the most popular cocktail followed by Margaritas and Irish Car Bombs, which are also frequently made with Jameson.

American Whiskey is the “Usual” Order

Of the Whiskey subcategories, American holds the record for the most likely to be reordered at guests’ next bar visit, boasting a 74 percent retention rate. Irish Whiskeys (65 percent) and Canadian Whiskies (63 percent) also have strong reorders, but not quite as favorable as that classic Bourbon profile. 

After Well/House drinks at 78 percent, Jack Daniel’s is the American Whiskey with the highest brand retention rate (46 percent), in line with Jim Beam (45 percent) and followed by Maker’s Mark (37 percent). Amongst the higher-priced brands, Buffalo Trace has the strongest retention (36 percent) and is in line with Maker’s Mark despite having significantly lower availability.

Whiskey Brand Retention

For Brand Retention, we examine the likelihood that a guest who purchases a specific brand will then purchase the same brand on their next visit during which they consume the same category — in this case Whiskey. In the chart, rows represent initial consumption, and columns represent subsequent consumption.

House Whiskey Drinks are Popular

Of all Whiskeys sold, the reality is that Well/House drinks have the highest retention rate at 78 percent, meaning three times out of four a customer will reorder the same option at their next bar visit. We see that 95 percent of guests that try Whiskey Well/House drinks at least once then keep it in their “repertoire,” and most (80 percent) continue to stick with it as their “go-to”. Within Union’s data set, Well/House drinks consist of both lower-tier “Well” Whiskeys and house cocktails where the whiskey is not identified.

Whiskey Brands Matter

All brands have the potential for a high conversion to become a repertoire or go-to drink regardless of their trial rate. Though Johnnie Walker has relatively low trial rates, for example, it is still on par with Maker’s Mark for conversion to repertoire. In fact, it converts slightly higher than Maker’s Mark as a go-to drink. Similarly, Macallan has some of the lowest trial rates of the major brands, but its repertoire conversion rates are on par with Jim Beam. This suggests that brand recognition is meaningful to customers when it comes to reordering Whiskey at their next bar visit — particularly for the premium-priced brands. 

But make no mistake, the mid-priced mainstream brands like Jameson, Crown Royal, and Jack Daniel’s enjoy high conversion rates and high trial rates.

Sales Opportunities: Target Your Whiskey Audience

“From premium to well drinks and Old Fashioneds to mixed shots, Whiskey is a clear winner on-premise,” said Cox. “Still, there’s a huge opportunity to convert guests who like to try Whiskey into guests who order it more regularly. Operators and brands would be smart to spend time highlighting their Whiskey offerings to boost interest — and sales.” 

Recommendations for Venues 

  1. Highlight Your Whiskey Offerings – Keep Whiskey drinkers engaged with a dedicated menu. 
  2. Expand Customers’ Horizons – Offer flights or special tastings that introduce them to more — and higher priced — Whiskey brands.
  3. Assess Your Pricing Strategy – How popular are your house drinks, and how are they priced? 

Recommendations for Brands

  1. Get Them to Try Your Brand – Emphasize promotions that make it one of their first introductions to the Whiskey category — trial leads to conversion and brand loyalty. 
  2. Connect to a Holiday or Sporting Event – Affix your brand marketing to a specific event for high-trial opportunities. 
  3. Highlight Your Brand Name – Promote simple drink titles that highlight your brand name to differentiate from Well/House drinks. Think: Jack and Coke.

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