Easy as RTD: How the on-trade is reacting to ready-to-drink cocktails

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

31 January 2020

With a growing cocktail market comes a growing need for cocktails behind the bar. But with low perceptions around pre-made cocktails, how can the on-trade react? Kate Malczewski investigates


Inflatable bathtubs. The Crunchwrap Supreme. Those tiny, perpetually trembling dogs that fit inside a handbag. Humans have a deep-seated need to make things portable and convenient. It’s a need that is making itself known in the drinks industry as of late, with a barrage of ready-to-drink (RTD) products hitting the market, particularly in the form of canned gin and tonics.

Campari Soda
Campari Soda

Of course, RTDs are nothing new. Way back in 1932, Campari launched its signature conical bottle of single-serve Campari Soda – still available today, if you fancy an on-the-go aperitif. In more recent years, namely the 80s, big spirits brands began canning their expressions with colas, lemonades and tonics in the name of convenience. And there’s a decent chance you were raised on the neon-hued mother’s milk of Bacardi Breezers and Hooper’s Hooch, the sugary-sweet alcopops that rocked the 90s (in 2020, you’ll still be hard-pressed to find a bartender in Manchester without a soft spot for the latter).

However, these RTD malt beverages and spirit-and-mixer drinks left a gap in the market for ready-to-drink cocktails that actually taste like, well, cocktails. And there’s no question that people want cocktails: this year, CGA valued the on-trade cocktail market at £587m, up 9.5% from 2018. That’s why, alongside the rise of gin in a tin, we’re seeing drinkable, delicious, even complex cocktails making their way into bottles and cans. And while these RTDs may not appeal to ‘mixologists’, they certainly have the potential to raise the on-trade’s cocktail game. 

Decent drinks for all

Atom Brands’ That Boutique-y Gin Company is one of the players aiming to shake up the RTD category. In June, it introduced a range of canned cocktails using its gins as base spirits, with flavours including a Yuzu Gin Collins, a Strawberry Gin Fizz and a Spit Roasted Pineapple Gin Mule. ‘There’s plenty of innovation in gin, but that wasn’t filtering down to what was becoming available in cans, so we set out on a mission to enhance the proposition,’ explains Duncan McRae, Atom Brands’ head of marketing.

Some of the best trends that happen in drinks are the ones that go sideways from something else

Duncan McRae

The collection was originally developed with the off-trade in mind – ideal for train journeys and picnics – but McRae says that the cans are receiving significant uptake in the on-trade, as well. They’re now stocked in Beer Hawk’s craft beer pubs, as well as a number of clubs and late-night venues.

‘Obviously the top-end cocktail trade prides themselves on making their own drinks, but mixed drinks and cocktail serves are penetrating deeper and deeper in the on-trade now. Having them pre-made in a format that’s quick and easy to serve and store is a great way for bars to premiumise their offering and give more variety and choice without having to invest a fortune.’

CONVENIENCE NEVER TASTED SO GOOD

The RTD has moved way beyond WKD – these cans and bottles are proof

Empirical Spirits Minor Threat

The mavericks at Empirical Spirits in Copenhagen, led by ex-Noma chef Lars Williams, are constantly coming up with new and unusual expressions. For their Minor Threat canned range, they combine these spirits with equally esoteric ingredients like pink peppercorns, gooseberry and jasmine, producing big, bold flavours. 8%-10% abv, POA, Empirical Spirits

Liquid Intellect Cookie Dough Old Fashioned

Founded by bartenders Charles Roche and Eleanor Holcroft, Liquid Intellect produces bespoke bottled cocktails for on-trade clients, in addition to their own range. This one, with cookie dough vodka, Whiskey Thief Bourbon, Mozart Liqueur and vanilla bitters, puts a playful spin on a classic drink. 19% abv, POA, Matthew Clark

That Boutique-y Gin Pineapple Gin Mule

Here, That Boutique-y Gin pairs its Spit-Roasted Pineapple Gin with lime juice and ginger beer – and you can actually taste each fl avour as you sip. Plus, the colourful labels on the cans stand out in a fridge and make a solid alternative for customers looking to switch up their usual craft beer order. 5% abv, RRP £2.75/330ml, Maverick Drinks

Bloody Drinks Classic Bloody Mary

Looking to tap into the brunch crowd? This canned version of everyone’s favourite hangover cure delivers big fl avour, with an extra punch from sherry and soy sauce. 6.3% abv, RRP £16/4x250ml, Bloody Drinks

Pritesh Mody, founder of bottled cocktail company World of Zing, echoes this point. ‘Consistency and speed of serve are two big advantages [of RTDs],’ he says. ‘Consumers want cocktails more than ever. [With RTDs,] whether a consumer turns up at 2pm on a Tuesday or nine o’clock on a Friday night, the main bartender doesn’t need to be there for the customer to get the same high-quality cocktail experience.’

A matter of quality

But for these RTD serves to become go-to options for customers, perceptions around them need to change. According to CGA, 54% of cocktail consumers still view lack of quality as a barrier to purchasing pre-made serves.

Mody isn’t surprised. ‘A lot [of RTD cocktails] are factory-led, produced in huge batches and homogenised,’ he says. ‘Whether in cans or bottles, there is no real aroma or texture, [which instead are] key touch points you look for in cocktails of any significant level of quality.’

Through World of Zing, Mody develops bespoke bottled cocktails for on-trade venues without the capacity to make their own on-site. When he founded the business in 2014, he says most people didn’t believe ready-to-drink cocktails could be good. ‘At first there was quite a lot of scepticism about the quality of the liquid and the consumer perception [of it],’ he remembers.

Over the years, though, he’s seen more outlets and consumers catch on. He now makes bottled serves for several restaurants including Rosa’s Thai, Byron Burgers and Bill’s.

Last autumn, World of Zing even created a range of bottled cocktails for the minibars of London’s five-star hotel The Langham, home to the renowned Artesian bar. ‘The Langham was a really big [win] for us because it’s one of the key cocktail sites in the country. They’re deeming our liquid good enough for their clients.’

Many RTD brands launching now are actively trying to combat consumer perceptions around a lack of quality in their products through their messaging.

Mixer and purée brand Funkin debuted a canned range earlier this year, emphasising the use of nitro carbonation for a ‘uniquely smooth, velvety mouthfeel’ and a ‘lavish experience’.

The new canned cocktail brand Cantails highlights how ‘each ingredient is specifically chosen… to make sure [the] drinks are of the highest quality’.

Meanwhile, McRae says that That Boutique-y Gin’s cans aren’t necessarily aiming for lavish, but they are focused on creating an ‘authentic’ cocktail experience. ‘We developed the liquid to taste exactly like it would [if it was made] at a bar like Be At One or LCC. Not haute cocktail cuisine, not a Savoy cocktail bar standard, but a decent mixed drink balanced by bartenders using ingredients that are real. We were really scrupulous about what the product ended up tasting like.’ 

Ready to innovate

The world of RTD cocktails is ever-expanding, and liquids are getting more inventive all the time. Copenhagen-based distillery Empirical Spirits, known for its category-defying expressions, is now crafting cans with flavours like milk oolong tea, toasted birch and plum kernel; bottled cocktail company Liquid Intellect in London redistills ingredients such as cookie dough and jam doughnuts for its RTD serves.

Liquid Intellect Jam Doughnut Negroni
Liquid Intellect Jam Doughnut Negroni

For his part, Mody is excited about the shelf-stable pre-batched Sour his team created, ‘where you shake it and it foams up like an egg white should’. He’s working on canned cocktails for World of Zing that are slated to launch in 2020.

And Atom Brands has big plans lined up, too. It is currently developing canned ranges for its That Boutique-y Rum and Whisky companies, and intends to push out new flavours frequently to keep things fresh.

‘Keeping our range in flux and responding to trends as they happen... will be a key part of our proposition moving forward – which in the world of gin and other spirits in cans is quite a new approach,’ McRae says. ‘Some of the best trends that happen in drinks are the ones that go sideways from something else.'

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