You’d have to be living in, well, quarantine, not to have noticed the explosion of ready-to-drink cocktails in one of our more safely frequented destinations (your friendly neighbourhood liquor store) this past year. Think the pandemic has a little something to do with that? You bet your Aperol Spritz it does. Packaged, spirits-based, ready-to-drink cocktails—also known as RTDs—have skyrocketed in popularity, with research showing a recent growth in rate of about 80 per cent. Since happy hour at the bar has moved into our living rooms and home patios while we wait out dining restrictions, cracking a cold one at home has evolved well beyond beer.
Five years ago the dominant players in the RTD space at Canadian liquor stores were mainly cooler brands: cloyingly sweet drinks like Smirnoff Ice, Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Palm Bay that were aimed at young, inexperienced drinkers and sneered at by serious cocktail snobs. Now the options range from traditional cocktails to fruit-spiked, vodka-infused fizzy waters to Caesars in a can. And who’s drinking them? Everyone of legal age.
“With the pandemic, a lot of folks that would previously go to a bar for a cocktail are staying home or enjoying drinks in parks—but bringing your cocktail supplies to the park isn’t the most convenient plan,” says Rhandi Clarke, buyer at Jak’s Beer Wine Spirits, which has several locations throughout the Lower Mainland. “RTDs are also more affordable than purchasing all the ingredients [for your favourite cocktail] separately.”
Founder’s Original, based out of Toronto, raises the bar for cocktails in a can. “The Bourbon Sour, Tequila Paloma, Gin Bramble and Vodka Fizz date back decades, crafted in bars by bartenders,” says president Len Fragomeni. “We stay true to their craft as one of the few companies that uses real juices, quality spirits, our own scratch bitters, and better sweeteners [like] agave and cane sugar.”
The same can be said for Muddlers, whose motto, “Be your own bartender,” speaks to quality and convenience. The brand’s range includes a canned Vodka Lemon Tea, Fruit Punch, Moscow Mule, Vodka Soda and Gin and Tonic, all made with premium alcohol and no artificial colours or flavours. There’s also a refreshing, gluten-free and vegan Vodka Pink Lemonade, with a splash of cranberry concentrate to add a dry touch of sophistication to summertime sipping, glass or no glass.
Vancouver’s Olivia Lovenmark launched Duchess Cosmo when she noticed her favourite cocktail missing from the RTD offerings, whipped up a batch with carbonated water, vodka, real lime and cranberry juice and natural orange flavour and bottled it in extra- pretty pink packaging. Currently sold out (she promises stockists like Legacy Liquor Store will be receiving more product posthaste), Lovenmark hints that “we do have a new cocktail coming out soon, hopefully in July.”
Love kombucha? Delta-based Arlo has concocted an organic hard version by keeping in the naturally occurring alcohol, paired with real fruit ingredients. Flavours currently include raspberry, spritz, mango, cucumber lime and grapefruit, which are all on track to be stocked in liquor stores across British Columbia this summer.
Lulu Spritz makes drinking al fresco with the classic Italian Aperol Spritz easy in its canned format—Sicilian orange bitters, frizzante Pinot Grigio and a splash of soda. Plus, the brand’s give-back approach means each sale donates $1 to the BC Hospitality Foundation. Virtue Wholesome Lemonade offers a non-carbonated, vodka-based, not-too-sweet summer fave—and, speaking of citrus, Lemon Life Hard Lemonade Seltzer’s bold, sweet, fruit-forward flavour is gleaned from family-farm-grown lemons using a special cold-pressed method that extracts the most authentic lemon taste. In lemonade, strawberry, pineapple and mango varieties, each can contains just a gram of sugar and 100 calories.
In the meantime, the hard-seltzer revolution continues to bubble, with brands like Nude, White Claw, Nütrl and Babe leading the way. “White Claw first took America by storm when it launched in 2016,” says Scott Walton of Mark Anthony Wine & Spirits. “Then, 17,000 Canadians reached out to us over social media to request the product be sold here.” The RTD launched in February 2020 at the LCBO’s flagship store in Toronto and “looked more like a new Apple iPhone launch, with hundreds of fans lined up around the block in freezing-cold weather to be the first in Canada to taste White Claw.”
Coors Seltzer is even newer to the Canadian scene, with similar specs in the category that define it: less than 100 calories per can, low sugar, spring water and natural fruit flavours. So what sets it apart from other beer brands hopping on the hard-seltzer bandwagon? “I think we are the first [hard seltzer] with a social purpose,” says Ava Gladman, brand manager at Molson Coors, referring to a partnership with Change the Course, where every 12-pack purchased restores 1,000 litres of Canada’s waters. “We know that consumers want to give back, and it feels good as well.”
Now, who’s thirsty? —Catherine Dunwoody
Yes We Can!
Launching right on time for summer sipping, premium-crafted Freed Earth Hard Tea is made with sustainably sourced brewed tea, natural flavours (choose from black tea with lemon, green tea with honey, and white tea with raspberry) and triple- distilled vodka.
It features natural flavours and contains no artificial sweeteners or colours (read: only 3 grams of sugar and 100 calories per can—that’s a fraction of the sugar offered by other hard iced teas) and, uniquely, drives more sustainable agricultural production and responsible supply chains. Plus, the cardboard used in Freed Earth’s packaging is certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
We’ll cheers to that! —Noa Nichol