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How to Upsell Premium Spirits and High-End Pours at the Bar

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08/12/2020 Promote premium spirits in cocktails, encourage customers to try new drinks and many more ways to drive sales.

Within the bar industry, mastering the art of the upsell could make the difference between simply breaking even or turning a nice profit. As a result, many of the same tactics and approaches that restaurants use to encourage customers to order appetizers, more expensive entrees, and extra desserts can also be used by bars as well. Upselling at the bar means promoting premium spirits in cocktails and encouraging customers to try special mixed drink combinations prepared by the resident bartender or mixologist. With that in mind, here’s a closer look at how to upsell at the bar.

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Get the timing of the upsell right

From the customer’s perspective, attempts to upsell them to a new, higher-priced premium spirit might be viewed as being overly aggressive or even pushy. Thus, it is important to keep the whole process of the upsell as gracious as possible, and more importantly, to choose your timing appropriately. In short, you first need to feel out just how adventuresome a customer is feeling that night, and just how receptive he or she might be to a suggestion or recommendation. After all, that is all an “upsell” should be - just a perfectly timed suggestion or recommendation, and nothing more.

One way to understand the proper boundaries for offering an upsell is by studying what the customer is currently drinking, as well as if they mention a specific spirit brand when they place an order. For example, if they order a “Maker’s Manhattan,” it’s clear that the patron already has a pretty good idea of what kind of Bourbon they enjoy. But there is still room for an upsell here - you might suggest a craft Bourbon or craft whiskey instead, just so the customers can see for themselves how the cocktail would taste.

Educate the staff about spirits, cocktails, and cordials

All staff members - and not just servers - need to be educated in different categories and products. These categories would include spirits like vodka, tequila, rum, and whiskey. The products would be the actual brand names listed on the cocktail menu. When training and educating staff, remember that you can’t be limited to just a single brand or product. Moreover, the level of training needs to be consistent across the establishment. Some patrons will migrate from tables to the bar (and vice versa), so it will be awkward if the bartender happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of cocktails and pours, while the servers are unable to provide any real actionable recommendations.

Importantly, this training should not be focused around the rote memorization of details or facts about particular spirits. Instead, it should be focused on the ability to understand what makes each spirit different when used in cocktails, as well as the unique selling features of particular brands or products. For example, many guests may be familiar with tequila like Jose Cuervo, but not nearly as well versed when it comes to premium sipping tequilas.

Tell stories about the spirits you are serving

Stories can be a useful technique for upselling a premium spirit. Due to basic human psychology and the way our brains are hardwired, it’s a lot easier to remember and repeat stories to others than it is facts. That’s the reason, for example, why some stories and legends have persisted for hundreds of years - they are very easy to remember and repeat. So don’t be afraid to use a little storytelling magic at your bar to upsell guests.

For example, let’s say you are introducing some mezcals to your craft cocktail menu. Perhaps your mixologist has discovered the smoky, rich flavors of some premium mezcals, and has decided to use them as a replacement for traditional tequilas. That might take a little explanation for guests to understand why you are using mezcal. And it’s here that you can spin stories about the mythical agave plant used to make mezcal, and why some estate-grown agaves are better than others. Or you could create narratives about the aging process for mezcal, or how the smoky flavor of mezcal results from cooking the pina in underground ovens. Topics like geography can also play a very rich role in these stories since many bar patrons might not be familiar with Mexican mezcal regions like Oaxaca.

Upgrade classic cocktails with a twist

One of the easiest ways to upsell bar customers is by introducing them to an innovative “twist” on a cocktail classic. For example, the classic Negroni is one drink that can be made new again by adding a different premium spirit other than gin. A margarita, typically made with tequila, could be made new again by making with mezcal. And mixed drinks typically made with a neutral spirit like vodka might be modernized by adding a new liqueur to the cocktail to create an entirely new flavor sensation.

The best part about updating classic cocktails, of course, is the potential branding opportunities that are opened up. When your bartender or mixologist creates an entirely new cocktail, you have a lot of flexibility to come up with a brand new name for it (including one that is thematically related to your bar or restaurant). Once you’ve branded the cocktail, you can now charge a premium for it, even if it is a simple mixed cocktail with just one spirit in it. You’ve essentially used your own creative branding to transform a $10 cocktail into, say, a $15 cocktail.

Perfect the art of the downsell

While the focus here is on the upsell, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the art of the downsell to boost revenue at your bar. In the classic downsell, a long-time patron will order the same drink he or she has always ordered - and the bartender will then make a recommendation to try the same drink with a slightly more inexpensive spirit. This has multiple effects. First of all, it builds trust between your clientele and your bartending staff. Secondly, it actually has been shown that this downsell will actually lead to increased sales in the future (if not that same night). While each drink sold might come with slightly lower margins, you will sell more of them over the long term. The one caveat here, of course, is that this technique works best with long-term regulars and steady customers. These “regulars” are going to be coming back again and again, so you have a much better chance of selling more cocktails or shots to them in the future.

Surprise guests with the “break-even bottle”

In the bartending industry, the break-even bottle is a very expensive spirit, sold by the shot, at the bar’s cost price. The “break-even” in the title implies exactly that - you are not making a profit on it. But here’s the thing -- the break-even bottle is a great marketing tactic to boost traffic and sales on slow nights for the bar. If you advertise the event in advance, patrons who would not have ordinarily appeared will appear. And since not all of the guests will be drinking from the break-even bottle, the net effect will be selling more alcohol that night than you would have normally. The profits will be all the incremental revenue that resulted from building buzz and excitement around this event.

Use visual cues to upsell

Finally, there are a lot of visual cues that you can use to upsell guests. One technique is simply known as “the nod” and it involves the bartender or server reading off a list of options and subtly nodding their head as they say the name of a premium spirit. The great part about this tactic is that, even if you know it is coming, it is impossible to avoid its effect. Again, this has to do with human psychology - we immediately associate the nodding of a head with positive approval, so when the bartender is nodding his or her head, it is sending a very clear signal that this is the desired option.

A complementary technique is known as “bookending,” and it involves reading off a list of possible options while repeating the name of a particular spirit at BOTH the beginning and ending of the list (hence, the term “bookending”). Again, this is due to human psychology - we tend to remember the first and last items in a list the best, so if the same name appears as both the first and last items in a list, you can guess the result: that will be the name that is remembered, not all the names in the middle of the list. This can be a great technique if you are trying to clear out inventory of a particular spirit.


Remember - upselling needs to be subtle and gracious, and it needs to take into account the behaviors, preferences and tastes of the customer. An upsell should always be a suggestion or recommendation. And it should always be used to improve the overall guest experience. After all, there is always something very memorable about trying a new spirit for the first time or discovering the difference between a traditional spirit and a premium, aged spirit.