By: Alyssa Andres
Over the past five years, the Canadian ready-to-drink cocktail scene has gone from passé to a huge craze, hitting liquor stores across the country. Blossoming from a limited selection of sugary beverages to a sophisticated array of craft canned cocktails, RTD beverages act as an easy and accessible option for cocktail lovers. As more and more breweries and distilleries make the move to include alternative, ready-to-drink choices to their repertoire, it is clear Canadians love a canned cocktail. The movement has sparked an array of new RTD options across the country, each offering a unique, local flair.
In 2015, the biggest names in RTD cocktails on Canadian liquor store shelves were Smirnoff Ice, Palm Bay and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. They were most popular amongst teenagers and novice drinkers but left something to be desired amongst cocktail connoisseurs. Still, sales of these vodka-based coolers were on the rise each year as the only portable alternative to beer. As consumers continued to reach for these products to bring along to the beach or a picnic at the park, the concept of the cooler started to evolve, and the idea of a sophisticated, more adult RTD cocktail was born.
In 2016, a new, more refined canned cocktail arrived on the scene in Ontario. That year Georgian Bay Spirit Co., located in Northern Ontario, released the Georgian Bay Gin Smash, made with their award-winning, handcrafted London style dry gin. The Gin Smash, flavoured with lemon, lime, tangerine and a hint of mint, was an instant hit, earning rave reviews from The Toronto Star that called it “easily the best pre-mixed cocktail to have hit the shelves of the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario).” They could not keep it on the shelves, doubling their sales in 2017.
The Gin Smash appeals to a more mature audience. The gin is made using wild juniper berries handpicked along the shores of Georgian Bay. It’s light, complex and refreshing while still having some sweetness. Since the remarkable reception of the original Gin Smash, Georgian Bay Distillers has released seven variations of RTD canned cocktails, including a Smashed Tea that combines the original Gin Smash recipe with black and Darjeeling tea. Following the Gin Smash’s enormous success, many breweries and distilleries across the country added ready-to-drink cocktails to their lineup.
No longer are these RTD beverages marketed explicitly to young adults. Many companies are opting for a dry and often sugar-free alternative to the everyday canned cocktail using natural flavours and sweeteners. On the west coast, Vancouver company Ocean Blu has created a vodka-based beverage sweetened with stevia, a natural alternative to refined sugar. With zero grams of sugar and 100 calories per serving, these drinks are perfect for the health-conscious consumer and a far cry from the limited offerings of the early 2000s. True to its name, Ocean Blu is also dedicated to the environment, using eco-friendly packaging and donating 25 cents from the sale of every six-pack to ocean shoreline clean-up initiatives and marine wildlife conservation, pivotal to the west coast’s ecosystem.
Further inland in Kelowna, British Columbia, Orchard City Distilling has created their own conscious cocktail, Zen Kombucha, which combines vodka with kombucha and other organic herbs and botanicals in a convenient can. The health tonic/alcoholic beverage is the first of its kind in Canada and hints at a potential future evolution of hybrid RTD cocktails that could cross over into health elixirs and probiotics.
While British Columbia distillers create health-conscious canned cocktails, in Alberta, Canada, they are crafting a spirit that is unique to the province. Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley created Alberta’s first line of craft cocktails. They instill a “field-to-glass” attitude in their small-batch craft cocktails, using local ingredients like spruce and handcrafted techniques, including hand-harvesting and hand-sealing. Master distiller, Caitlin Quinn, has created a unique spirit made with prickly pears that are indigenous to Southern Alberta. She uses the Prickly Pear Equineox, a sweet, barley-based alternative to gin or vodka, in the Eau Claire Equineox Mule. The spirit is naturally sweet, intensely fruity and has hints of watermelon and bubble gum. The Equineox Mule combines this unusual spirit with a ginger beer made by local brewery, Annex Ale Project, and is a great option for cocktail lovers interested in Alberta’s local flavours.
The emphasis on local flavours doesn’t stop in the west. The prairies of Canada are also serving up a variety of RTD cocktails. Prairie Cherry and Prairie Pear are the results of a collaboration between Manitoba’s Fort Garry Brewing Company and Capital K Distillery. These RTD cocktails are produced in Winnipeg using small-batch gin made from Manitoba grains and are released seasonally, selling out each summer in liquor stores across the province. Fort Garry Brewing Co. general manager, Scott Shupeniuk, says the duo of gin beverages has been a huge success. They plan to continue releasing these types of beverages despite being predominantly focused on beer most of the year. Many breweries and distilleries are choosing to release variations of their usual offerings to please consumers looking for new drinks to sip on this summer.
Canada’s signature summer drink, The Bloody Caesar, has also evolved with the RTD movement. Four variations of the original cocktail are now available at liquor stores across the country, including Pickled Bean, Lime and The Works. Made with Mott’s Clamato juice, vodka, tabasco and Worcestershire, the Caesar is just one example of a classic cocktail that now comes pre-mixed in a can, no bartending skills necessary. This is a huge draw when most bars have been closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The notion of sitting down and ordering a cocktail at a bar is no longer, so more brands are choosing to offer classic cocktails in a pre-mixed, RTD format.
So, what’s next in the Canadian ready-to-drink cocktail movement? As single-serving pre-mixed cocktails become more popular amongst consumers, a new line of spirit-forward beverages has started to appear on the Canadian RTD scene. Dillon’s Distillers in Grimsby, Ontario, has created a single-serving Negroni they call The Professor’s Negroni, available at Ontario liquor stores. At 18.4% alcohol by volume, this product is the first of its kind in Canada. It took two years for Dillon’s to get the product on the shelf due to the cocktail’s spirit-forward nature. As of May 2019, Canada set in place restrictions on ABV in canned cocktails. Previously a 568 mL beverage could contain up to 11.9% ABV. Now, a 473 mL canned cocktail may contain 5.4% ABV, while a 568 mL can is limited to just 4.5% ABV. Dillon’s Distillers has gotten around these restrictions by classifying their pre-mixed Negroni as a spirit and serving it in 125 mL glass bottles. It isn’t located in the RTD section of liquor stores; it is placed on the shelves alongside bottles of liqueurs and aperitivos, despite being pre-mixed and ready to pour over ice for quick and easy cocktail convenience.
The Professor’s Negroni is an example of a truly artisanal RTD cocktail. Dillon’s Distillery crafts all three ingredients for the cocktail, from the Dry Gin to the vermouth to the bitter aperitivo, made using rhubarb, violet and wormwood. The distillery believes this sort of spirit-forward RTD cocktail fits their brand better than a canned drink and allows them to showcase what they do best. The distillery has even tried a kegged version of the classic Negroni, ideal for busy bartenders and extremely cost-efficient for restaurants. As the idea of easy, accessible, pre-mixed beverages continues to evolve, RTD cocktails might be the new alternative to traditional bartending.
Presently, new RTD products are hitting the shelves each month in Canada. From seltzers to spiked iced teas to classic cocktails-in-a-can, the options are limitless. Unique cocktail creations are becoming more common with flavours that might be surprising to find. Collective Arts in Hamilton, Ontario, is producing an artisanal dry gin soda with grapefruit, lemon and thyme. Little Buddha Cocktail Company in Toronto makes a premium distilled vodka-based cocktail with grilled pineapple and rosemary that also contains carrot and pumpkin juice. No matter their preference, there’s an option for every cocktail lover.
With Canadians deprived of bars and restaurants for the majority of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and therefore unable to grab a cocktail made by a proper bartender, the pre-mixed cocktail movement may continue to rise. With seemingly many more days of social distancing ahead, RTD beverages are the perfect option for summer outdoor gatherings and backyard barbeques. Opting for an RTD beverage makes perfect sense for most, as opposed to spending money stocking a bar cart with expensive liquor bottles and taking the time to prepare the perfect cocktail to-go. As the food and beverage and hospitality industries continue to change and evolve through this pandemic, so too will the vision of the RTD cocktail.