Significant growth of the Ready-To-Drink (RTD) category emerged long before the global pandemic arrived, but with the presence of COVID-19 firmly in place, sales of the category are soaring.
According to Nielsen, RTD sales (year-to-year) increased 22% leading into the spring lockdowns. However, that number has since climbed to a whopping 90% growth. And there seems to be no sign of that trend slowing down. According to Marketwatch.com, “The [global RTD alcoholic beverages] market is expected to garner a value of approximately $32 billion by the end of 2024.”
Some familiar RTDs have been available for some time, namely flavored malt beverages such as Seagram’s Escapes and Smirnoff Ice. But market trends have pushed even those brands to include new, canned items. The malt beverage category is only part of the story. Multiple large and small distillers have profoundly increased the quality of RTD drinks, as well as their diversity.
Whether its big-name whiskey, rum, or vodka brands, an abundance of choices now exist within the RTD category. Jack Daniel’s responded to the trend by canning fan favorites such as Jack & Cola and Jack Honey and Lemonade. “Each drink is perfectly balanced to highlight the flavors of our charcoal-mellowed whiskey in a drinkable and convenient format; this is real Jack, and it’s ready to go,” says Lisa Hunter, Jack Daniel’s Flavors brand director.
Absolut offers a trio of RTD cocktails: Mango Mule, Berry Vodkarita and Grapefruit Paloma. “Made with original Absolut Vodka, the new line of ready-to-drink vodka sodas and cocktails meet a consumer demand for convenience without compromising quality,” says Regan Clarke, vice president of millennial connector brands at Pernod Ricard USA.
Like the line of spirits and cocktail mixers that precede them, One Organic Cocktails are carefully crafted from organic ingredients: vodka, real juice, botanical extracts, and no artificial preservatives. The Square One Sparkling Cocktail RTD portfolio includes Pear of Roses, Basil Berry Fizz, Mediterranean Pearl, and Cucumber Therapy. “Our consumer wants a light but complex tasting cocktail,” says Allison Evanow, Founder and CEO, Square One Organic Spirits. “Our unique cocktails feature beautiful packaging and clever names—a craft cocktail experience with less alcohol but more flavor. Convenience doesn’t have to be boring.”
Stephanie Moraine, Ole Smoky Distillery’s marketing director, comments: “Consumers are also looking for authenticity. This is one of the reasons we felt it was important to craft our Ole Smoky Moonshine Cocktails with real Tennessee moonshine.” Other spirits brands, from rum to gin share the same idea.
“Drinkers want something with a great flavor profile,” explains Lisa Pfenning, Vice President of BACARDÍ rum. “What I love about our BACARDÍ RTD line is, it is made with real rum. It’s made with Bacardi white rum, so it’s not a malt-based drink. You are getting a genuine, high-quality spirit in your cocktail-in-a-can.”
Finally, Malibu sells Pina Colada Rum and a 4-pack of Malibu Lemonade Cocktail. “There’s been so much love and demand for these ready-to-drink cans to date, and appetite has only increased given the current environment and shift towards at-home and on-the-go drinking,” says Simon de Beauregard, Malibu Engagement Director.
RTDs don’t necessarily adhere to the low-ABV trend. “All PRIMED crafted ready-to-drink cocktails are made with premium spirits, and zesty, fruity flavors, absent of synthetic, artificially-made ingredients. They are uber-spiked at up to 18% ABV, therefore aligning with any on-premise cocktail,” says Tracy Okoli, founder, and chief cocktail officer.
Treaty Oak Distilling, makers of The Waterloo Gin and Tonic RTD line, is made with real gin. Daniel Barnes CEO and founder believes, “ABV is the logical way to separate brands. This will allow higher and better made RTD’s consisting of gins, vodkas, tequilas, etc. to find their way into convenience stores and supermarkets.”
Meanwhile, Kahlúa’s latest product launch, the Nitro Cold Brew RTD, consists of rum, coffee liqueur and 100% Arabica cold brew coffee. The new coffee cocktail complements the Kahlúa Espresso Martini RTD, which launched in 2019. At just 80 calories, the new Nitro Cold Brew pairs well with health and wellness lifestyles.
RumChata is no stranger to the spiked coffee game, either. In its 11th year on the market, RumChata has grown into one of the most popular RTDs around. Most recently, the brand introduced FrappaChata, a blend of coffees and RumChata, making it the first (and only) premium alcoholic iced coffee. A recent switch to 200ml four-packs and the addition of a FrappaChata Mocha and Cold Brew variants have added to the brand’s success.
The global pandemic has led to a surge in online alcohol purchases. As a result, customers are more able than ever to connect with smaller distilleries throughout the nation.
Forbes listed You & Yours founder and master distiller Laura Johnson on its “30 under 30” list in 2018. The Texas native and University of San Diego graduate said, “I traveled for the better part of a year, immersing myself in the distilling/craft spirits industry, taking every distilling course, tour, tasting experience, education, etc. I could find this side of the Atlantic.” You & Yours now sells various flavors of its gin and 100%-grape-based vodka RTDs online.
Meanwhile, Chicago Distilling recently won the New York International Spirits Competition awarded Chicago Distilling the Illinois Pre Mix Cocktail Distillery of the Year. “[Gin] wasn’t something we had put at the forefront of our portfolio, but it quickly became the leader of the pack once we developed it.” says co-founder Noelle DiPrizio. The gin is composed of 11 botanicals that offer distinct floral notes of hints of lemon; this is not your grandfather’s gin.” Chicago Distilling also produces a host of fruit-flavored cocktails and a new line of low-cal Sparkling Vodka Spritzers.
Brooklyn’s Courage & Stone sells two classics online: Manhattan and Whiskey Old Fashioned. Their motto speaks to what’s made RTDs so enticing. They offer the “highest quality, carefully mixed with premium American-made ingredients to taste perfect, right from the bottle, every time. No mixing, no measuring, no recipes, no mess – just a perfectly balanced cocktail you can enjoy anywhere, anytime.”
The crowded market has forced brands to create unique cocktails to stand out amidst a sea of new RTDs. An example of that trend exists at Litchfield Distillery, who developed a signature cocktail in cans that symbolized their maple-friendly Northwest Connecticut home. The Litchfielder is made with bourbon, locally produced maple syrup, and lemon juice.
Some brands are capturing the imaginations of those who not only miss their local bars, but bars found throughout the world. Most recently, Don Ciccio & Figli, the Italian herbal liqueur sourced from within the United States, announced a new series of RTD cocktails—La Perla, intended to provide a sense of wanderlust and exploration to consumers. Variants include Negroni Classico, Negroni Bianco Oro, and Ambrosia Spritz, with Cherry Manhattan, Walnut Old Fashioned and Fennel Sarezac expected to launch this autumn.
“La Perla cocktails will be one to remember,” said Francesco Amodeo, President and master distiller. “It is a celebration of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary or finding a wild adventure in the place you call home. Derived from our Washington cocktail bar, Bar Sirenis, La Perla Cocktails will whisk you away to a whimsical world of mermaids, magnificent blue waters, and pure escape.”
Also coming this fall, Tanqueray Gin announced Tanqueray Crafted Gin Cocktails in a can, a new range of versatile cocktails that are ready to pour over ice or sipped from the can. Inspired by Charles Tanqueray’s original recipes, Tanqueray Crafted Gin Cocktails use real Tanqueray, natural flavors, and are finished with tonic water or the brand’s signature sparkling soda. Available in three variants including Tanqueray Gin & Tonic, Tanqueray Rangpur Lime Gin & Soda, and Tanqueray Sevilla Orange Gin & Soda.
Even bartenders are jumping onto the RTD bandwagon. Using a recipe developed by award-winning bartender Scott Baird of San Francisco’s Trick Dog, Cocktail Courier’s Scott Goldman introduces Party Can Triple Spice Margarita, the first-ever, ready-to-drink, craft cocktail in a large format, resealable can that serves up to 12 full-sized Margaritas! With the cocktail already ready to drink using 100% blue weber agave tequila, premium orange liqueur, fresh lime juice, and a triple spice mix of real ginger, cinnamon, and chili pepper—plus, the easy-pour bottle minimizes interaction between bartender and sipper, making it perfect for today’s environment.
All told, RTD growth exists as one of the few bright spots for the liquor industry during the global pandemic. Brands of all sizes have increasingly added RTDs to their portfolios. But, it’s important to note that the category expanded well before COVID appeared, and most expect that trend to continue well into the future. While the appeal of convenience and portability remains strong within the RTD category, the liquid has grown noticeably diverse, creative, and more elevated in quality than ever before.