In a monthly series, menu trend analyst Nancy Kruse and NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn debate current trends in the restaurant industry. This installment explores adult beverages that are trending in restaurants, including sweet drinks that are popular with the Millennial generation.
Sweet drinks: A rite of passage or generational trend?
NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn presents his take on adult beverages that are trending in restaurants.
Nancy, I’m starting to feel like a curmudgeon when I see what Millennials are drinking these days.
At a session on beverage revenue opportunities held earlier this month at the MUFSO conference  in Dallas, Donna Hood Crecca, senior director of Technomic’s adult beverage research group, said that the people who reached drinking age over the past 10 years are the ones driving the growth of drinks like sweet wine at dinner and candy-flavored vodkas. In fact, she said, whipped cream flavored vodka was growing the third fastest out of all of all flavored vodkas.
That’s about the grossest thing I’ve ever heard — and I’ve eaten insects.
This sweet adult beverage trend has been gaining steam over the past year, when both Seasons 52 and Old Chicago added Moscato dessert wine to their lists. Moscato is so popular, in fact, that it’s one of the offerings on the modest wine-by-the-glass list at The Stand, a new comedy club in Manhattan. It’s everywhere.
I’ve also seen beer floats — usually made with stout, but not always — and milkshakes spiked with vodka and bourbon, as well as adult ice pops with booze in them.
I had one of those ice pops, at the Conrad hotel in New York City’s financial district. It was served upside down in a big wine glass normally reserved for red wine. But instead it contained Prosecco, which is the fastest growing type of sparkling wine on the market. It’s understandable that Millennials would like Prosecco: It’s sweeter than most other sparklers (although less so than Moscato d’Asti), and affordable. And it actually softened my ice pop nicely, too.
I wonder if this sweet tooth for booze is really a generational thing, though, or just a matter of age. I’m in Generation X, but in my younger years I, too, drank sweet cocktails.
When I was 16, frozen daiquiris were being churned out of my friends’ parents’ blenders when adults weren’t looking. At age 17 I took my first trip to a country without an age restriction, and my drink of choice was Black Russians, until someone introduced me to White Russians. Remember them? Put them in a blender and you have a delicious, potent Frappuccino.
I had my share of frozen Margaritas and Kamikazes in my 20s, and I even went on a brief apple martini kick in my early 30s. Maybe the biggest difference now is that Generation Y is being offered a better selection of sweet drinks — or at least a more varied one.
Nancy, what beverage trends are catching your eye these days?
Next: Nancy Kruse's response 
Beverage trends shadow larger menu trends
The following is Kruse Company president Nancy Kruse's response to NRN senior food editor Bret Thorn's opinion on adult beverage trends .
Curmudgeon? No, Bret, I’d never call you that. Rather, I’d suggest that your taste has matured and you’ve put away childish drinks along with your heavy-metal LPs. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with super-sweet, frou-frou drinks. As you point out, they may constitute a potable rite of passage and a valuable initiation into the realm of adult beverages.
A glass of easy-to-like Moscato is a much less intimidating step into Italian viticulture than, let’s say, a DOCG Barolo. I suspect that candy-shop vodkas and sweet wines are like gateway drinks — first steps down the path to really hard-core stuff like craft ryes or first-growth Bordeaux.
I’ve been following beverage trends with interest, since they track in perfect synchronization with larger food and menu trends. For example, the demand for fresh, seasonal food from the kitchen carries over to the bar, where T.G.I. Friday’s responds with fresh watermelon mojitos as a summer drink special.
Interest in comfort-food classics corresponds to alcoholic quaffables like Sweet & Tart Peach Tea, which is offered in an iconic Mason jar at Quaker Steak & Lube, and the rediscovery of heirloom foods correlates to the resurgence of forgotten beverages like hard cider and even mead.
Ethnic food growth goes hand-in-glove with ethnic beverage growth, such as Japanese sakes. And wines from Greece and Lebanon will benefit as the Mediterranean food juggernaut continues its move east from Spain and Italy.
Locavore foodies can be locavore imbibers, too, thanks to local nanobrewers who are crafting everything from beer to moonshine.
Our only disagreement on this subject may be your less-than-hearty endorsement of Prosecco. I first fell for it when I paid about $40 for a minuscule Bellini at a tourist trap in Venice, and I’ve loved it unreservedly ever since. True sparkling-wine cognoscenti may dismiss it in favor of fine French bubbly, but I tell you, Bret, I smile every time I think about it.
Nancy Kruse, president of the Kruse Company, is a menu trends analyst based in Atlanta and a regular contributor to Nation’s Restaurant News. E-mail her at [email protected] .