Cocktail drinkers across the United States are of one mind when it comes to their favorite pour: The margarita is the king, and the martini is sloshing right on its heels.
But not in Chicago. Alone among American big cities, the Windy City exalts a drink whose very name bespeaks solid Midwestern values — the old-fashioned.
Imbibers in Boston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Tampa prefer the margarita, according to a recent analysis of on-premise cocktail consumption by Nielsen CGA. Only Miami, where bartenders mix mojitos as the No. 2 option, failed to fall in line with the martini as second choice.
Chicagoans don’t mind martinis. They were the third-most-popular quaff. Mimosas came in second. But margaritas? Forget about it. They weren’t in the top five.
— The Takeout (@thetakeout) February 21, 2019
Why are tastes so different in Chicago? It’s not like the old-fashioned is a homegrown drink: The concoction of muddled sugar and bitters topped by bourbon, ice and a twist of citrus may first have been whipped up in just that manner by a bartender in Louisville, Ky., in 1881, although Chicago mixologists were making it with rye whiskey about the same time. Similar recipes of spirits and bitters predate the whiskey versions. (Be aware, though, that if you travel 60 miles north of Chicago into Wisconsin your old-fashioned will be made with brandy as a matter of course.)
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Just chalk it up to a regional quirk, Nielsen says. And it’s not as if the predilection for the whiskey-based old-fashioned is so out of fashion. It ranked third nationally behind the margarita and martini in Nielsen’s national numbers. Mimosas and Moscow mules rounded out the top 5. And, speaking of regional quirks, the Manhattan is not the most popular cocktail in Manhattan, just No. 3.
Other snippets from the Nielsen data:
- Americans aren’t always focused on cocktail prices, although Happy Hour remains a big draw for the after-work crowd. Margaritas in the U.S. cost an average of $9.49, almost a half-dollar 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 average cost of a margarita.
- Cocktail fans vary their drink preferences according to time 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.
- 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 order cocktails 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 nonalcoholic 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 aged 21-34 are driving this growth, with 16% saying they would drink a nonalcoholic cocktail if it’s available.