Top of the Drops: Why Sydney Bars are Pouring More Premium Drinks

When Since I Left You (SILY) opened in the Sydney CBD in 2011, owner Nick White envisaged a small bar offering drinks skewed somewhat towards the higher end of the market, yet retaining a “relaxed, approachable, and inclusive” atmosphere for a broad cross-section of discerning drinkers. Six years on, it appears White’s dream now aligns perfectly with the reality of the city’s (and Australia’s) shifting attitude towards alcohol consumption.

A new drinking culture

“Ever since the small bar revolution began in Sydney, there are so many more opportunities for people to discover new tastes and build an appreciation for higher quality drinks,” White says. “In my experience, the drinking culture in Sydney has changed for the better. Our customers might be ordering a lower number of drinks than they used to on an average night, but they’re definitely prepared to pay extra for something enjoyable.”

From an industry perspective, the research seems to support White’s ‘glass half full’ outlook. A 10-year survey of national drinking habits by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports the average person consumed 9.7 litres of pure alcohol in 2013-14, down from 10.8 litres in 2008-09. According to data released by industry analyst IBISWorld, per capita alcohol consumption will fall to 9.37 litres in 2016-17 and 8.54 litres by 2023-24, with “increasing health consciousness among consumers” cited as a major influencing factor.

Positives of a ‘premium’ offer

While consumption is falling, total alcohol spending is not necessarily going in the same direction. “The good news from a business perspective is that offering superior products can actually increase revenue, even though the drinks are more expensive. I remember thinking, ‘Can we actually charge $10 for a beer?’ I quickly realised that you can definitely charge $10 for a quality local craft beer,” White says.

It’s a positive trend that rightly benefits the licensed premises selling premium beer, wine, and spirits, according to White. “A lot of Sydney venues, particularly small bars, are playing a proactive role in customers choosing quality over quantity. We’re presenting alcohol in a different light by emphasising the product’s ingredients, origins, and taste, rather than promoting the lowest possible prices. We could offer some cheap beers and wines just for the sake of it, but selling a huge amount of lower quality drinks is not my priority,” he says.

“You don’t have to be an exclusive bar that only offers top-of-the-range drinks most people can’t afford. I don’t consider our bar to be ultra-premium, but I take pride in the fact our house pours are not the cheapest available and our menu has something for everyone.”

Mixing it up

Having recently relaunched a simplified drinks menu, White is thrilled with the response to SILY’s abbreviated cocktails list and ‘Try Something Different’ section, featuring four lesser-known spirits enjoyed during his travels around the world—Becherovka (Czech Republic), Vermouth (Italy), Pisco (Chile and Peru), and Mezcal (Mexico).

“Each one is a traditional spirit with a few hundred years of history in a particular region,” he says. “Our philosophy has always been to serve drinks we love ourselves, inspired by real experiences. When I go out, I want waiters and bar staff to teach me something about a great product I’m going to order.”

“At Since I Left You, our drinks evolve as I learn about all the amazing products available. In some ways, the bar has kept adapting to the trend in favour of premium alcohol because I’ve personally kept developing my own tastes.

“So far our new drinks list has been really popular, which again shows Sydneysiders are happy to pay slightly more as long as the drink is worth it.”

Understanding the changes in Australia’s drinking trends is imperative to being able to run your business successfully. In order to stay ahead, and understand what each trend means for your business, check out Commercial Drinks this September. Featuring a number of exhibitors within beer, wine and spirits, the show will also have leading experts sharing their insight and advice for staying head.

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