Trendy beverages change every year, but coffee is always a popular cocktail ingredient. That’s according to the National Restaurant Association’s What’s Hot – Alcohol 2013 Bartender Survey. Fifty percent of professional bartenders surveyed said coffee is a perennial favorite as an ingredient in mixed drinks, and 19 percent said coffee is among the hot trends.

Consumers do want the coffee taste in their drinks, according to the Chicago-based research firm Technomic. For third quarter 2013 compared with third quarter 2012, the Technomic MenuMonitor reports, the incidence of coffee in spirits-based drinks or as a spirit product listing rose 3.7 percent. That means coffee-flavored rums and vodkas are gaining a bigger place on menus, which suggests that there are opportunities to boost sales of cocktails that feature coffee flavor.

Beverages have traditionally been a great profit center of any restaurant. Soft drinks have high profit margins, as does bottled water, but the real sales are in alcohol and coffee. How much profit? It’s hard to tell. Depending on the eatery, there is a wide range of how much markup coffee and alcohol can have.

This is the season for foodservice operators to tap into this important revenue source. Adult consumers are especially likely to spend money on a warm, delicious drink during the cold winter months.

According to some reports, coffee can bring in anywhere from 15 percent profit on a 12-ounce cup poured from a large brewing system to 80 percent or more for certain high-end, limited source coffees. The difference is partly due to pricing. A no-frills cup of coffee might cost a commuter $2, while a slowly prepared, custom made beverage for a coffee aficionado might command $7.  

Alcohol has even higher profit margins. There are low labor costs, because bartenders in most states earn much of their wages through tips. Consumers are willing to spend more on cocktails, so some establishments enjoy more than 100 percent markup for beverages with alcohol.

The operational challenge of serving these warm drinks is that bartenders need freshly brewed coffee if they are going to deliver a drink with the right flavor attributes. Consumers who order coffee with alcohol want the beverage to be delicious, not just warm, and no one wants to wait for a whole pot to brew. 

One solution is to use single serve coffee. Bartenders can use single serve coffee to match a specific coffee flavor or variety with the right alcoholic beverage. Creative operators can develop new drinks that match coffee and alcohol according to sweetness, sourness, and bitterness. For instance, more adventurous coffee drinkers might want something other than Irish coffee, which is coffee, whiskey, and sugar. They might look for new concoctions by matching flavored coffees with flavored  liqueurs. There are also dark roasts of coffee that can counterbalance sweet drinks.

For the holidays, there are festive garnishes such as peppermint, chocolate, and coconut. Anywhere a syrup works, such as in a latte or cappuccino, one or two ounces of a liqueur would likely work too. Also, spices such as cinnamon and ginger make people think of holiday baking, and might make a hot coffee cocktail even more appetizing.

To develop new cocktails with coffee, restaurants often either add alcohol to a coffee drink, or develop a new cocktail that includes coffee. Here are some ideas:

  • Cocoa liqueur or coffee liqueur in coffee, topped with whipped cream
  • Dark rum and cinnamon in coffee
  • Rum, cinnamon and chili powder in coffee or in coffee with hot chocolate, for a variation of Mexican hot chocolate.
  • Espresso with chocolate, hazelnut, or orange liqueur
  • Vanilla coffee with vanilla vodka, or with hazelnut liqueur
  • Pumpkin spice latte with rum
  • Hazelnut liqueur with coffee over vanilla ice cream
  • Crème de Menthe with espresso, cocoa, fresh mint, whipped cream for a mint mocha
  • Almond liqueur and brandy in hot chocolate or in coffee, with whipped cream
  • Cherries, chocolate syrup, brandy or any fruit liqueur, milk, coffee
  • Espresso, vodka, coffee liqueur for an espresso martini
  • Evaporated milk or half-and-half with espresso and coffee liqueur

Instead of adding these items to the regular drink menus, restaurants might promote the warm drinks with limited time offers. These can include dessert specials, which pair the new cocktails with a holiday cake or pie. Some locales can do a tie-in with holiday shopping, or try a sampling event in which consumers can try different coffees with different liqueurs. Once they taste the various flavors and strengths, consumers might come back long after the holidays are over, and order coffee cocktails during the rest of the winter.