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One Trick Wonders

How cocktail bars are narrowing down their wine offering to just a red and a white.

Increasingly in London, cocktail bars are opting to have a very simple wine offering. So simple in fact it’s either a white or a red and that’s it.

While at first it seems a bit basic, pairing the offering back makes a lot of sense, and saves money if you’re not having to throw away opened wine all the time. Let’s remember we’re talking about cocktail bars not wine bars. But how do you decide on only one white and one red with all the wines in the world to choose from?

“The general challenge across the wines is in the margin vs. quality. You can't just have a house-quality wine; it needs to be better, as it's the only option available to your customer, so must have appeal. Meanwhile, you don't want to deflate the perceived value of your entire offering by having obligatory pricey wines. So you take a bit of a hit. From there, it's about meeting demand,” says Elliot Ball of Cocktail Trading Co.

At Cocktail Trading Co just off Brick Lane the bar has a champagne, a prosecco, a white, a red and a rose.

“Basically, we just wanted simplicity. We started off with a wine selection which had three of each (with a geeky Jerry Thomas theme – ‘classic’, 'improved' and 'fancy'), but took it down to just one when we launched our first bar, it was best for many reasons,” says Elliot.

Elliot and his co-owners had an easier time picking with the rose and red wine. For rose they knew it couldn't be excessively sweet and otherwise just had to be good; what people want from a rose.  When it came to the red they picked an extraordinarily good value-for-money Monastrell and ran with it. “It's fairly big and juicy so appeals to most, still has some tannin, and isn't an overloaded Aussie shiraz – a good balance of qualities and an acceptable margin at £5 a glass and £20 for the bottle.”

When it came to the white the team struggled, originally opting for an excellent Northern France Sauvignon Blanc that was dry and zesty, “a wonderfully vibrant wine”. But for many customers it was too dry so they had to rethink and came up with a Pays d'Oc blend, heavier in viognier and more peachy than zesty. “That's a happy medium, but it took us a while to get there.”

Newly-opened Three Sheets in Dalston is another bar which has chosen a paired back wine list. They tell me they’d love to have more but don’t have the space or the fridges and when your main business is cocktails then spirits and glassware take precedence for space. Working with a small supplier the two owners tasted their way through the range and picked tasty crowd pleasers. Here you’ll find a Lo Sfuso Di Collina as your red option and a La Distesa Marche Bianco for the white.

It’s a similar story at 69 Colebrooke Row in Islington and Satan’s Whiskers in Bethnal Green – both award winning bars for their mixed drinks and both choosing to keep the wine list at a bare minimum.

“To be honest, though,” says Elliot, “the main difficulty is not in getting the right wine for your customer, but margins. The rose we just took a hit on. For the red, it's something completely different - choosing cleverly. Monastrell is a great example; it's the Spanish term for mourvedre, the third most popular grape in Chateauneuf de Pape. Obviously, being produced in Spain is going to hugely change its character (frequently for the better; the nature of the vineyards meant the roots ran sufficiently deep to avoid being wiped out by Phylloxera; thus the vines are very old and produce wine with a lot of character), but it also affects the cost; the same wine produced in Bordeaux would obviously be completely unaffordable.”

Not too many people head to famed cocktail bars and order wine these days, but still more than you’d think considering the wine bars now littered throughout the city. However despite featuring just one varietal per colour you’ll often find a lot of research and thought has gone in to getting the right wine for the right bar, meaning these wines are often a complete bargain. We’ll still be drinking cocktails when we visit London’s best cocktail bars (obviously) but for those craving the grapes, having one great option rather than three mediocre ones makes the night much easier.