Beer, Wine & Spirits

Here's why you ordered that premium cocktail


Imbibers aren't strangers to the idea of bartender as therapist. There's a different kind of bar psychology, though, that can prompt you to spend more.

"It takes a lot of time to educate consumers," Audrey Fort, portfolio director of EWG Spirits & Wine, told attendees at a "For-Profit Consumer Education" seminar at the Tales of the Cocktail festival in New Orleans. Consumers have only a few points of contact within the bar for influence—bartenders, the bar back and the menu—and maximizing those opportunities is key for profit.

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Of course, bar owners aren't unique in playing on consumer psychology to boost spending. The restaurant industry employs a host of menu tactics, Aaron Allen, an independent restaurant consultant, told CNBC. That includes color choice (red, used sparingly, can draw attention to specific items), descriptions (the longer, the better in many cases) and price display (eliminating the $ sign and "nesting" the price within a description can both boost sales), he said.

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"Techniques [can] encourage you to look at the right items," he said—essentially, whatever high-profit or slow-selling items the business wants to promote.

Menus are getting more complex, and interesting, to sway imbibers away from their usual poison. The Dead Rabbit in New York City has a menu that doubles as a graphic novel, almost a choose-your-own adventure for customers willing to explore. "Look at your favorite adjective that describes how you like to drink, and flip to the page that describes that," said the bar's Pamela Wiznitzer.

Another increasingly popular tactic that works: retail theater. You'll know it when you see it—it's the drink that gets set on fire, or comes out of a slushie machine.

Citizen in Boston does a "Pappy Meal," incorporating a 2-ounce pour of the sought-after Pappy Van Winkle, along with house-made pickles, house-made jerky and (naturally) a toy, the bar's Sean Frederick told seminar attendees. "It has been easily, in four years, the buzziest thing we've ever done," he said. They sell only six a week, and sell out within an hour or two.

When the drink was introduced in April, the price ranged from $30 to $90, depending on the whiskey.

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Retail theater isn't always flashy, said Allen. In his bartending days, Allen's father would send a server out to just walk across the dining room with a tray of brightly colored tropical drinks. "It generates that, 'Ooh, what's the blue one, what's the pink one?" he said. Seeing a bartender crush ice or shake a drink can also catch customers' attention—and spur more orders.

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Cocktails on draft, bottled cocktails or barrel-aged cocktails, can draw attention as well, especially if there's a rotating selection.

"They're coming in all the time to find out what's this barrel-aged thing?" said Andrew Friedman of Good Citizen and Liberty in Seattle. They charge $2 to $3 more for a barrel-aged version of cocktails already on the menu, in part because of the process costs (not every batch makes it), but also because the market will bear it, he said.

Those kinds of menu quirks appeal to consumers because it's something they can't easily replicate at home, said Kit Yarrow, a professor of marketing and psychology at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "Half of what you're consuming when you're buying a drink is fantasy," she said. "The more creative the cocktail, the more valuable it is in the mind of the consumer."

Part of that is the naming and the description. Frederick said Citizen does fanciful flights including "Three Animals Walk Into a Bar," which includes Sheep Dip, Pig's Nose and Monkey Shoulder whiskeys.

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Flights are another tactic that boosts profit, with the added advantage of educating consumers about what they might enjoy drinking. Fort said bars might experiment with unusual flights—such as three different takes on the gin & tonic— or focus on differences within lesser-known spirits. On the bar side, that can be profitable, said Friedman, because pricing often reflects the cost of the most expensive spirit included. Plus, it's another bit of retail theater that has other customers looking on in envy.

Bartenders hear a lot of stories, but listening to theirs can also influence what you drink. It's not just recommendations, but enthusiasm for the craft and knowledge about the products, said Wiznitzer. Her staff attends regular tastings and educational seminars, with quizzes and tests on what they absorbed. "Everybody is responsible to know everything in that bar," she said.

It comes down to satisfying customers' thirst for knowledge as well as their actual thirst. "If you do a tequila flight and the server doesn't know about tequila, you've squandered an opportunity," Friedman said. is in New Orleans for the 12th annual Tales of the Cocktail festival, which runs through Sunday. Check back for more coverage of the trends shaping what you'll drink at home and on the town—and how much you'll spend doing so.

By CNBC's Kelli B. Grant