Mixers get fancy: Premiumisation in whisky and rum drives dark-spirit mixer growth

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

10 December 2018

The premiumisation of dark spirits has brought with it a new genre of specially tailored mixers. Kate Malczewski takes a closer look at the dark-spirit mixer trend

Though the term ‘premium’ can be a dubious one, it’s undoubtedly shaping the spirits market. You can’t swing an ISO tasting glass without spilling a new craft gin, small-batch rum or another extremely super-premium liquid down your front.

And that thirst for all things premium is particularly evident when it comes to dark spirits – those rums, whiskies and bourbons vying for a taste of gin's popularity – and this has birthed a subset of premium dark-spirit mixers that are also on the rise.

From big-name brands to small start-ups, producers of all sizes are getting in on the dark-spirit mixer market

The dark-spirit mixers category is nascent – comprising just 6% of total mixers sales – but it is experiencing 47% year-on-year growth. And a sift through this year’s product launches supports these numbers. From big-name brands to small start-ups, producers of all sizes are getting in on the dark-spirit mixer market.

The dark side goes premium

On the smaller end of the spectrum is Long Tail Mixers, a relative newcomer that specialises in dark-spirit mixers. The Long Tail range made for ‘the finest bourbons, rums and whiskies’ includes Ginger Lime, Blood Orange and Island Spice.

‘When we looked at how well gin is catered for with the great ranges of tonic options and variety of flavours available, we felt that dark spirits had been somewhat left behind in terms of mixing options, but the amount of quality new dark-spirits brands was ever-growing,’ said Alex Jollivet, Long Tail co-founder.

‘We wanted to find the balance with mixers that are fresh, but not overpowering, invigorating, but not over-sweetened, and to produce drinks that harmonise with dark spirits, rather than mask their unique flavours.’

Jollivet emphasises the moderate sweetness of the Long Tail range, something Mintel sees as a key point in the new premium mixers on the rise.

‘Many newer alcoholic mixers feature all-natural ingredients and reduced sugar content,’ said Mintel senior beverage analyst Caleb Bryant. ‘Mixers with low-sugar, all-natural ingredients, and with a premium positioning will resonate with consumers who want a mixer that complements premium spirits.’

Soft-drink giants join the game

The mainstream soft-drinks players have certainly taken note of this gap in the market as well. ‘There's a move [from sipping spirits neat] towards simple, long mixed drinks with high-quality components,’ said Fever-Tree innovation manager Rose Cottingham.

Fever-Tree, which dominates the mixers market with a 40% value share (CGA), has responded to this shift with its own range of dark-spirit mixers. The brand started with a Ginger Beer and Ginger Ale, expanded to include Madagascan Cola in 2016 and added Smoky Ginger Ale and Spiced Orange Ginger Ale last year. These increasingly non-traditional flavours speak of the demand for mixers that are easily recognisable as ‘premium’.

In September, Coca-Cola also staked its claim on the market with the launch of Schweppes 1783 Muscovado, ‘naturally flavoured to deliver hints of vanilla, caramel and butterscotch’. The product is part of its 1783 line, which also includes flavours like Salty Lemon Tonic Water and Crisp Tonic Water.

‘The new Muscovado variant highlights how 1783 is more than a range of tonics, but instead a portfolio of naturally flavoured premium mixers,’ said Simon Harrison, customer marketing director for Great Britain at Coca-Cola.

Indeed, big brands have good reason for placing emphasis on positioning their products as ‘natural’ and ‘premium’.  The premium mixer category has grown a whopping 86% in value in the 12 months to November 2018, according to CGA, while mainstream mixers are down by 1%. Companies may be able to charge more for premium products, but  more importantly, they’re the products that customers actually want to buy.

Branching out

The success of dark-spirit mixers, along with the boom in craft tonic waters, is inspiring the development of an increasing number of niche mixer offerings.

Fever-Tree recently partnered with Patrón to create the first tonic designed specifically for tequila, and Fentimans launched a spirit-pairing guide offering mixer suggestions for everything from white port to calvados. Meanwhile, the dark-spirit mixer category shows no signs of slowing down.

‘All the new premium dark-spirits brands will need premium mixers to help drive the dark-spirit market and provide consumers with a strong variety of mixing options,’ said Long Tail’s Jollivet. ‘For us, it is about working with the spirit brands to create perfect pairings, and working with on-trade venues to push consumers to try the new mixer and pairing options.’

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