The skinny on skinny cocktails

Customers are starting to realize that many cocktails pack a load of calories. Responding to rising demand, a growing number of restaurants are developing slimmer sippers.

At the beginning of this year, Scottsdale, Arizona-based RA Sushi debuted a limited-time promotion of three slenderized cocktails to all 25 of its restaurants nationwide. Beverage director Alex Summer walks us through the development process.

Inspiration. “We knew the demand was there for lower-calorie cocktails,” says Summer, noting that in general, customers are looking for ways to maintain their health while dining out, which includes cutting calories. That’s especially true after the holiday season when many people over-indulge, which is why the chain chose to launch the promotion in the first two months of the year.

Research. The beverage director, of course, was aware of skinny drink options at other concepts, and RA Sushi had experimented with lower-calorie drinks a few times before. But for this round, he wanted a new approach. The first step was to reach out for information and ideas to his network of industry contacts, mixologists and distributors. Summer discovered a new product, Voli Light Vodka, a lower-calorie spirit available in several expressions that became the linchpin of the new drinks.

Development. The skinny drinks had to fit a few parameters. First, they all had to come in under 200 calories per serving. The light vodka, with 25 to 40 percent fewer calories than regular vodka, was a good start. Summer also decided to sweeten with agave syrup, which, he says, is a little lower in calories than the simple syrup usually used in cocktails. Naturally, the beverage director also decided to tie the drinks to the restaurants’ concept. For this, he turned to the characteristic Asian flavors of ginger, lychee, yuzu and shiso. “I always try to incorporate products in keeping with our theme,” notes Summer.

Possible pitfalls. “The toughest challenge when developing a low-calorie drink is to maintain the flavor,” points out Summer. Even though a drink has fewer calories, it shouldn’t taste weak or watered down. The drinks get their satisfying flavor from fresh fruit and juices, and complexity from ginger and shiso, a Japanese leaf possessing a minty-basil essence.

Execution. The drinks that made the final cut were the Lychee-teenie, Skinny Ninja and Thin Ginger, priced at $8 each. Prior to the launch, a packet of recipes, product information and photos of the drinks’ presentation were sent out to every restaurant, where managers used the manual to train their staffs on proper execution of the drinks and hand selling. Menu cards and other in-house POS materials were developed with the photography and enticing verbiage. Summer worked with RA Sushi’s marketing team and local PR companies to get the word out.

Results. “Individually, the skinny cocktails have been performing as well as our highest-selling cocktails,” reports the beverage director. Indeed. Some of the lower-calorie concoctions will appear again on future drink menus.

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