Venue operators know that rotating menus with seasonal cocktails can be a winning sales strategy. But too often, their approach is based on conventional assumptions around the impact of holiday calendars and temperatures, rather than observed consumer behaviors.
“Seasonal cocktail sales have been a guessing game until now,” said Layne Cox, Union’s chief marketing officer. “Union’s OnPrem data looks at actual guest behavior at large bars and restaurants in big cities — a first in beverage-alcohol data reporting. This data is unique because it’s granular and precise, entirely based on actual on-premise guest purchases. These insights provide actionable take-aways that can support bars and restaurants to drive sales via the right cocktails at the right time of year.”
These unique findings from Union’s 2022 data will help both venues and brands get ahead of seasonal preferences, and highlight the sales opportunities they should have on their radar.
The Seasonality of Union’s Most Popular Cocktails
This list of top ten cocktails sold at Union-powered bars and restaurants in 2022 represents the classic drinks — and a few wild cards — you should have on your radar. We also break down the shifts season by season. (Note: Union’s top mixed shooters, including the Green Tea shot, Vegas Bomb, and Lemon Drop, are not covered in this report.)
Among Union’s top cocktails, drinks can loosely be categorized as either year-round winners, seasonal stretchers, or highly seasonal — or a combination of these attributes, as demonstrated by the almighty Margarita.
Spring and Summer Cocktail Insights
Tequila cocktails dominate the summer months and the winter months at Union venues. Margaritas are far and away the most popular cocktail year-round at these high-volume venues. They’re also highly seasonal with an eight percent swing in share between summer and winter. In comparison, Palomas are steady year round — though never as popular as Margaritas in any season — and experience a slight uptick that lasts through the summer.
Fall and Winter Cocktail Insights
It’s no surprise that the cooler weather ushers in orders for festive drinks like Espresso Martinis, which had a huge year at Union venues in 2022. Seasonally, they are on the upswing by September and then soar through the winter months with a peak in popularity through year end. Old Fashioneds peak in popularity during the holiday months but hold steady — a true “seasonal stretcher” — through March.
Year-Round Cocktail Trends
The Moscow Mule is the least seasonal cocktail, though it is steadily very popular. In fact, it’s even more popular than Espresso Martinis in the warmer months, proving to be a solid staple all year long. Long Island Iced Teas, Palomas, Negronis, and Martinis (both gin- and vodka-based) are also steady in sales throughout the year with very slight seasonal shifts.
How Regionality Impacts Seasonal Cocktails
The seasons have an enormous impact on cocktail trends, particularly in summer and winter when the temperatures rise and drop to extremes. Still, where a drink is consumed can further impact its seasonal popularity in a specific region. After all, January in Texas is quite different from January in Washington State.
Here’s an in-depth look at four flavor themes and classic cocktails across three of Union’s key cities — Dallas, New York City, and Seattle — which provides an insightful snapshot of how a variety of cocktails fare seasonally across unique climate conditions.
2022 Cocktail Seasonality Across Regions
Across Union-powered venues, most cocktails show some variance based on regionality. Some iconic flavor themes proved to be highly seasonal. Strawberry universally peaks in July across regions; spiced apple in November; pumpkin in October (though Seattle shows some additional interest in late summer).
Other classic flavor themes, like chocolate, are seasonal stretchers, showing longevity beyond their expected peaks. By comparison, peppermint has a two-month peak in Dallas (November to December) and Seattle (January to February), though at different moments in the cold-weather calendar.
Interestingly, the popularity of chocolate-flavored cocktails varies from region to region. In New York City, sales peak in December and remain strong through February; in Dallas, sales pick up in September and drop off in November. In Seattle, there’s a similar pattern to Dallas for chocolate, though there’s also a significant spike in late winter sales.
The peach-flavored Bellini cocktail is a head-scratcher that exemplifies the wildest trends in regional shifts. In Seattle, sales are way up in the summer period; in New York from the spring-fall period, and in Dallas from the fall-winter period. Seemingly, the Bellini has a strong sense of seasonality — but it all depends on where you live.
Popular Winter-Themed Cocktails
With the exception of Christmas-themed drinks, winter-themed cocktails surprisingly outlast the coldest months longer than expected. Toddy sales happen between October and April, with December (15 percent), January (25 percent), and February (21 percent) accounting for 61 percent of the year’s sales.
At Union bars and restaurants, chocolate-themed drinks are less seasonal still, with only 14 percent of annual sales happening in the peak month of November and strong sales in most months. Christmas-themed drinks are of course the most seasonal and spike in December with 87 percent of annual sales in just that one month, though in general customers are ordering themed craft ales over cocktails.
Sales Opportunities: Get Ahead of Seasonal Shifts
One of the top insights that emerged was that the Margarita is queen of cocktails even in the coldest winter months. We were blown away by just how much of a superstar the Margarita is year round, and how it skyrockets even higher in the summer. Margarita’s high ranking and staying power throughout all four seasons is likely to continue into 2023.
Of course, the seasonal shifts were not entirely unpredictable: Margaritas spiked in the summer, Old Fashioneds in the winter. However, for many cocktails, the popularity periods showed much more longevity than anticipated, pointing to a sustained interest in specific drinks that could be capitalized on to increase sales. In the case of the Margarita, you have a year-round winner that is also highly seasonal in the summer — it’s the undisputed winner at Union’s high-volume venues.
“The 2022 data shows us that seasonality really matters,” said Cox. “Seasonal peaks showed stronger for some cocktails than others, but the takeaway here is that this area is ripe for further exploration. Operators and brands should use these insights to take a closer look at their own cocktail offerings. Having this better data at their fingertips means they can experiment more confidently to improve their offerings now that they know more about customers’ seasonal preferences.”
Consumers are more tuned-in to seasonal food and drink menus than ever before, and they expect timely, on-trend drink offerings. These findings allow greater visibility into the what, when, and where of cocktail seasonality, allowing customers to enjoy the cocktails they love at the right moments, while brands and operators grow and optimize their sales programs. It’s a win-win worth raising a glass to.
Recommendations for Venues
1. Lean into Seasonal Preferences on Your Cocktail Menu – Highlight the right cocktails and rotate accordingly.
2. Keep Fan Favorites All Year Long – Give the people what they want — even if it means Margaritas in the winter, when they are still a significant share of cocktail consumption.
3. The Moscow Mule is a Steady Eddy – This cocktail has very little seasonality and is always a solid choice.
4. Stretch Toddies into Spring – Keep an interesting selection of hot toddies in rotation well past the holidays, at least into February.
5. Try Out the Trends – If you don’t have an Espresso Martini on your fall-winter menu, it’s time to give it a try.
Recommendations for Brands
1. Classic Cocktails are Classic for a Reason – Keep cocktail strategies fresh with plays on classic concepts so consumers know what they are getting, like seasonal riffs on the Margarita.
2. Be Prepared for the Seasonality of Some Cocktails – Have a pitch and program for the next seasonal cocktail ready to maintain your menu placements at venues.
3. A Play on the Mule Could Keep a Placement Longer – The Moscow Mule is the least seasonal cocktail, providing steady sales throughout the year.
4. Transition Seasonal Winners Over Time – Introduce new flavors at the right time, like a springtime take on the Old Fashioned right when its popularity is waning in March.
5. Take a Risk, Set a Trend – Get creative with some dynamic new offerings that can stand up to the Margarita in the summer and the Espresso Martini in the winter.
About Union OnPrem Insights
Union’s OnPrem Insights provides the hospitality industry with a granular, precise view of on-premise consumer consumption behavior. The reports cover industry trends and uncover consumer purchasing patterns, which allow busy bars and restaurants as well as beverage and alcohol brands to better understand their consumers, the marketplace and identify growth opportunities. The reports are based on Union’s proprietary GuestMatch and MenuMatch intelligence and on-premise consumption data from thousands of Union venues, serving millions of guests 21+ across 34 U.S. states. Union’s data is based on actual customer orders, not indirect methods like case depletions. To learn more or to download Union’s OnPrem Insights reports, visit https://getunion.com/onprem-insights/.