By: Becky Garrison
Over Memorial Day 2014, Bronya Shillo launched the Fishers Island Lemonade, a signature cocktail that originated at her family’s bar, The Pequot Inn, on Fishers Island, New York. She refined their decades-old recipe and canned the premium distilled vodka, whiskey, lemon and honey cocktail. The drink is one of the first craft cocktails in a can, making Shillo and her brand a leader in the ready-to-drink market. Fast forward to 2021, and she’s expanded her portfolio to a full family of vodka and whiskey lemonade canned cocktails, as well as a fun and innovative frozen Fishers Island Lemonade spirit popsicle.
Convenience remains the most touted selling point in the growing RTD market. According to Nielsen IQ, in 2019, annual sales in this segment were up 574%, and malt-based cocktails now account for $4.7 million in annual sales. Spirit and wine-based RTD cocktails are generally available in smaller packages; they’re also more established and generate larger sales—$62 million and $83 million in annual sales, respectively, according to the May 21, 2019, Nielsen IQ. One factor that may be influencing some of these sales from growing even higher is that in con-trol states such as Oregon, spirit-based cocktails can only be found in liquor stores instead of grocery stores in non-control states.
In 2020, consumers in lockdown sought ways to savor their favorite spirit-based cocktails once enjoyed at a bar or restaurant. Establishments responded to this demand by offering cocktails-to-go. Depending upon state laws, these to-go packages contain all the ingredients needed to make a given establishment’s signature drinks or all the items sans the alcohol.
This to-go trend looks to continue as the world opens up post-COVID, with customers looking for convenient ways to consume their favorite cocktails while on the go. Molly Troupe, Master Distiller for Portland-based Freeland Spirits, speaks to the appeal of canned cocktails. “Canned cocktails are great for those who like convenience and don’t want to make their own cocktails at home. Cans can go much easier than a bottle to the lake, on a hike or wherever adventure may take you.”
Carbonated Canned Cocktails
The majority of spirit-based cocktails appear to be carbonated and designed for easy sipping with a low ABV. Ali Joseph, co-owner of Portland, Oregon’s Wild Roots, commented about their 2021 foray into the RTD market. “We always recommend simple two-ingredient cocktails to our fans and wanted to take that idea one step further. There’s nothing easier than cracking open a can.”
According to Tuan Lee and Hope Ewing, co-founders of Los Angeles-based Vernet, they launched their line of sparkling craft cocktails when they observed the market was dominated by bulk spirits made with flavoring agents. Ewing said, “We really wanted to make something high-quality that we would drink ourselves. Tuan’s dream was to share his love for LA’s immigrant cultures through food and drink, and ready-to-drink cocktails felt like a great vehicle for this. We wanted to package in cans for convenience—being pool-friendly, beach-friendly and lightweight —and because aluminum is the most recyclable packaging around.” She added that their goals in producing these products were twofold. “We wanted to showcase the awesomeness of LA’s immigrant food cultures by using ingredients we loved from local farms and markets and to make something as complex and high-quality as I was used to making in craft cocktail bars.”
Canned vodka cocktails like those produced by Wild Roots differentiate themselves by using natural ingredients instead of “natural” flavorings often found in canned vodka products. Wild Roots’ canned cocktails are made using their top-selling raspberry, blackberry/marionberry and peach spirits. They also added lemon to the lineup because they often use citrus in their Wild Roots cocktails. Spiritfruit is a ready-to-drink canned vodka soda made using all-natural ingredients, a splash of real fruit and five-times distilled corn-based vodka.
Gin & Tonic Canned Cocktails
In the spirit-based RTD market, taste and innovation are already proving to be key market differentiators. Take, for example, the different ways three distillers produced a canned classic gin & tonic.
Melissa and Lee Katrincic, co-founders and co-owners of Durham Distillery in Durham, North Carolina, launched their Conniption canned cocktails in 2018 and were among the first distilleries in the U.S. to add them.
“We saw the increasing popularity of malt-based seltzers and with them mimicking cocktail flavors and/or names. We wanted to bring authentic, delicious spirits based cocktails in the convenience of a can,” Melissa Katrincic said. They chose rosé spritz, cucumber & vodka and gin & tonic because they found that these seasonable flavors are perfect for the warmer months in the southeast United States. Their gin & tonic emerged as the fan favorite.
Durham’s canned cocktails must be prepared in large batches of approximately 5,000 cocktails. This process involves ensuring that the precise amount of ingredients are measured and pumped into their 450-gallon tanks, then mixed and carbonated. They have an automated canning line for getting the product into containers, whereas their spirits are hand bottled. The canning line is made of hundreds of working parts that are finely tuned but can sometimes be problematic if out of adjustment. Carbonated products can also be prone to “misbehaving,” leading to the final product being foamy or difficult to get into the cans at the right volume.
Freeland Spirits added canned cocktails to their lineup following the success of the kegged ver-sion of their Gin and Rose Tonic, which they offered in their tasting room. They launched their canned version in 2019, followed in 2020 with the French 75. The latter is a collaboration made using women winemakers and distillers and features Freeland Gin, Chehalem Chardonnay, lemon and simple syrup.
According to Troupe: “While canned cocktails add an additional step to spirits production, play-ing with carbonation levels and different cocktail ingredients is a lot of fun.” Also, stability is a more significant issue because these canned cocktails are lower-proof than their bottled spirits.
As the makers of Aria Portland Dry Gin, Martin Ryan Distilling Company in Portland, Oregon, is known as a gin house. So rather than develop another product in a different spirit category, a G&T seemed like a natural extension of the Aria Portland Dry gin brand. Ryan Csansky used his background in the bar and restaurant industry to create an in-house tonic using a proprietary blend of lime, bergamot and lemongrass, hints of allspice, orris and star anise, a flavorful tonic that complements the classic London Dry style of Aria Gin. The result is a G&T canned cocktail made using all ingredients with chemicals or artificial sweeteners and one of the lowest sugar counts of any tonic on the market. Since a canning line is an expensive system to purchase, they work with a mobile canning company that brings their system and operating crew to them as needed.
Other Non-Carbonated Bartender Inspired Cocktails
Drnxmyth, a collective of drink makers with a shared interest in bringing fresh craft cocktails to people everywhere, invented an ingenious bottling technology that, in their estimation, unlocks the freshest cocktails ever produced. Each drink created is a collaboration between them and a bartender, drink maker or drinksmith, who shares in the sales profits for this particular drink.
The TTB licensed Drnxmyth’s factory to handle bulk spirits and fresh cold press juicing, batch-ing and filling. A patent-pending bottle separates the spirits from the fresh ingredients, since al-cohol alters the sensorial nature of juice and freshness over time. Then the drinks are pressurized at 85,000 psi, which brings the microbial count in the juice close to zero. After that process, the beverage will remain fresh for five months while refrigerated and unopened.
Through his work in the music festival industry, Neal Cohen, co-founder of Atlanta-based Tip-Top Proper, saw demand growing for quality cocktails, though in his assessment, the category had yet to deliver the quality and convenience for classic, spirit-forward, non-carbonated cock-tails in high volumes. “We fantasized about creating a world-class cocktail in an easy-to-serve vessel, thinking maybe we could help solve a problem for venues, events, restaurants, bars, air-planes and regular folks at home on the couch. Eventually, we stopped fantasizing and started actually doing it,” Cohen said.
With that mindset, Tip Top Proper was founded in 2018, focusing first on the trifecta of bitters-forward, stirred, high-proof cocktails—Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Negroni. Next, they gravi-tated toward a “Shaken Line”—Margarita, Daiquiri and Bee’s Knees—all cocktails that allow for warm weather, outdoor consumption. Their products come in 100ml sizes, which Cohen said is the appropriate single-serve size for a cocktail.
In 2016, The Perfect Cocktail began offering classic cocktails—Old Fashioned, Manhattan and Negroni—packaged in mini bags. Their “made in Italy” production process and functional and sustainable packaging are patented to ensure the best mix of convenience and flexibility.
Alley 6 Craft Distilling in Healdsburg, California, first came out with their canned Old Fash-ioned in 2019 in response to consumer demand for a portable version of the drink made in their tasting room using rye whiskey or apple brandy and candy cap (mushroom) bitters. A bottle didn’t seem to fit their purposes when compared to a canned cocktail that could be enjoyed while on the go, traveling or adventuring.
Oregon-based 503 Distilling offers their canned Mt. Hood Old Fashioned, a blend of their rye whiskey, hazelnut bitters and maple syrup. This canned cocktail follows their first release, the Wicked Mule, along with other offerings—Blood Orange Greyhound, La Vida Mocha, Five-O-Tea and Huckleberry Lemonade.
For a Brazilian twist on the Old Fashioned, Novo Fogo is launching a Brazilian Old Fashioned Highball hybrid that features tropical flavors of orange and vanilla. Their initial foray into the canned cocktail market was their Sparkling Caipirinha, a canned version of Brazil’s national cocktail available in three flavors found across the Brazilian food and drink spectrum—lime, passion fruit and mango.
Finally, for consumers looking to savor a hot, after-dinner hard coffee that’s easy to make, Cask and Kettle produces small-batch hard coffees in flavors such as Irish, Mint Patty, Hot Blonde or Mexican Coffee, and a Spiked Cider in a k-pod. The k-pods, packaged and distilled by Temper-ance Distilling in Temperance, Michigan, contain liquid distilled spirits, concentrated coffee and flavorings, and can be placed into any pod home brewing system or poured into hot or iced water.