Mixing It Up

Canned cocktails appear here to stay as many consumers see them as an easy and less-filling alternative to beer

It’s hard to imagine an old, classic movie where Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn are in a restaurant, order cocktails and sit back as their waiter hands them a couple of cans. But this is the 21st Century and times — and tastes — have changed.

Ready-to-drink cocktails are the fastest growing alcohol product in the country right now, and beverage companies and industry experts are predicting even more growth in the future.

That doesn’t mean canned cocktails are taking over the world. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, canned cocktails make up just a little more than three percent of liquor sales in this country. But their popularity and growth are undeniable: Bank of America Securities, which analyses markets nationwide, forecasts the sale of canned cocktails will reach $3 billion to $4 billion over the next few years.

And that growth was phenomenal in the last year or so. John Leyh, craft and specialty brand manager at NKS Distributors in New Castle, says his company sold an astounding 482 percent more canned cocktails in 2021 than it did in 2020.

“I don’t have a crystal ball and there’s really no way to say what the future holds, in terms of market growth of canned cocktails,” Leyh says. “But I don’t think there’s any question that canned cocktails are becoming more and more popular and they’re here to stay.”

“RTD (ready-to-drink) canned cocktails will continue to grow,” says Victor Mattai, craft beer manager at Breakthru Beverage Group. “It’s a relatively small category, so there’s a lot of room to grow that segment.”

A big reason for that phenomenal growth the past year — perhaps the biggest reason — was the Covid-19 pandemic. Because so many bars and restaurants were closed when the pandemic began, and because people were hesitant to leave the comfort and security of their own homes even when businesses were open, canned cocktails gave them their favorite mixed drink without the hassles and risk of mixing with strangers.

Not only can canned cocktails be consumed at home, the complexity of some cocktails makes them more convenient. Different drinks take different ingredients and it’s a lot easier to have, say, a four-pack of canned margaritas in your refrigerator than to keep tequila and (depending on your favorite recipe) lime juice, triple sec, Cointreau, agave syrup or orange liqueur stored in your liquor cabinet.

Another reason for the growth of canned cocktails is many consumers are getting tired of heavier drinks such as craft beer. That fatigue has been largely responsible for the dramatic increase in the sales of alcoholic seltzers, hard teas and hard ciders as people seek alternatives. Canned cocktails are now one of those alternatives.

“Craft beers really took off in the early 2000s,” says Joe Mujica, the general manager of Kelly’s Logan House in Wilmington’s Trolley Square neighborhood. “But now we find other things are becoming more popular as more product becomes available. And canned cocktails are really starting to carve out their niche in the marketplace.

“For a lot of people, it’s become an alternative to beer,” Mujica adds. “Young people, especially, seem to like having different alternatives and they tend to be more interested in trying new things. Canned cocktails are stronger than beer and some people find them more refreshing.”

Count Bob Kucerak, a “30-something” from Brandywine Hundred, among those people. He was recently at Branmar Liquors off Marsh Road, and instead of getting his usual 12-pack of beer, he was buying two four-packs of canned cocktails from one of the leading producers of them, Cutwater Spirits. On this day, his choices were Vodka Smash and Tequila Margarita.

“Sometimes you just get tired of beer and want something different,” he says. “In the past, I’d get an [alcoholic] seltzer or tea, but [canned cocktails] give you more bang for your buck, so to speak. They’re lighter and less filling than beer, but you still feel like you’re drinking a real drink, a real cocktail.”

Mujica says the first canned cocktail to become popular at Kelly’s Logan House was Dewey Crush, an orange-flavored vodka drink (it also comes in ruby red grapefruit and watermelon).

“It took us about a week to realize that we had something special there,” he says. “I think name recognition had something to do with it — everyone knows about Dewey Beach and places like The Starboard — but that only gets you so far. People keep buying it and other canned cocktails because they like the taste and the convenience. You can take a canned cocktail to the pool or the golf course or the beach, any place where you can’t have glass.”

Even though everyone is getting in on the act, Leyh says breweries have a big advantage over distilleries when it comes to producing and marketing canned cocktails. Breweries already have the capabilities to can their product, since they already do so with beers, whereas distilleries have to refit their factories since most of their traditional product comes in either glass or plastic bottles.

As for the bars and restaurants that serve canned cocktails, it costs those establishments more to sell them compared to mixing the drinks themselves, but as Leyh puts it, those places will settle “for a fast nickel rather than a slow dime.”

And the reason for that is something that has been dragging down many businesses — staffing shortages.

“That’s been especially prevalent in restaurants,” Leyh said. “Bar managers are saying that they’d rather sell [canned cocktails]. It might cost me a little more, but getting the speed and the consistency is more important. If I’m short-staffed, I want to get the drinks to the customers as quickly as possible because you don’t want people standing four-deep at a bar waiting for you to mix their drink with all of the different ingredients that go into it.

“Instead, serving a canned cocktail, with all of that preparation already done, gets the drinks out more quickly and, in the long run, is more profitable for them, even if it does cost more up front.”