Small size ready-to-drink cocktails (RTDs) with quality spirits, new packaging and varying alcohol levels are showing up online, stacked on retailers’ shelves and in backpacks at record levels. The Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) reports that spirits based RTDs at 10-percent ABV and below are growing at a rate of over 200%.
RTD cocktails are growing beyond mass marketed, low alcohol hard seltzer. Quality has risen in the last few years with more natural ingredients and less additives in the mix. Carbonation is a key natural preservative in low alcohol canned cocktails, and more producers are finding ways to avoid drowning the drinks in bubbles.
The key to growth in the RTD market is portability. Large to mid-sized premixed cocktails have been on the market for some time. Single and double serve choices from 100 ml (3-ounce) to 355 ml (12-ounce) have increased since 2019. We’ll focus on a bartender’s half dozen of worthwhile, small sized products to imbibe. Along with new packaging options, the cocktails manifest both classic and new spirits combinations with varying alcohol levels.
Note: We’ll cover gin and tonic RTDs in another article.
Los Angeles bartender Aaron Polsky launched LiveWire in mid-2020 at the height of the pandemic. A Robert Plant look-alike, Polsky is fond of rock music and the concept of promoting bartender talent. His RTD business model mimics how record labels operate in the way he collaborates with bartenders to develop RTD cocktails—bartenders are compensated for developing the recipes and can choose artists for the labels.
Collaborators include Joey Bernardo of Los Angeles with his Honeydew Collins, a mix of gin, honeydew, coconut, lime leaf and elderflower and Erin Hayes of Chicago with her Rocket Queen comprised of Magdalena rum, pomelo, cinnamon and pandan. LiveWire drinks are 7.5 percent ABV and packaged in 355 ml cans.
My tasters and I were keen on Polsky’s own creation, the Heartbreaker, a mix of vodka with kumquat, oroblanco grapefruit juice, jasmine and ginger. “Good flavors and balanced,” said taster Joss. I liked the ginger kicker and honest fruit flavors that did not lead to cloying sweetness.
Switching gears from big city, star bartenders, Lauren and John Maggio launched Cocktail Squad in Boulder, Colo. with business expertise outside the beverage industry. They researched RTDs and learned about bartending, or as they call it, “squadtending” at home while keeping an eye on their four kids. Envisioning an everyday cocktail to revive happy hour when one could “skip the muddling and mixing and no need to jigger or strain,” they launched their brand in 2018 with low ABV at 5 percent, 90 calories a 300 ml can with natural and organic ingredients.
The duo developed several styles: Margarita, vodka lemon, whiskey sour, and my favorite, the Greyhound. I selected the Greyhound for the vodka, grapefruit juice, light carbonation—and the magic touch of salt that enlivened the taste and tracked back to the classic cocktail.
Another family-owned producer of RTDs took a different approach. With a background of extensive travel, project management and work in the beverage field, Lee Egbert and his wife launched a micro-distillery in Minnetonka, Minn. nine years ago specializing in bitters. In 2019 Egbert launched Dashfire classic cocktails in 100 ml cans packed with their flavorful bitters, premium spirits and other natural ingredients. The result was Dashfire RTD higher alcohol cocktails with most at 38 percent ABV.
Unlike the lower ABV RTD cocktails, said co-owner Dawn Egbert, “We don’t use carbonation because the goal of our RTDs is to create something as good and if not better than the drinks enjoyed at craft cocktail bars, which are not generally carbonated. We build complex flavors by pulling from our extensive in-house library of bitters and extracts.”
The six Dashfire RTDs have unique mixer combinations—think Fig and Cascara Manhattan—and higher alcohol, most at 38 percent ABV. The Lemon and Lavender Martini, with 38 percent ABV, served in a cocktail glass with ice and a lemon twist, harks back to the origin of the martini as a potent, not overly sweet drink with a refined bitters mix. My favorite Dashfire is the White Russian with vodka, Wisconsin cream, Dashfire chai bitters and a bit of sugar. With lower ABV at 17 percent, the drink serves well as a nightcap.
In 2021 Rod Vandenbos took another route to avoid carbonation by launching buzzbox, a new category for small RTDs. Vandenbos packages his cocktails in Tetra Paks. Yes, like kiddie juice boxes only in rectangular rather than square shapes. The eco-friendly advantages of the lightweight Tetra Paks are numerous for distribution and service. As a bonus, no refrigerati
When asked about the small “b” in the buzzboxes, owner Vandenbos emphasized the casual, understated style of the cocktails—the flavors are traditional and not based on bartender trends. Serious about the potential for buzzbox, Vandenbos built a 65,000-square foot production facility in Southern Calif. The ingredient list touts “handmade” products such as triple sec; Vandenbos confirmed that fruit is juiced onsite, and the vodka, gin and triple sec are produced in house from distillates and infusions.
The Cuban Mojito buzzbox immediately got my attention. After pouring into an ice-filled glass, I discerned the aroma and taste of the Hieurbabuena mint which is vacuum packed and shipped from Cuba. While living on the Gulf Coast several years ago, I became well-acquainted with New Orleans’ signature cocktail, the Hurricane. The buzzbox offering was pleasant, not too sweet, and at 12 percent ABV, brought a mild buzz. Same for the Long Island, Margarita, Greyhound and more.
Another fresh packaging concept comes from DRNXMYTH which is also produced in California. With experience in the beverage and beauty business, the owners were obsessed with the idea of offering a unique, failproof packaging to ensure optimum freshness. Their innovation is a double chambered bottle that keeps fresh ingredients separate from the spirits. The fruit for juices is sourced as locally as possible, batched, mixed, cold pressurized, and then placed in the bottom chamber. The spirits and bitters are placed in the upper chamber. Delivery of the 200 ml bottles is available from retailers in selected cities or ordered online.
A refrigerated product, the cocktail is mixed by twisting the upper chamber and voilà, a cold cocktail is ready to imbibe. At 16 percent ABV, the Rum Punch inspired taster Janice to say, “Indeed this drink kicks up a punch.” I expected a spiked and sweetened Hawaiian punch, but the flavor profile was dry with a rum kick. My tasters also liked what they called the “cocktail bar sensibility” of the Eastside with gin and cucumber. Other DRINXMYTH options include Bourbon Sour and Classic Margarita.
Wine company Aquilini Beverage Group launched its first canned cocktail in May 2021. Karsyn Aquilini, brand manager and granddaughter of the company’s founder, played off the portability of single serve cocktails in the outdoors by emphasizing the bounty of nature in the naming of the drinks and the cans’ label designs. The yellow can of the Cucumber and Lemon Sparkling Vodka Collins displays cucumber and lemon slices. A bumblebee hovers on the back label harkening to the pollinators who keep the garden blooming. The botanical extract blend lists cucumber, juniper berry, quassia, coriander and lemongrass.
The can lists the ABV at 5 percent and like many RTDs does not list the calorie count. On the website, Beautiful Drinks compares the calorie count of their drinks to a similar standard bar cocktail: The vodka Collins has 75 calories, an average bar cocktail, 185 calories.
I wasn’t thinking about the calorie count as I tasted the Beautiful Drinks sparkling Vodka Collins. Refreshing with the botanical blend and alcoholic kick floating above the carbonation, the drink was balanced and very dry despite the cane sugar and white grape juice concentrate in the mix. My second favorite Beautiful Drinks is the Sparkling Grapefruit and Rosemary Gin and Tonic. My tasters who weren’t designated drivers noted the low ABV and exclaimed, “The flavor combinations are intriguing and fresh-tasting, let’s add more alcohol to our glasses.”
Sammy’s Beach Bar Cocktails
Rock ‘n roll famer Sammy Hagar has crafted an ode to the canned cocktail scene with Sammy’s Beach Bar Cocktails. This move was an easy riff for the Red Rocker considering he is already a spirits entrepreneur. He produces Puerto Rico-made Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum, Santo Mezquila, a tequila and mescal blend, and partnered with celebrity foodie Guy Fieri to launch Santo Blanco Tequila. The Beach Bar Cocktails feature a QR code with a link to a video message from Hagar who supports beach and ocean clean-up initiatives.
Launched in September 2021, Sammy’s Beach Bar cans are one of the few brands that carry nutrition labels. The four styles are all called “sparkling rum cocktails sweetened with agave syrup.” At 5.5 percent ABV, each 355 ml drink touts natural flavors and no added colors. In the mood for some aloha inspiration, I tasted the Island Pop and Pineapple Splash. Though touted as classic Hawaiian punch, Island Pop did not carry a wave of sweetness. The rum was lightly present but thankfully the juice did not overwhelm. Likewise, the Pineapple Splash had a definite pineapple punch and a kick from jalapeño. Both were pleasant Happy Hour sippers.
Single serve RTD cocktails are America’s new, adult go-cup. In addition to the major beverage companies, celebrities such as Hagar and well-known bartenders such as Livewire’s Polsky and savvy entrepreneurs, spirits producers are upping their game to satisfy those not wanting to fuss at the home bar or dash off to an expensive cocktail bar. In addition to convenience, more consumers are popping the tab, opening the box, or twisting the bottle for a quick and generally satisfying drink.