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Session Cocktails Are Very Much On-Trend This Year

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What are the factors behind the rise of the session cocktails trend? Get to know here.

The popularity of session beers has launched an entirely new trend at cocktail lounges and restaurant bars around the nation: session cocktails. Just as session beers check in with a lower ABV, so do session cocktails. But what session cocktails lack in alcohol content, they more than make up for with unique ingredients and big, bold flavours – making them a huge hit with customers looking to socialize casually with friends for hours at a time.

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So what exactly is a session cocktail? Most bartenders define them as a cocktail with no more than ¾ ounce of a strong spirit, such as vodka, whiskey or rum. But that doesn’t mean that session cocktails cannot contain other, lower-proof alcoholic spirits. For example, some popular session cocktails will contain sherry, Madeira, vermouth, or an aperitif like Campari. Other bartenders and mixologists add flavoured liqueurs, while still others add Prosecco or Cava.

Factors behind the rise of the session cocktails trend

And it is this spirit of experimentation and creativity that has made session cocktails so popular with bar patrons. It gives them a unique opportunity to try lower-proof alcohols, or simply to experiment with artisanal ingredients that lend a big, bold flavour. When these younger drinkers head out to modern versions of the classic speakeasy, for example, they don’t want to order the same drink that they typically order at the neighbourhood pub. So they experiment with session cocktails containing unique ingredients like passion fruit-and-cayenne shrubs, exotic bitters or fanciful liqueurs.

And, of course, there is another factor behind the rise of session cocktails: the desire of younger millennial drinkers to stay in control and maintain their overall health, even while drinking. Instead of imbibing high-proof spirits, they are instead opting for alternatives that enable them to spend time hanging out with friends, while not worrying about the after-effects of drinking too much alcohol the next day, or about the impact of too much alcohol on their waistlines.

To a certain degree, seasonal variations in weather can also play a role in the relative allure of session cocktails. For example, during the hot summer, many urban workers stuck in the city for the weekend will opt for lighter, refreshing session cocktails that help to keep them hydrated. From this perspective, the idea of imbibing heavy brown beers at a bar simply pales in comparison to the prospect of sipping refreshing, low-ABV cocktails made with Aperol, Lillet or vermouth while hanging out on a rooftop cocktail lounge. Some on-premise establishments, for example, say that they experience a threefold spike in sales of session cocktails anytime the weather turns hot and sweltering.

Bars and lounges embrace the session cocktail

At one time, patrons of bars and cocktail lounges might have shunned the idea of the session cocktail. After all, who wants to pay nearly the same price for a cocktail that is lower in strength than a traditional cocktail? That was the old thinking – that the price of a cocktail should be directly correlated to the strength of the alcohol is added to it. Thus, a cocktail made with an aperitif like Campari would always cost less than a cocktail made with a top-shelf vodka or whiskey.

But those days are over, and it’s partly the result of customers now being open to the idea of paying for “the experience” rather than just the alcohol. When you walk into a retro speakeasy-style bar, and the bartender is an expert in pre-Prohibition drinks, it’s a lot more fun to order a modern, updated session cocktail rather than a standard mixed drink.

Plus, bars and cocktail lounges don’t skimp on the costs when it comes to ingredients. At foodie restaurants, for example, expect the bar menu to feature the same style of ingredients as the main restaurant menu. Gone are the days when your options were basically a rum-and-coke or vodka with a fruit juice of your choosing. Today, session cocktails can contain all kinds of ingredients – such as shiitake mushroom tea, ginger beer, and yuzu syrup – that you might expect to see on the main restaurant menu and not on the bar menu.

And, in many cases, bars are creating a special place on the menu for patrons to order these drinks. There are various names for session cocktails used by members of the trade, and the choice of which name to use really depends on the audience. A “spritz” section, for example, is going to appeal to female drinkers looking for a low ABV cocktail to share with their friends. For sports bars, though, a menu section labelled “low booze” might go over better.

The business of the session cocktail

From a purely business perspective, session cocktails have become an important profit centre for bars, which is one reason they have raced to embrace this trend. At most bars, session cocktails cost about $1 to $2 less than higher-alcohol cocktails. Thus, if a vodka tonic runs a patron $12, a session cocktail made with vermouth and sparkling wine might run $10.

This difference in price is more than made up for by the average check size at the end of the night. The primary reason why session beers (defined as beers with less than 4% ABV) became so popular is that beer drinkers could enjoy more of them over a longer period of time than with heavier beers. And that same type of dynamic is at work in the cocktail sector. Bartenders say that, instead of ordering just 1-2 drinks per “session,” patrons might order 2-3 drinks per “session.” Thus, it’s easy to see how session cocktails can be good for the bottom line.

The search for sessionable experiences

At some bars and restaurants, session cocktails can represent as much as 25% of total cocktail sales. The baseline figure for many bars is 15-20% of cocktail sales, so it’s possible to see that session cocktail can help to drive both top-line revenue growth and bottom-line profit growth. The profit potential is so great, in fact, that some bars even dedicate training resources to helping staff members sell these drinks to patrons.

Many bars and cocktail lounges are in search of “sessionable experiences” that appeal to young millennial drinkers looking for the next big thing or curious about the ingredient that they’ve seen mentioned on foodie blogs. When groups of friends and colleagues hang out together for hours at a time, serving them high-end session cocktails made with refreshing and flavorful ingredients can be a great way to ensure the ultimate profitability of any on-premise establishment. 

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