From craft cocktails to mocktails, from reimagined standbys to creative signatures, bars are no longer an afterthought in the foodservice segment. Today, it’s all about the beverages.

In 2017, bars and taverns took in sales of more than $45 billion, according to Chicago-based Technomic’s January 2018 U.S. Foodservice Industry Report, with the category encompassing a 5.2 percent share of the total revenue for the restaurant and bar segment. In addition, overall sales of on-premise alcohol were expected to reach $106 billion in 2017, per a report tracking this segment issued by Mintel.

What’s Trending

Looking at trends, the drinks of yesteryear continue to enjoy a renaissance, although in slightly new formats.

“We’re seeing more brown liquors, old-style cocktails — what’s old is new again,” says Dave Kincheloe, president of National Restaurant Consultants, which has offices in Denver and Phoenix. “Today’s craft drinks are made with smoky flavors, and bars are taking old drinks and putting a new twist on them, like making an Old Fashioned with tequila instead of bourbon to give it a different flavor profile.”

As Millennials develop a greater taste for craft cocktails, sparkling wine and rosé, beer consumption has dropped, according to Mintel’s report. Consumers also tend to choose specific drinks for certain occasions. For instance, domestic, non-craft beer sales are higher among those watching sports, while cocktails are preferred by vacationers. Consequently, a correlation exists between the type of alcoholic beverage someone orders most often and the type of venue serving the drink.

“Unfiltered IPAs are popular right now in beer, and alive or natural wines are hot as well,” says Kincheloe. “Our wine list is field blends that are unfiltered and taste interesting. It’s true that wine and whiskey transcend time.”

Craft beverages, too, have become less standardized and more creative. “Bartenders have learned to make more beautiful, concentrated and elevated cocktails, while being playful with history and technology,” Kincheloe adds.

This includes doing different things with blenders, sous vide and culinary centrifuges. “It has become less about doing what others are not doing and has settled back into what’s our bar, what’s our market, what do our people want — let’s find our voice with them,” says Will Hollingsworth, owner of The Spotted Owl restaurant and bar and Hollingsworth Beverage Consulting, both in Cleveland. “There was a tremendous seriousness about cocktails, then about progressive technology, and both of those have fallen away and been replaced by common knowledge in making a great drink.”

Location plays a part in bar beverage preferences. What’s popular in New York City isn’t necessarily selling in Chicago or Los Angeles. This has helped distinguish cocktails, wine and craft beer, making it more sought after and revered by loyal locals.

It’s All About Design

As with the ever-changing alcoholic beverages bars serve, the design of these spaces continues to evolve. Today’s bar design incorporates comprehensive equipment and ergonomic changes to enhance efficiency.

Peter Vestinos is a Chicago-based consultant with more than 15 years of experience in the bar and restaurant industry and founder of The BarMedic. Vestinos says many don’t realize the importance of bar design, which has a massive impact on profits. “If you can get one drink out faster in an hour and multiply that by 365 days, it will pay for itself,” he says. “It’s all about reducing steps and creating efficiencies. Much has been done in the kitchen with this, and it is migrating to the bar. It’s amazing how just rearranging a couple pieces of equipment impacts things.”

Increasingly, bar areas feature a restaurant-style design with high-top tables, says Vestinos. Not coincidentally, the bar now takes a design similar to what one might find in a commercial kitchen’s cook line.

As operators reevaluate their menus in relation to bar design, they continue to seek ways to ensure it works best in the allotted space. “During restaurant build-outs, people are paying attention to bars again, and it’s not just the owners, but also the equipment installers,” says Vestinos. “Bars need to be built for what they’re intended for, what needs to be accomplished, the beverages being served and the volume.”

Technology plays a big part in today’s bar designs. USB ports have replaced purse hooks, and fold-up handicapped rails can accommodate those with disabilities.

Bar layout plays a key role in maximizing efficiency. “The goal always is minimizing bartenders’ steps, so if you have two bartenders, you want a layout where they will meet but never cross paths,” says Kincheloe. “Bar designs are laid out in a triangle, so only one or two steps are needed in either direction and everyone has their own zone.”

Equipment Innovations

While bar equipment keeps evolving, some items continue to withstand the tests of time. “For example, there was a time we told people to throw out their blenders, and now they’re putting them back in,” says Vestinos. “Bars are incorporating platforms to accommodate blenders and/or drink mixers for crushed-ice drinks. And foot pedals are still being used for sinks to increase speed of service and efficiencies.”

As drink menus become more sophisticated and extensive, so too does the equipment that supports these efforts.

“For example, some bars have instituted smoking cabinets, and we’re also seeing an influx of keg wine in the last five years,” says Kincheloe. “These are not the poor quality of the past since high-end wine is now available by the keg.” This aligns with today’s focus on sustainability because kegged wines require less packaging. Plus, these systems minimize waste because they keep air from getting at the product, which causes spoilage.

Kincheloe has used a tap system for tequila as well. “We’re tapping a keg instead of using a bottle of tequila, which has a longer shelf life since it’s not exposed to outside air,” he says.

A new innovation for glass chilling is a CO2 glass cooler that uses gas from a tank. According to Kincheloe, this more efficient method doesn’t take up as much space as a cooler. Clear ice machines also are being implemented in more bars to produce cubes for straight-up liquor.

Slushie machines have come back in a big way, despite the space requirements. Because these beverages center on water and sugar, they can offer an attractive potential margin to bar operators. “Many bars are tying them to quick-serve icy, boozy treats,” says Vestinos.

With wine sales on the uptick, combined with the growing supply of affordable, eclectic and delicious varietals, there is a greater need for temperature control. “I have seen and advocate for the installation of wine drawers behind the bar to keep both reds and whites at proper temperature,” says Vestinos. He adds that another big change is the investment in garnish containers on the bar top. “Bartenders have reinvented how garnishes are displayed and presented to guests to convey the sense of a fresh bar.”

According to Vestinos, when a guest walks up to a bar, it should tell them a story, set the tone and have an obvious focus. “They should know what experience they are about to have,” he says. “This is done by the products carried by the bar and how they are displayed; how the bar top is set up in terms of garnishes and tools; and the way bartenders present themselves.”

He predicts there will be a greater focus on wine and beer, with cocktails taking more of a back seat in the coming months. “It will be more about the neighborhood tavern again,” says Vestinos. “And at the end of the day, a little bit goes a long way in terms of bar design; the customer experience pays for itself.”