One of the most important features of any bar, or indeed of any catering operation, anywhere, is also one of the most under-rated, misunderstood and under-explored. As one creator of artisan soft drinks remarked recently: "Every caterer knows they've got to have Coke, and they know they've got to have an orange of some kindâ¦ and after that, their imagination runs out!"
And even Coca-Cola Enterprises has recently commented: "In some outlets, the soft drinks offering can be fairly limited, so consumers revert to trusted favourites such as a cola, lemonade or orange juice, which they know will be available. However, 83% of customers would appreciate a more interesting recommendation, and 18% are then likely to trade-up to a more premium drink if suggested by staff."
This applies equally to cordials, remarks the Belvoir brand. It is the trade which needs to shift away from the standard orange, lemon, blackcurrant and lime, because in the appreciation that more interesting options exist, "the consumer is there already".
The current potential for an imaginative soft-drink menu is enormous, with flavours ranging from the exotic to the bizarre. The puzzle is in working out what sells.
The Froize Inn and Breckland Orchard
The customer does appreciate a different soft drink, says David Grimwood of the Froize Inn, a freehouse pub-restaurant in Suffolk - the proof is that they are beginning to ask for them.
One of his chosen suppliers is Claire Martinsen, the founder of Breckland Orchard and the inventor of 'posh pop', a gently sparkling range based on traditional themes with a modern variation, such as her cream soda with a splash of rhubarb.
"Nobody starts a gastro-pub because they don't care about the drinks," Martinsen challenges. "For beer, the offer will be bottled, draft, local, or big-brand. The same kind of choice applies to wine, and even to gin, where there's masses of choice. The operators know that customers won't accept bad tea or coffee any more - so why are soft drinks still a couple of years behind in quality? Cultures are changing, and it would be crazy now not to have a family-orientated drinks offer.
The problem is that many pubs have got themselves so tied up with suppliers that they have forced themselves into a very tight circle of products. As a result, their customers are now conditioned to accept a terrible choice. Any restaurant which treated its wine list that way would be considered very suspect.
"I do admire one pub chain we supply, Marsdens, which has a partnership with one of the major branded suppliers, yet has identified that there is a market for other soft drinks that their partner doesn't supply. I was bowled over by their imagination in
realising that there is an offering outside the big brands."
This theory works, says Grimwood. "It's easy to see why the majority of outlets don't bother breaking away from the leading soft drinks - the customers virtually demand them, such is the power of the advertising. "I have a policy of only buying local food and drink, for reasons of food miles, provenance, sustainability and downright good flavour. A prime example is our coffee, which is supplied by the Suffolk Coffee Company. I can buy much cheaper beans, but the story is not as good, and nor is the flavour.
"It's the same with our soft drinks. Here it is about showing the customer, who thinks they want a branded drink, that our offering of Breckland slightly-sparkling sloe lemonade is in fact far nicer. We have achieved the compromise.
"Our wonderful range of soft drinks includes sparkling (by Bottlegreen), Innocent's Juicy Water, and Breckland Orchard's slightly sparkling drinks from Norfolk, which come in sloe lemonade, strawberry and rhubarb, cloudy lemonade, pear and elderflower, and ginger and chilli.
"All these nice drinks make the margins I require, so profitability is not an issue. Informing the customer takes time - but we do see return customers asking for specific drinks from our list because they enjoyed it last time. "Sadly, Coke is Coke and there seems to be no substitute."
To develop is not a giant leap, says Martinsen. "To move on from Coke and orange juice to an elderflower and a really decent ginger beer is only a revolution in baby steps. I do admire people who are 'out there' with flavours, but I like to use familiar things that everyone knows. So when we were asked for a cream soda, which can be plain and boring, we made a small step: vanilla, which gives soda the creaminess, goes well with rhubarb, and people like it. To try a 'soft drink of the month' like this is a very low-risk project."
Hix Restaurants and Luscombe soft drinks
Not surprisingly, chef Mark Hix believes that the true value of a soft drink is to be found in the glass - "it's all about how the flavour comes through," he says.
There is more in this than meets the eye, says his supplier Luscombe, where managing director Gabriel David is firm about what customers want from a soft drink.
"Their first 'want' is a reliable alternative to a beer or glass of wine, with a similar level of sophistication or adultness - it has to have a grown-up flavour profile, in which the sugars and acids are balanced. We all know when an over-sweet wine or beer does not taste right, and a soft drink is no exception.
"A range has to be a minimum of four products. The staples are a ginger beer, a cloudy lemon, an elderflower and an orange-based drink (we have a St Clements). We also have a monthly choice to keep it lively and this can be written on a blackboard as a 'special'. This sends a message that the establishment is making an effort to please its customers - so many are sleepy about recognising the number of people who don't want alcohol at any given time, which is said to be at least 30%.
"The non-drinking client is quite often the 'decision maker' - this may be the car driver or the head of the family - and probably the one who decides where they will drink that day.
"If the landlord makes an effort to stock interesting, non-supermarket soft drinks, this may well steer the decision-maker's wish to drink in that establishment - together with a car-load of clients."
Mark Hix says he likes to show Luscombe drinks off with a story. "In all our sites the drinks are on the menus alongside our wines and spirits, with some explanation. We will use them as a part of our seasonal cocktails, like the Dorset Donkey, which is a version of a Moscow mule with Dorset Black Cow vodka (a creamy milk drink), Dorset blueberries and Luscombe hot ginger beer - I like to think the hot ginger beer perks me up a bit."
A hot ginger beer is a reference to the sensation from the way the organic root ginger is milled, steeped and rinsed to capture a citrus 'nose' along with the gingerols - the natural element of ginger that gives the heat. A hot ginger beer does work on a cold day, but it can equally be served over ice in summer.
The Terrace and Fever-Tree
At Corney & Barrow's Terrace restaurant in the City of London, marketing manager Caroline Dobson says she knows what customers want from soft drinks, and worked with the Fever-Tree brand on an exclusive advance launch of a new variant on tonic water.
"More than ever, customers want to drink quality products, whether it's freshly-squeezed juices or premium soft drinks and mixers. We need mixers that can work with our spirit portfolio to enhance the products, be innovative and give our customers something different.
"When we exclusively launched Fever-Tree's elderflower tonic across the City this summer, the customers were hugely receptive, which confirmed that we need to keep our soft drink offer fresh."
The new elderflower tonic claims a "light and subtle character, with the delicate flavour of elderflower, hand-picked between May and June from some of the highest quality elder bushes in the UK", all of which is more than the usual taste notes expected of a tonic. But Fever-Tree says that the popularity of gin and tonic is at an all-time high, that consumers welcome variations on the classic G&T, and that the trade appreciates a tonic which can be sold at a premium.
Saskia Meyer, marketing manager at Fever-Tree, says: "Everything we do, including five variants on tonic water, is done with the intention of mixing with spirits, even though we know they may be drunk on their own as a soft drink. "Corney and Barrow had been taking our products for some years, so we told them first about the new tonic water, and they had it exclusively for a week.
"They emailed their database, we both pushed it through social media, and there was an offer of samples and a free gin and tonic. The response was very positive, and The Terrace made a lot of theatre out of it - they served the drinks in a large wine glass. A lot of customers took pictures and posted them on social media."
There really is interest, confirms Dobson. "We make customers aware of our soft drinks. We recently collaborated with Fever-Tree on a specific cocktail list designated to their Mediterranean tonic (an aroma of thyme, with citrus and hints of rosemary). It's all about giving the customers the information to make an educated choice about their drink."
Soft drink news
â- Cherrygood, promoted as the UK's first ready-to-drink cherry juice, says the fruit not only boosts brain power, aids sleep and prevents insomnia, but is packed with anti-inflammatory properties. A glass of tart cherry juice contains more antioxidants than five portions of banana, tomatoes, watermelon, peas and carrots, and is "crucial to slowing down the ageing process," the company says.
â- Belvoir, which sold the original elderflower cordial 30 years ago, says that while more bar managers have cottoned on to the profit of cordials, the format is still far below its potential. An interesting cordial diluted with sparkling water and nicely presented makes a great soft drink at a very acceptable profit margin.
â- Qcumber, a blend of natural cucumber essence and gently sparkling spring water, won both 'outstanding new product innovation' and 'best drink innovation' at this year's IFE show. A new 330ml single-serve bottle size has been launched for the trade.
â- Bottled waters and energy drinks rose last year, according to the 2013 report by the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA), but carbonates, dilutables and fruit juice volumes were down. Notably, 'no added sugar' drinks now take 61% of the market. The report also stated that overweight and obese consumers are less likely than average to consume soft drinks, and this, says the BSDA, 'explodes the myth' that soft drinks consumption is the cause of obesity.
â- PomeGreat has launched a 'super-strength' dilutable version of its pomegranate drink. "This is far from a conventional cordial," says the firm. "This is the concentrated essence of a barrel-load of pomegranates, or the equivalent of pressing the entire fruit of one pomegranate tree into a single bottle."
â- Beetroot has made slow but steady progress as a soft drink. Soft-drinks supplier James White has pushed the flavour to the degree that international rugby teams now drink it as routine. Cawston Press has created a new Brilliant Beetroot blend that includes 10% pure apple juice.
â- No Fear is launching two new fruity energy drink flavours, arguing that: "the functional energy category is growing at an ever-increasing rate and consumers are looking for new and exciting flavours." Tropical Storm is flavoured with pineapple, passion fruit and peach, and Blue Storm with raspberry.
â- Bottlegreen has launched flavoured tonic waters - an elderflower version and 'Pink', which features sweet pomegranate with quinine and elderflower.
â- A reason for the recent rise in coconut waters, says Vita Coco, can be found at breakfast, when there is a growing trend for an alternative to high-sugar juices. The coconut water sector was recently publicised as being the fastest growing segment across all non-alcoholic beverages. Elsewhere, the brand's American CEO has made the delightful remark that the success of coconut water is "all about getting to the customer at the 'point of sweat'."
â- Tropical Sun has added a lime version to its coconut water drink, and says that its original coconut water with real coconut pieces is now also available in a 520ml can which "can be conveniently offered in a foodservice environment."
â- Goldenberry juice is being promoted as the latest 'superfruit' drink. The berry comes from the Andes and is said to be packed with nutrients.
â- Shloer has packaged two of its drinks as 'celebration' items for the hospitality trade - Pink Fizz and White Bubbly have higher carbonation levels than the usual Shloer range, and are offered in 75cl clear glass bottles with cork closures in a wire cage and foil.
Breckland Orchard 01953 878 060 www.brecklandorchard.co.uk
Fever Tree 020 7349 4922 www.fever-tree.co.uk
Luscombe 01364 643036 www.luscombe.co.uk