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Ready-to-Drink Craft Cocktails Are Trending

RTD cocktails have exploded in popularity recently, and craft brewers are looking to get in on the ground floor.

Ready-to-Drink Craft Cocktails Are Trending

In recent years, Ready to Drink (RTD) craft cocktails have shown up with more frequency on store shelves alongside canned beer and wine. The majority of canned drinks follow the recipes of classic cocktails such as Moscow Mules, Gin & Tonics or Old Fashioneds. Recently, there has been an increase of innovative RTD concoctions such as infusing citrus and other fruit juices with alcohol, along with hard seltzer, hard cider and hard kombucha.

The primary appeal of these RTD cocktails is convenience, as consumers can enjoy their favorite cocktails while traveling without having to transport all the required bar equipment and materials needed to make these drinks. Also, given the majority of RTD cocktails come in cans, they can be consumed in places that do not permit glass bottles such as boating excursions, campgrounds and festivals.

According to NielsenIQ, RTD cocktail sales continue to skyrocket, with current sales up 496% compared to 2019 and up 111% compared to 2020. RTD cocktails experienced the strongest dollar share gains of any spirits category for Memorial Day, up 2 share points compared to last year. RTD spirits reached 3.7% of total spirits dollars for the two-week time frame, surpassing dollar sales for gin in NielsenIQ off-premises channels. One factor that may be influencing some of these sales from growing even higher is that while RTD cocktails can be found at grocery stores in non-control states, in control states such as Oregon, they can only be in liquor stores.

new realm brewing craft cocktails sampler pack
RTD cocktail sales continue to skyrocket, with current sales up 496% compared to 2019 and up 111% compared to 2020.

As reported in Beverage Master, RTD cocktails took off during the pandemic, as consumers sought ways to savor their favorite spirit-based cocktails they once enjoyed at a bar or restaurant in the comfort of their own home. Some establishments responded to this demand by offering cocktails-to-go. Depending upon state laws, these to-go packages contained all the ingredients needed to make a given establishments signature drinks or all of the items required sans the alcohol. Also, distilleries, wineries, and breweries expanded their offerings of products that can be consumed off-premises.

Even though bars and restaurants are opening again, this to-go trend looks to continue as customers look for ways to consume their favorite cocktails on the go. While the majority of RTD cocktails are produced by distilleries, a select number of breweries are entering the RTD space as well.

According to Jimmy Seifrit, 10 Barrel Brewing Senior Brewmaster, their RTD program is driven by the staff's passion for craft cocktails along with the desire to meet the demands of those customers who are looking for alternatives to beer. "We felt catering to these new demands was healthy for the company as diversifying and growing is generally good, but especially when it's with, and for, our customers." Benjamin Shirley, RTD Brewmaster, adds "We chose cocktails that our customers already gravitated towards. The whole goal was to make it easier for them to grip and rip it."

Their first offering was the Greyhound, followed by a Margarita, Moscow Mule, Bloody Mary, Mai Tai and two summer vodka sodas. Their take on the "John Daly" will be released mid-summer. Moving forward, Seifrit observed, "The evolution of 10 Barrel's cocktails will be towards more complex and well-designed drinks that the customer cannot easily make without a big investment. We want to raise the bar for all at-home or on the go cocktails."

As Trevor Self, Mad Tree Brewing Marketing Manager, noted, they chose to add RTD cocktails to their lineup as they observed that while RTD cocktails are on the rise, beer sales weren't following that trajectory. "We saw this as an opportune time to do consumer research, assign our production team with the task to test batch spirits, soda water, and natural flavor combinations while our marketing team developed a brand + identity for RTD cocktails."

10 barrel brewing RTD cocktails
According to Jimmy Seifrit, 10 Barrel Brewing Senior Brewmaster, their RTD program is driven by the staff's passion for craft cocktails along with the desire to meet the demands of those customers who are looking for alternatives to beer.

Based on their analysis of consumer research, looking at grocery store data, and hiring a 3rd-party sensory group to bring in a panel of taste-testers to evaluate flavor combinations, they concluded that a vodka + soda cocktail best fulfilled their business goals. Their premium crafted vodka sodas made with local vodka and house-made soda water are geared for those who live a health-conscious and active lifestyle. Currently, they're working on more flavor combinations for their vodka sodas, as well as figuring out the next spirit or liquor they will create a cocktail around.

According to SouthNorte brewmaster Ryan Brooks, since RTD cocktails are on the rise, they felt it was the perfect time to enter this space. "Consumers are actively seeking premium canned cocktails, a distinct crafted experience and tequila-based beverages, all three of which resonate with our brand essence."

Their cocktails are made with real tequila and fresh fruit juice, and complement their existing, well-rounded beer portfolio that focuses on Mexican-style beers. Each of these cocktails touches upon a different flavor profile - sour (Paloma), spicy (Mexican Mule) and sweet (Matador).

mygotu wild leap brew co. craft cocktails

Favorite RTD Cocktails Produced by Breweries

In my estimation, while few RTD cocktails equate the experience of savoring a cocktail mixed by an experienced bartender, putting these drinks on ice enhances their flavor. Among those RTD cocktails on the market, my three all-time favorites do not come from a brewery but from two Portland, Oregon distilleries. Both Aria Gin and Freeland Spirits make a Gin & Tonic RTD that is the perfect companion for a hot summer's day. Also, Freeland Spirits produces a canned French 75 made with a local Chardonnay that works well as a refreshing summery spirit.

With regards to the RTD cocktail offerings from breweries, Ten Barrel's cocktails merit their award-winning status. (This year, they won five medals in the American Distilling Institute’s Craft Spirit Awards.) My favorite was their Greyhound (11.8 ABV), a boozy drink with a crisp citrus-forward taste, with their spicy Bloody Mary (10.0 ABV) a close second. 

For those times when I need a low-ABV option, Madtree's Sway (4.5 ABV) Grapefruit/Ginger offers a refreshing low-ABV option with 90 calories, zero sugar and 1 carb that's perfect for summertime sipping. Also, SouthNorte's RTDs may have a lower 7.0 ABV than, say, a margarita but the taste of these beverages is on par with tequila cocktails served at many bars.

Another warm-weather option is Maplewood's award-winning Palmer Square (12.0 ABV). This drink refines the classic Arnold Palmer (iced tea and lemonade) by adding their award-winning Spruce Gin and then finishing it with locally produced orange bitters.      

Many, many other breweries are exploring the possibilities that RTD cocktails can bring to their portfolio (and their bottom line). A few key examples of breweries delving in to the space include: The Boston Beer Company, Boulevard Brewing Co., Cigar City Brewing, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, New Realm Brewing, Southern Tier Brewing Co., and Wild Leap Brew Co.

southnorte craft cocktails outside

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