Cocktail trends: Moving with the times

Trends rely on different groups of people to evolve and gain traction. Angel Brown tracks the movement of cocktail fashion


COCKTAIL TRENDS ARE indispensable to the modern spirits business – they can make and break brands’ fortunes. But like swirling winds, trends can seemingly appear out of nowhere, shift direction, grow in strength or peter out. If a brand manages to catch the breeze, it can be carried along to untold success. But to create a trend or exploit one early enough, brands need to get a read on how they come about in the first place. What is the process by which trends are created and percolate down to the mainstream?

Everett Rogers is the American sociologist who in 1962 created the theory of Diffusion of Innovation, which unravels the way in which people adopt trends. The DOI separates people into five groups depending on their adoption of a trend, which can be applied to cocktail trends.

The innovators are the blue-sky thinkers – they make up just 2.5% of the population and are as far from the mainstream as possible. They are the ones responsible for new ideas. These are the leaders, the likes of Sasha Petraske, father of the 21st-century speakeasy Milk & Honey, or Tony Conigliaro, who blurred the lines between gastronomy, science and cocktails. While some of these ideas may succeed, others will fail depending on how well the idea resonates with the rest of the industry.

Early adopters are what you would think of as trendsetters as they establish and popularise the trend rather than create it and represent 13.5% of the population. They are well-connected on social media and have a wealth of cultural knowledge. They were the first group of hipsters and were into nitro coffee before Nescafe had even heard of it. Experiences and rare and new consumer goods are their cultural capital. Early adopters are so over prosecco and anything else that feels like yesterday’s fashion.

The early majority are 34% of the population and they represent a large group of the mainstream but are still well ahead of the curve. You’ll notice them more readily – they are essentially communities which embrace trends as a lifestyle choice. By the time trends have made it to the mainstream, they are less relevant to the early majority and are transitioning to something else. In terms of cocktails, right now this group would be drinking Negronis, not Mojitos.

The late majority also take up 34% just as the early majority group but are more conservative. They like to feel safe in numbers and are more open to later-entry, mass-marketed brands that have replicated the trend. Take the Pornstar Martini – the cocktail that was created in London back in 2002 and is now a fixture in mainstream bars around the world. This is when we see trends hit the biggest following. Think of the current G&T boom – its comeback was so big it’s no longer at the forefront of innovation, but neither is it dwindling just yet.

The laggards are bound by tradition. They represent 16% of the population and are resistant to anything new. By the time trends get to this group they are embraced by society to the extent that they are no longer considered innovative. This group would be resistant to cocktail bars, let alone cocktails.

But how long does it take for a cocktail trend to pass through these stages? The DOI theory uses the rate of adoption as a way of measuring how quickly something becomes a trend. It is the speed at which innovation is adopted by members of a social system resulting in an s-shaped curve. At first only a few adopt the innovation in a specific time period, such as month or a year. The curve then begins to climb as more people adopt the innovation. Then the rate of adoption begins to level off until it drops off.

Spiros Malandrakis, senior alcoholic drinks analyst at Euromonitor International, tells Drinks International: “Alcohol is moving extremely fast, much faster than it used to maybe 10 years ago.

“The rise and fall of cocktails takes five to 10 years in my understanding so it is a much longer process. It takes time for a trend to gain traction and materialise and become relevant across the board.”


While this social order of trend adoption is still a relevant framework for our understanding, social media has undoubtedly evolved the speed and direction at which cocktail trends can travel. Now bartenders and brands alike are able to use their social media channels as a platform to directly reach mainstream audiences. Millennials and Generation Z are the biggest social media users, therefore it comes as no surprise that brands would leverage this to their advantage. With access to so many key consumers they are circumventing the order of trends and are using celebrities or influencers to appeal directly.

A great example of a cocktail that gained traction from social media is the Aperol Spritz. The hashtag has more than 800k posts on Instagram and has been placed on the menu of bars all around the world as a result.

Malandrakis says: “The rise of the Aperol Spritz shouldn’t make sense in the context of the generations that have grown up on massive amounts of sugar and Aperol is quite on the bitter side. But it gained popularity on Instagram so there is a visual element of how cocktails look and how this becomes part of social media personas.”

The Aperol Spritz is the perfect storm – a cocktail that became popular in the 1950s and therefore connects well to the classic cocktail movement. It is 11% abv, which appeals to the trend of low abv and had a highly marketed lifestyle campaign by Campari. These attributes appealed to early adopters who then harnessed the cocktail and, as a result, it proliferated through Instagram – a great example of exploiting factors to create a wider trend.

Social media has given bartenders a platform too. They are now the independent leaders of taste and are the early adopters/trendsetters of the industry who are looked upon by the early majority. The likes of Rich Wood (@the_cocktailguy) with 64k followers and Ryan Chetiyawardana (@mrlyan) with 28.1k followers on Instagram are some of the rising stars from the bartender/influencer group.

Carla Rivera, mixologist for Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits, believes bartenders have more influence on trends than even some brands. “Cocktail trends start with bartenders and influencers – people who create great content and can then draw a following. Brands try, but are sometimes one step behind. It really depends on each particular brand and how savvy they are with their marketing and trade engagement. Bartenders, however, have the direct influence on the consumer.”

Kurtis Bosley, group bars manager at Public House Management Group, Sydney, became an influencer on Instagram. He has 43.5k followers on his account (@cocktailsbykurtis) but still believes human interaction is as key as ever to the growth of cocktail trends. “The biggest influences I’ve seen that allow trends to grow are bartenders. They are very much at the forefront when guests come into their space – they interact with them and, in some ways, educate them on what they are drinking at that current time. People are more receptive of this interaction than ever before.”

This interaction creates an acceleration of trend adoption and with bartender social media accounts, consumers now have more access to the industry than ever. But is this helping them become more discerning? Bosley said: “The past three to five years have seen consumers becoming more educated drinkers. On a consistent basis we are seeing the average drinker more knowledgeable than ever when they step inside a bar.

“In turn we are seeing more obscure liquids being drunk and bartenders experimenting with more exotic ingredients. Over the past year or so I’ve seen some of the coolest flavour pairings ever – places such as Scout in London and PS40 in Sydney are well ahead of the curve when it comes to this.”

But with the early majority picking up on trends so quickly, brands now have less time to exploit trends we see among innovators and early adopters. So let’s look at the emerging trends now, which will all too quickly be hitting mainstream.

JJ Goodman, owner of LCC says: “I think vodka is on the rise after a long hiatus. This may tie in with the health-conscious folk, given its reduced calories compared to other spirits. But also it’s a great spirit and versatile for mixing. The quality of some of the brands these days is just outstanding.”

So what will we see next year? Ben Branson, founder of non-alcoholic ‘spirit’ Seedlip simply wants to see more of the same: “I hope next year we’ll see more of what happened in 2018, just on a greater and more meaningful scale.

“No and low, increased focus on sustainability, food techniques, flavour and provenance rather than a whole load of new fads.”

Egor Polonskiy, mixologist for Southern Glazer’s, thinks we could see the rise of some niche spirits, along with some continued favourites. “I think bartenders will be mixing more aquavit, sotols, agricoles, navy strength gins, American brandies, as well as low-proof cocktails.”

With such a fast-moving industry, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the next cocktail trend will be. But the best bet would be on an innovator starting it, an early adopter sharing it and the rest being up to the majority.