ALL MIXED UP: A Look at Cocktail Preferences Across the On-Premise Landscape

Based on a recent analysis of on-premise cocktail consumption, four of the top five best-selling cocktails across the U.S. start with the letter “M,” with margaritas topping the list.

Whether it be to cap off a tough day at the office, trade barbs with friends at a local watering hole or cheer on our favorite teams during big sports match-ups, there’s seldom an occasion where cocktails can’t enhance the experience. And when it comes to getting the mix just right, many of us would prefer to leave the cocktail chemistry to the experts away from home rather than play ingredient guessing games on our own.

So what are Americans drinking these days when they order up their favorite cocktails? Based on a recent analysis of on-premise cocktail consumption, Nielsen CGA found that four of the top five best-selling cocktails across the U.S. start with the letter “M,” with margaritas topping the list.

It’s important to note that when it comes to cocktails, Americans aren’t always focused on price, although Happy Hour remains a big draw for the after-work crowd. Margaritas in the U.S. cost an average of $9.49, almost 50 cents more than the average cocktail ($9), yet 56% of consumers of legal drinking age say the margarita is their go-to drink of choice at on-premise establishments (restaurants, bars, etc.). Spending more than the average, however, is common among cocktail fans, as they’re willing to spend $9.48 per drink—just 1 cent below the cost of a margarita.


Much like we usually don’t eat eggs or pancakes for dinner, cocktail fans vary their drink preferences at different times of the day. And while the margarita is the top cocktail on average, it’s less popular early in the day and very late at night. Alcohol content plays a role in consumption preference, as martinis and Long Island Iced Teas pick up steam between midnight and the morning hours when consumers switch to drinks with higher alcohol content.

Consumption also drops as the evening progresses, with nearly half (43%) of consumers saying that they’re more likely to drink cocktails at the start of an evening than later at night. Comparatively, just 9% say they’re likely to drink at the end of the night.

It’s less surprising that certain cocktails are more popular earlier in the day, including mimosas and Bloody Marys. But the morning hours are key for non-alcoholic cocktails and mocktails, including Virgin Marys and skinny margaritas, both of which are gaining sales in the on-premise market. Regardless of the time of day, however, Millennials 21-34 are driving this growth, with 16% saying they would drink a non-alcoholic cocktail if it’s available.

From a business-driving perspective, on-premise venues stand to make more per drink later than earlier. The average price for a cocktail drops to $8 during Happy Hour, but consumers say they’re willing to spend more per drink in the evening and night timeframes, when the average cocktail costs $9.75 and $10, respectively, versus $8.50 in the morning and $8 in the afternoon.


From a regional perspective, you might think the Manhattan would be a popular cocktail in New York. But alas, it’s not even in the top five. It does, however, crack the top five in Tampa and Chicago. And given their national popularity, the margarita and martini are the cocktails that are most immune to regional preferences, landing in the top two best-selling spots in three of five major U.S. metropolitan markets.

The other cocktail consideration that major metro areas add to the cocktail equation is price. Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York and Chicago boast the two highest cocktail prices at $11 and $11.95, respectively, while Tampa sits squarely in the middle in terms of pricing across all markets.

As with any category, knowing your customer—and what they’re willing to spend—is critical in the cocktail game. When you know what your customers are looking for and when, it’s easier to cater to them, whether it be through cocktail specials to Happy Hour promotions to touting mixologists that specialize in the types of cocktails they’re most thirsty for.


The insights in this article were derived from:

Nielsen CGA Check-Level Insights Pool, September-December 2018

Nielsen CGA On-Premise Consumer Survey, September-December 2018

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