For Ray Brandin, there’s nothing better to complement a great meal than an after-dinner drink. But the beverage director and master mixologist at the Dolphin Striker, a 140-seat upscale-casual restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, knows that moving a post-prandial drink, be it a Cognac, Brandy, a cocktail, Port or dessert wine can remain a challenge in tough economic times.
“Selling an after-dinner drink is as hard as selling a before-dinner drink,” says Brandin, who offers about 24 liqueurs and cordials, priced from $7.50 to $25 for two-ounce pours, and about 40 cordials and signature cocktails made with after-dinner drinks, priced from $7 to $8. “Sales have not flattened out on after-dinner drinks, but they certainly have for higher-end Cognacs.” Domestic brandies—and other more price accessible drinks—are often continuing to lead this category in the current economic climate, according to both operators and data.
According to Cheers’ parent company, the Beverage Information Group, both brandy and Cognac took a minor dip in 2009 of 0.6 percent, the second consecutive year of decline. Leading imported brands Rémy Martin, Courvoisier and Hennessy all saw their sales decrease. Domestic brandy accounted for the bulk of the category according to BIG, at 61.3 percent and top domestic brands have continued to perform well.
“The market’s probably not as strong as it once was,” concludes Carol Anne Lee, manager at Ray’s Boathouse, a seafood restaurant in Seattle with a casual cafe. “But I think people who really enjoy sitting back and sipping a Cognac will always enjoy that, so we definitely see some usage.” Ray’s Boathouse offers 14 after-dinner drinks priced from $7 to $25 for one and a half-ounce pours and seven after-dinner and dessert cocktails priced at $9.
Certain operators have continued to see brisk sales of after-dinner drinks overall. Jonny Raglin has little trouble selling after-dinner drinks. “It’s easier to sell now,” says Raglin. He and Jeff Hollinger recently opened the Comstock Saloon, an 80-seat San Francisco bar that serves “refined turn-of-the-century saloon fare” and classic cocktails priced from $8 to $12. “The category in general might be down because there are so many options now, whereas 10 or 15 years ago the options [were often limited].”
The Demographic Twist and New Combinations
Shifting consumer consumption patterns may have also impacted the category. “The economy has hurt the older generation the most, and these are the ones that would usually order the Cognacs and brandies,” explains Matthew Bottoms, a manager at The Place at Perry’s, which serves 13 Cognacs and brandies, priced from $10 to $90 for two-ounce pours. He adds that, “There’s not much marketing of those products to the younger generation.” The key, some restaurant and bar operators say, is reintroducing diners to the concept of after-dinner drinks.
Many operators say that the after-dinner drink category has not been sufficiently marketed to younger consumers and are seeking to find new ways to do so themselves. The first step to improving brandy and Cognac sales, Bottoms says, is “marketing, marketing, marketing, especially to the younger generation. Also, make them more cost effective for younger people to order. Most [diners] can’t afford to order a $30 after-dinner drink in addition to what they have already spent on the dinner.”
Another way that some operators have found of attracting interest to this group of quaffs is by mixing them up in dessert-inspired drinks. The Brandy Library Lounge, a 74-seat bar in New York City, has been successful with its “Mixits,” as owner Flavien Desoblin calls them, which add a couple of ice cubes and a cocktail spoonful of Monin syrup to its after-dinner drinks. “It’s a bridge between cocktails and spirits,” he says. “This is a way for us to bring them back and properly introduce them to the spirits. We went through many, many tastings and found the flavor that was really revealing that spirit.”
Combinations include vanilla syrup for rum; for single-malt Scotches, lavender (Highlands), peach (Speyside) or pear (Islay) syrup; violet for tequila; jasmine for Cognac; hazelnut for Armagnac; praline for Bourbon; and ginger for aged gin. The drinks cost $16 for two-ounce pours. “It’s a revelation every time,” Desoblin says. “We sell an average of 80 Mixits per week, which is not a lot, but quite big in regards to the drinks selection,” Desoblin adds, “and its success is due to its ‘bridge’ effect: it is such an easy seller as alternative to wine-or-spirit choice.”
In May, The Place at Perry’s, a steakhouse in Dallas, also introduced a new dessert menu that includes dessert wines and Ports. There wasn’t enough room or demand to include Cognacs and brandies, says general manager Cole Widney. However, adding these selections to the menu, Bottoms says, is “just as important as presenting a wine list when handing out dinner menus. Without having the Ports and dessert wines presented with the dessert menu, most guests wouldn’t think about the natural pairing of the two.”
A Focus on the List
Other operators have found success calling attention to brandy, Cognac and after-dinner drinks by creating a dedicated list to showcase them. The Place at Perry’s offers five Ports, priced from $6 to $18 a glass for a two-ounce pour, and four dessert wines offered, from $8 to $30 a glass for a two-ounce pour.
“I think a lot of times restaurants miss that mark when they have a dessert menu that has [only] brownies or pies,” Lee says. “Integrate the after-dinner drinks into your menu. Then train your servers to merchandize a dessert so they are also talking about the great selection of after-dinner cocktails.”
To that end, Ray’s Boathouse offers a dessert wine sampler that includes three to four drinks in one-ounce pours, priced at $15 to $88.
“We try to train our wait staff to recognize the opportunity to enhance the dining experience,” Brandin says. “Hand-sell it. Somebody who is maybe not interested in a dessert wine might decide to try a Cognac. It’s a little niche, but you can bring your check average up a little bit.”
Bottoms agrees and says, “Teach [the wait staff] that it’s an easy up-sell, a way to take our award-winning dessert to the next level.” He adds that, “Just as a great red enhances a steak, a dessert wine or Port can bring out the flavors in dessert. Plus, since the pours aren’t very big the guest doesn’t have to drink that much.”
Coffee-based cocktails are another good way to sell an after-dinner drink. “I think our coffee drinks probably move the [most],” Lee says, adding that Ray’s Boathouse’s most popular after-dinner drink is its signature Burnt Ray, which blends amaretto, dark cacao and coffee liqueur for $9. During the busy summer season, Lee says, the restaurants will sell roughly 70 to 100 Burnt Rays a week, and 30 to 40 during the quieter seasons.
The Comstock Saloon is also having success with its Keoke coffee, which blends French-pressed coffee with equal parts of Firelit Coffee Liqueur and a pinot noir brandy, both from St. George Spirits, topped with cream. “It’s a pretty spirituous drink,” Raglin says, “but definitely has a rich, fresh coffee flavor.” It is priced at $10.
“To me the category’s wide open,” Raglin says. “What some people call an after-dinner drink is really their nightcap. Some people come in here for a Manhattan. Probably your greatest challenge is to find out what’s the most important [drink].” That remains a challenge with a category with so many options.