See Ya, Zima: A New Wave of Bottled Cocktails Is Born

A new wave of bottled cocktails inspired by the craft cocktail movement are starting to make their mark on the industry. Sarah Baird meets the players trying to make you forget the wine coolers and canned cocktails of yore.

Without a doubt, we’re living in the salad days of cocktail craftsmanship. A bartender’s shake, a drink’s elaborate garnish, the (occasionally flammable) means by which it’s presented? All these elements have become as much a part of enjoying a cocktail as the finished product.

Sometimes, though, I don’t need my cocktail served with so much fanfare. I don’t need acrobatics and flair and elaborate garnish. Sometimes, a girl just wants a drink ready to go.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Drink companies have started to heed this call, with the number of start-ups producing bottled, premixed cocktails erupting in recent years. These aren’t the wine coolers and Zima of your dorm room days, though. For a bottled cocktail to appeal to modern drinkers, it must be held to the same high standard as its freshly crafted counterparts.

Bottling cocktails in a somewhat thoughtful manner isn’t exactly novel. Cocktail demi-god Jerry Thomas made mention of bottled brandy cocktails as being perfect for “fishing and other sporting parties” in his 1862 tome, How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant’s Companion. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Heublein Company premixed, batched and aged cocktails for gentlemen riding in luxury railroad cars; they remained popular through the 1950s. By the 1970s, though, the world of wine coolers and boozy, sugary quick fixes had overtaken premixed drinks with any level of craftsmanship, ushering in a dark age for bottled cocktails in America.

Fortunately, this decades-long trend has started to reverse in recent years, with bottled cocktail evangelists like Clyde Common’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler and White Lyan’s Ryan Chetiyawardana (who has his Mr. Lyan’s line of bottled cocktails) leading the charge in both elevating and destigmatizing premixed drinks. Piggybacking onto this resurgence is a new class of enterprising bartenders and entrepreneurs who have started tinkering with just how to translate pro-quality drinks from bar room to living room.

Blazing the trail for the new ready-to-drink (RTD) movement in the United States is Crafthouse Cocktails, operated by partners Charles Joly (former mastermind behind Chicago’s The Aviary) and Matt Lindner (whose production company owns multiple bars, including The Drawing Room).

“People at the bar would always ask Charles and me, ‘How do you make this cocktail at home?’ It was hard to tell them, because there’s so much more to it than just throwing all the ingredients together,” said Lindner. “What’s most difficult to replicate is that perfect balance. People would go home, try it, then come back in and say it didn’t taste as good. That’s why we decided to bottle it ourselves.”

Crafthouse Cocktail’s position is one of bottled cocktail bellwether. This summer, booze behemoth Constellation Brands (which owns the likes of Corona and Clos du Bois) bought a small stake in Crafthouse. While exact details weren’t disclosed, the cost of the (relatively) tiny buy-in was still estimated at “less than $10 million.”

Currently, Crafthouse offers three bottled creations—a Paloma, Moscow Mule and Southside. The Moscow Mule (concocted with spicy, housemade ginger beer) and the Paloma (which also features a housemade grapefruit soda) have a heat and tartness, respectively, which allows the drinks to taste fresh and well-balanced both on first encounter and after an afternoon spent lolling away in the glass. The Southside, however, is almost cloying during its initial sips, eventually settling into an odd, mint-heavy aftertaste. Some cocktails, it seems, take more readily to bottling than others.

Still, Crafthouse’s position is one of bottled cocktail bellwether: This summer, booze behemoth Constellation Brands (which owns the likes of Corona and Clos du Bois) bought a small stake in the company. While exact details weren’t disclosed, the cost of the (relatively) tiny buy-in was still estimated at “less than $10 million.”

The (comparatively fledgling) movement’s long term trajectory remains to be seen, but if Crafthouse’s recent success is any indication, the bottled cocktail trend is far more than a temporary fall down the twee-drink rabbit hole, with each new RTD iteration making it more clear how far these premixed drinks have evolved.

Continuing the legacy of Heublein’s bottled “club cocktails” are brands like Utah’s High West Distillery, which has been barrel-aging, bottling and nationally distributing both Boulevardiers and Manhattans since 2011, and California’s Craft Distillers, which sells bottled barrel-aged cocktails under its Fluid Dynamics label. Meanwhile, VEEV’s VitaFruite markets itself as the first “organic” RTD cocktail line, churning out drinks (including the Coconut Colada) that are a natural next step from “alcopop” standards like Mike’s Hard Lemonade. The company is the first bottled cocktail operation to achieve and maintain USDA organic certification, speaking—primarily—to a health-conscious crowd through a low-calorie marketing campaign spearheaded by spokeswoman (and former model) Brooke Burke. Overseas, Campari’s Campari Soda is a premixed, ruby-hued aperitif that has been charming Italy with its beaker-shaped bottle since 1932—and now has stateside drinkers clamoring for its export.

Even the most historically maligned subgenre of the bottled cocktail, the wine cooler, is enjoying a resurgence.

In the 1980s, wine coolers became synonymous with subpar “lightweight” drinking, serving as little more than a punchline for wine enthusiasts and David Letterman alike. Today, innovative new wine spritzers are attempting to shed their suburban mom stereotype.

“My initial hesitation in bottling Hoxie was the ‘wine cooler’ association,” said Josh Rosenstein, founder of the natural wine spritzer brand. “Wine coolers [of the past] were sweet… and filled with junk. The challenge of actually making a ‘wine cooler’ that tasted good—and was at least somewhat good for you—excited me.”

Hoxie’s updated version of “wine cooler” reflects the changing palates of mainstream audiences, who, in the wake of the craft cocktail movement, have started to skew more towards crisp, light flavors rather than the sticky, sugar-coated beverages of yore. Today, nuance and balance are king.

“I don’t personally consider Hoxie a wine cooler [because] it’s actually a wine spritzer,” said Rosenstein. “Wine coolers are all made with malt liquor and haven’t been made with wine for over 20 years. The grape we use is Catawba, which was actually the first grape in this country ever used to make sparkling wine.”

Rosenstein takes pride in the fact that Hoxie’s audience appreciates how, for a new generation of drinkers, a bottled cocktail isn’t just a throwaway beverage to consume while gathered around a bonfire. By the same token, the same audience (for better or worse) is generally predisposed towards the kind of instant gratification that ensures online delivery services and streaming devices won’t ever be underused. These two forces usually pull in opposite directions, but when it comes to top-notch RTD beverages, they’ve found a comfortable middle ground.

While many will assuredly argue that bottled cocktails—even the fanciest, freshest variety—could never compare to their bartender-made brethren, the swell and diversity of fledgling RTD beverages bodes well for the market’s sustainability. The arrival of thoughtful premixed drinks isn’t about choosing sides. Instead, it’s a firm indication that the craft cocktail movement (currently a decade-plus in) is comfortable enough with itself to scoop up the dark days of its past and demonstrate how “bad idea” drinks can, actually, be quite good.


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