The 2024 Bar Report offers a balance of value and quality

Cocktail drink at bar

By Danielle Schalk

Exciting flavours and exploration are among the top trends shaping cocktails and spirits of late. But operators must not overlook the element of economic pressure and its influence on guests. “They’re seeking great value when browsing the menus,” shares Chantelle Gabino, Beverage manager at Recipe Unlimited Corp.

Jay Jones, bar development leader for B.C.-based JOEY Restaurant Group, agrees. “Value doesn’t mean lower priced, value means over-delivering on what the guest’s commitment is financially,” he explains. “I don’t think the guest is necessarily looking to spend less. They just want to make sure that when they do spend, they’re getting bang for their buck.” 

It’s also important to be cognizant of guests, evolving understanding of beverage-alcohol-products, as this is shaping their expectations when they choose to go out. “The guest is far more product intelligent, has decided what they like and makes those decisions before they come in,” Jones explains. 

Another trend influencing beverage offerings across categories is demand for premium products. “We’ve seen a pretty significant premiumization of the spirits that are requested and even the beers that are requested,” shares James Peden, director of Operations for Toronto-based Liberty Entertainment Group (LEG). “People are willing to drink a little bit less, but like a way more premium experience — especially for bourbon and agave spirits like tequila and mezcal.”

And, as Peden notes, the growth in premium mezcal and tequila has been particularly significant. “In 2018 and 2019, you could sell some top-shelf tequila once a week or so, but now you have bottles of $90 tequila, like Casamigos Reposado, that you just can’t keep on the shelf.”

This shift in demand is wide spread in Canada and clearly reflected in Technomic’s Ignite Menu data, which highlights a 400-per-cent year-over- year increase in mezcal straight on Canadian menus, as well as 34.9-per-cent growth of tequila straight.


Looking to guests’ relationship with wine, LEG’s director of Wine, Julie Garton, observes that the current economy is shaping decisions when ordering at restaurants. And this is not entirely surprising, given that prices continue to increase for operators and guests. “Pre-COVID you could maybe go into a fast-casual concept and find a bottle of wine for $50 on a list. [Now] I see that as being quite rare,” she shares. And, in this environment, Garton is shifting her approach somewhat to ensure LEG’s wine lists deliver on value and quality. “With the cost of wines increasing every year, I’ve been paying more attention to wines that have great quality but offer more value — staying within the same popular regions that we see a lot of consumer demand for, but looking for new producers or new wines coming into the market that tick all the quality boxes, but are more affordable.”

Beverly Crandon, CMS-certified sommelier and founder of Toronto-based Spice Food & Wine Group, notes that it’s important not to overlook consumers’ environment- and health-conscious mindsets. “It’s a big thing for Canadians, looking at what they’re going to consume and put in their bodies,” she explains. “They are very much asking questions [about] sustainability and organic, but also regenerative farming practices.”

However, Crandon does note that these interests are driving demand at retail and events more than in restaurants, where guests are more likely to gravitate towards familiar offerings. 

Looking ahead, Crandon also points to a growing acceptance of hybrid grapes as a trend to watch — especially when it comes to local offerings. “With climate change, it’s become very clear that some of the varieties that we have been accustomed to tasting a certain way in the cool-climate environment are not producing the same yields or the same mouthfeel as they once did.” As a result, she notes, “What I am seeing is more producers play around with making wines from hybrid grapes.”


When it comes to cocktails and spirits, menus are seeking to strike a balance between innovation and accessibility. “Customers have increasingly shown that they prefer unique beverages and craft cocktails, often with a nostalgic twist,” Gabiono says.

This mentality has led to a resurgence in slush drinks and offerings such as JOEY’s Supersonic Gin & Tonic, which features Beefeater gin, Fever Tree Indian Tonic, lemon-lime slush, lime, cucumber and rosemary. “If you’re not having fun in bar culture, you’re doing it wrong, so seeing slush come back is a great thing,” says Jones. “It’s not just slushies like our bellini…slush also shows up as a lemon-lime iceberg on a beer or a cocktail…versions of familiar favourites really are resonating.”

Citing Technomic Ignite Menu data, Technomic editor, Katie Belflower, notes some key beverage flavours that have experienced significant growth over the past year (Q1 2023 to Q1 2024), including espresso (up 76.5 per cent), Mexican flavours (up 45.7 per cent), spicy (up 30.4 per cent) and cucumber (up 23.1 per cent). 

And, there are particular ways these flavours tend to appear on Canadian bar menus. “Espresso is most often showing up in espresso martinis, and adult coffee drinks overall have seen 20.6-per-cent menu growth in the past year,” she explains. “Spicy flavours are most often showing up as twists on classic cocktails such as margaritas and Caesars. Similarly, cucumber is appearing in more classic cocktail options, including mojitos and gin and tonics. The use of both of these flavours are examples of taking a new ingredient or flavour and giving standard options a new twist to keep menus fresh and exciting — perhaps without adding new (or too many new) SKUs.”

These trends can be seen in action in offerings such as Cibo Wine Bar’s Everything Nice cocktail, which features Don Julio Blanco, Cointreau, cucumber, aloe, lime and habanero ($17); and State & Main Kitchen and Bar’s Cucumber Colada Smash (Tito’s vodka, pineapple, coconut, passion fruit, cucumber, lime and soda) and Spicy Honey Margarita (Cazadores Blanco tequila, orange liqueur, lime, hot-honey syrup and togarashi salt rim).

Jones also points to refreshing drinks as having significant appeal — especially during the warmer months. This means bright fruit flavours, light botanicals and even lower alcohol content, because “a stronger alcoholic drink makes a footprint on your palate.” And, as Jones notes, “[Consumers] are drinking at the level that they’re comfortable with [which makes] spritzers a great category because you can work with amaros and fresh juice flavours and give something with a longer drink time that’s very satisfying.”


This desire for refreshment can also be seen carrying over into beer preferences. “Beer has sort of simplified because it’s gone back to lagers as a larger percentage of drinking experiences, but expectations [remain] high on quality and refreshment,” explains Jones. “There’s definitely been a shift back to refreshing golden beers.”

Peden has observed a similar trend at LEG’s restaurants. “The beers that are [selling] are not those domestic big brands that used to dominate the bars,” he explains. “People are willing to spend more money for a more premium product, even if it’s just a basic lager that they’re looking for…They’ll spend the extra money for Asahi Super Dry, which is an incredibly popular beer right now.”

An even bigger shift is the demand for no-alcohol options, which only continue to improve in quality and variety. “With the Asahi or Peroni 0.0’s, we’ve probably sold more in a month right now than we would have in a year a few years ago — [and] at every property,”
Peden shares.

Zero Proof

Finally, the zero-proof category has continued to grow and permeate all bar and beverage categories.

“We’ve recently pushed to develop [these offerings] further,” shares Jones. “And that’s not just having enticing cocktails that are zero-proof and show up on the table as beautiful and as compelling flavour wise as any other cocktail, but all the other options too — wine options, sparkling beverages and seltzers.”

And Technomic Ignite Menu data reveals that operators across the country are responding to demand by bringing more no-alcohol options to their guests. “Restaurant originals/mocktails have increased 29.4 per cent on menus in the last year and alcohol-free beer has seen 18.2-per-cent growth on menus,” shares Belflower.

Gabino also notes that this desire for alternative options extends beyond alcohol content. “Customer demand for personalized or health-conscious drinks drives higher sales in bar offerings, prompting menus to include a wider variety of non-alcoholic, locally sourced or diet specific options like lactose- or gluten-free,” she explains.

Because, at the end of the day, when guests are going out, they want to have a great beverage experience that delivers on quality and meets them where they’re at.

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