On Beverage: Cocktail classes can help to boost bar business, dinner traffic

On Beverage: Cocktail classes can help to boost bar business, dinner traffic

Faced with a prospering business that required her to spend more time behind a desk than behind a bar, Lucy Brennan, proprietor of Mint & 820 [3] bistro and bar in Portland, Ore., came up with a novel way of “keeping her hands wet,” as she puts it: She decided to hold regular cocktail classes for her customers.

Seven years later, Brennan’s classes still are going strong—at $75 a person, they usually sell out.

Other bartenders, managers and owners across the country have picked up on the idea with classes of their own. It’s not only a positive promotional idea, Brennan says, it also encourages people to better understand what they’re drinking.

“The classes absolutely attract new customers,” Brennan says, noting that in addition to new faces, the Saturday afternoon sessions also see a number of repeat students. “Often people stick around for happy hour immediately after class.”

But attracting new clientele and keeping regulars happy is only part of the goal, Brennan says: “My mission is really to educate people. I’ve studied spirits for years the way some people study wine, and I just want to show it the same respect that those people have for wine.”

Indeed, independent cocktail educator Angie Jackson of Chicago’s Ultimate Elixirs [4] said she began offering cocktail education simply because she found “a big deficit in the market for that kind of information.”

Over at Nacional 27 [5] in Chicago, manager and mixologist Adam Seger says the cocktail classes, held the third Thursday of every month, are not only fun for the customers, but also a great lead in to Thursday night’s dining hour.

“We run the classes from about 5:30 to 6:30, and I’d say that most of the guests end up staying for dinner,” Seger says.

Since the maximum is 35 people, and most classes do sell out, the extra dinner business allows the restaurant to charge what is effectively a break-even price of only $15 per person for their classes, he adds.

Held either at the bar or in the private dining room where they set up a temporary bar, each Nacional 27 cocktail class begins with a welcome cocktail and a presentation of the day’s theme, be it a style of drink or a particular ingredient. The remainder of the hour will cover the creation of three cocktails, with everyone in the class assisting in one way or another at some point.

“We always include some interactive elements in each class,” Seger says, “whether it’s shaking or muddling or whatever.”

Getting up close and personal is also on the agenda at Eastern Standard [6] in Boston, where bar manager Jackson Cannon says that in addition to holding regular classes—about 15 or so per year—they also schedule a tableside presentation for groups making dinner or event reservations.

“More and more, we find that people really appreciate these sort of educational add-ons,” Cannon says. “So we’ll send someone over to the table to talk a bit about the history of a drink or the mechanics of the cocktail and then make it right there at the table.”

On the more formal, organized side of things, Cannon says Eastern Standard doesn’t have specifically scheduled times for classes, but usually announces them a few at a time, with three or four sessions devoted to a single topic. They are publicized primarily through word-of-mouth.

“We started last year during the run-up to the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition with themed classes,” Cannon says. “They were so successful that we decided to continue doing them and sort of stuck with the multiclass theme.”

The sessions run two or three hours and can include such topics as Tiki drinks and pre-Prohibition cocktails. Each class is limited to no more than a dozen participants and costs $75 per person.

Whether created as a promotional exercise, a way to encourage business or an educational strategy, mixology classes appear to be on the rise.