Cocktails stir things up, gain ground on beer

Published Wednesday, August 30, 2017
by Molly Fleming

OKLAHOMA CITY – Picasso Cafe bartender Bryan Moyer has seen firsthand what a creative cocktail list can do for a bar.

It brings back customers, especially when the selection changes.

The Paseo District eatery has some cocktails that change monthly. The rotating list started in May.

“People do come back and see what’s going on every month,” he said. “I’ve been surprised with how quickly people are coming back to see what’s new on the menu.”

Moyer even had one guest who started visiting the restaurant several times in one month because that person’s favorite cocktail would go away when the month ended.

“For people that don’t go out every often, the monthly list gives them a reason to come back again,” he said.

The evolution in cocktail menus is driving up liquor sales. In 2016, the industry gained market share on beer for the seventh consecutive year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

In the 1990s, beer made up nearly 60 percent of the alcohol market. In 2016, beer had only 47 percent of the market, with another 36 percent going to spirits.

Supplier sales were up 4.5 percent and volume was up 2.4 percent, the council reported. American whiskey was the leading spirit, with 21.8 million cases sold in 2016, a 6.8-percent increase in volume.

In Oklahoma City, Central Liquor Co. partner Brad Naifeh said he’s noticed an increase in spirit sales.

“On the restaurant side, it sure seems to me that the orders per case are up over last year, and the year before, and the year before,” he said. “It’s been a good month.”

He said the cocktail trend took off after Sept. 11, 2001. He had some friends visit New York City to help people after the terrorist attack. His friends said that the bars were staying open later so people could soothe their woes. But the bars weren’t just serving beer; they were mixing cocktails that hadn’t been popular since the 1920s.

“I remember growing up and you couldn’t give vodka away,” he said. “You couldn’t sell whiskey to save your life. Now, the high-end spirits are doing well. The high-end wines are holding their own.”

In 2014, the Oklahoma Restaurant Association noticed the cocktail trend and started a mixing contest at its annual show. This year, the event not only had record applications with 24 bartenders vying for a spot, it had the same number of applications as the chef’s cook-off. The chef’s event has been around longer.

ORA’s Cocktail Shakedown will be held Wednesday at the Cox Convention Center. Moyer is one of this year’s contestants. It’s his first time to enter.

ORA Strategic Programs and Events Director Patti Colley said she’s thrilled that the event has grown to this level.

“One of the things we’re most excited about is that a large majority of people are those that have competed in the past,” she said.

The 24 applicants had to enter a cocktail recipe. Then their names and restaurants were removed from the recipe. The top 16 best recipes were chosen and their creators were the contestants.

Contestant April Carter will represent Joey’s Pizzeria for the third time. Her recipe was for a lemon, basil, jalapeno martini.

“It’s not like anything you’ve ever tasted,” she said. “I don’t like jalapenos, but I can drink that.”

Carter has been bartending for 10 years. She said she’s seen the industry up its game with people smoking glasses, making infused liquors, and even making egg-white meringues for frothiness.

She said her goal with the contest is to get past the first round.

“I can do high volume,” she said. “This challenges me in a competitive way.”

Colley said she doesn’t think the cocktail trend will slow down anytime soon. Restaurants are getting more creative with the lists, she said, naming Barrios as an eatery that tries to be a step above with its cocktail selection.

Moyer said customers are becoming more open to the vast selection of cocktail ingredients. While some people may not have even looked at the list previously, the market is getting open-minded. That change has come, he said, as the bartenders have increased their skills.

“As we’ve taken it more seriously, so will the customers,” he said.

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