As bars turn into delivery services in the wake of coronavirus, Kate Malczewski talks to operators to find out how they are having to adapt cocktails, from ingredients to styles
When Fitzrovia bar Liquorette opened its doors in September 2018, its cocktail delivery service was billed as a ‘first-of-its-kind offering’.
In the year and a half that followed, the concept of cocktail delivery topped many lists forecasting the next big trends in the drinks industry – ‘Soon everyone will be doing it,’ Callooh Callay’s Richard Wynne told Imbibe in early 2019 – but few bars adopted the approach.
[We choose ingredients] like citric acid instead of fresh lemon and lime and a good sugar syrup that won’t separate…
Until now. As Covid-19 has forced businesses to shut their doors for the safety of their employees and guests, more and more of these venues are launching cocktail deliveries to stay afloat, support their staff and maintain brand awareness. From Hackney’s The Natural Philosopher, to West Hampstead’s Heads + Tails, to The Shrub & Shutter in Brixton, neighbourhood bars around London are, at least temporarily, pivoting – and in the process, they’re figuring out what it takes to make cocktail deliveries work.
Getting the liquid right
Unfortunately, like so many other bars shut down by the novel coronavirus, Liquorette isn’t currently trading. But its status as the OG of cocktail delivery in London means its bartenders know what appeals most to delivery customers: classics.
‘People are looking for security when they’re ordering food [for delivery]. You order what you know you like,’ says Robyn Wilkie, bar manager of Liquorette.
‘People feel that way about cocktails too. You want to know exactly what it is you’re getting. It’s not like in a bar where if it’s not quite to your taste you can send it back.’ She notes that Bloody Marys and Strawberry Daiquiris are Liquorette’s two most popular delivery cocktails.
Many of the bars stepping into the delivery space as a result of Covid-19 have adopted this approach as well. At Shrub & Shutter, for instance, co-owner Dave Tregenza and his bartenders are offering their takes on a Negroni, a Daiquiri, an Aviation and an Old Fashioned in 200ml glass bottles, delivered on bicycle. ‘We’ve done twists on classics that can keep, using ingredients that won’t go off,’ says Tregenza.
Citrus should be avoided when it comes to delivery drinks, and classics are the gold standard
He highlights another important requirement of delivery cocktails: a long shelf life. ‘[We choose ingredients] like citric acid instead of fresh lemon and lime and a good sugar syrup that won’t separate… That’s how you make a drink that best replicates how the customer would have it at the bar.’
Anna Sebastian, bar manager of Artesian at The Langham, recently forayed into delivery herself when she and her bar team partnered with No3 Gin to batch and bottle cocktails, then drop them off to drinkers across London for free. She agrees that citrus should be avoided when it comes to delivery drinks, and that classics are the gold standard. But she also sees a place for ‘bar favourites, for something different’.
Hacha’s Mirror Margarita and Three Sheets’ French 75, each the well-known signature serve of its respective bar, fit Sebastian’s description – and both bars have started to deliver the cocktails in bottles since the coronavirus outbreak began affecting the UK on-trade.
Creating an experience
Even after bars determine which serves are fit for purpose, they still face what is perhaps the biggest challenge of cocktail delivery: guaranteeing that a drink sipped at home is the same quality as one served on-premise.
Once a drink reaches the customer, the bar has no control over important factors such as glassware and serving temperature. Still, bartenders are finding ways to ensure the integrity of the cocktail is preserved. Liquorette’s delivery vessels are, unsurprisingly, an excellent example of this – drinks are built directly into a custom-designed canister that also functions as a shaker and strainer, and instructions, ice and garnish are all provided.
For bars putting together delivery systems on the fly, creating bespoke multi-functional canisters isn’t an option, but there are simpler methods that can play a similar role.
In the bar, we have the benefit of the music, the lighting, the environment. This is about the labels of the bottles, the way it all looks. It’s a whole new way of thinking about a drink
In some cases, it’s a matter of putting in a little extra work in the bar. For Tregenza, this means all the drinks are shaken before they’re bottled ‘to give a little dilution and bring out the flavour’: ‘[That way,] if someone at home goes to pour it and they weren’t to put it over ice, it’s not going to be really overpowering. It’s about going through that motion [in the bar], doing a bit of cocktail love before the drink goes into the glass in their home.’
Other times, it’s as straightforward as printing instructions for serving on the label. For their soon-to-launch delivery cocktails, the team at Milroy's of Spitalfields’ basement bar, The Proofing Room, are developing a range of prebatched and bottled highballs that just require pouring over ice.
‘We’re looking at providing the ice by partnering with another company,’ says Chris Tanner, executive bars manager for Milroy's.
Tanner emphasises that every aspect of the delivered cocktail – the shape of the bottle, the instructions, the ice, the garnish, the liquid itself – is an opportunity to create an experience for the customer, just as you would when meeting them face-to-face. ‘In the bar, we have the benefit of the music, the lighting, the environment. This is about the labels of the bottles, the way it all looks. It’s a whole new way of thinking about a drink.’
Bars that are currently implementing delivery will undoubtedly experience a learning curve in the weeks ahead. To include ice, or to save the trouble? To deliver independently, or to work with an established service? To offer nostalgic, familiar classics to customers seeking comfort, or to provide them with adventurous drinks since they can’t venture out themselves?
‘It’s the first time we’ve thought of doing anything like this. We’re still figuring out what the best way is,’ says Tregenza. ‘Everyone is just trying to do things to help everyone else keep alive and sane.’