Ready for RTD? The once unloved beverage category has gotten an upgrade

By Samantha Biljan

RTD cocktails in 2019 have changed from the overly sweet ones of yesteryear. They now run the gamut from health-conscious hard seltzers (low in sugar and calories) to boozy classics that freeze well (manhattans, negronis, martinis) to hand-crafted drinks 

Bars have been offering cocktails on tap for the past decade, as well as pre-batching and freezing larger quantities. But now companies and enterprising restaurateurs alike are taking the concept even further, streamlining the process by having their cocktails bottled and canned in single-serve ready-to-drink (RTD) formats. The reason for all this? RTD cocktails are easy to stock, cost effective and they’re crafted to ensure that they’re just as polished as the ones bartenders are shaking and stirring.


RTD cocktails in 2019 have changed from the overly sweet ones of yesteryear. They now run the gamut from health-conscious hard seltzers (low in sugar and calories) to boozy classics that freeze well (manhattans, negronis, martinis) to hand-crafted drinks — some are even canned with the exact amount of water added to mimic the barely-melted ice of a freshly-shaken confection. With the help of Datassential’s MenuTrends, which tracks more than 500 Canadian menus and nearly 5,000 U.S. operators, let’s look at some of the fastest-growing cocktail ingredients, giving insight as to the future of RTD cocktails.


Hard tonics and summery seltzers

The substantial rise in hard seltzers and soda waters over the past few years is largely a response to the increasing number of health-conscious consumers. These beverages appeal directly to what many consumers want to see in a purchase: sparkling, refreshing flavours that are low in sugar and made with clean ingredients. Straightforward and often gluten free, consumers don’t have to think too hard about choosing the healthier option. Truly Hard Seltzer has capitalized, hitting the seasonal mark with its canned lemon and yuzu hard seltzer. Yuzu, a grapefruit-like citrus fruit, is up 366 per cent over four years on Canada’s beverage menus.


Hard seltzers and tonics are some of the easiest offerings for restaurants and distributors alike. Unique herbal bitters and light, clean spirits that appeal to an aperitif mindset make for a simple and winning combination, and give customers a healthier option that they can indulge in without the added caloric guilt.


Low ABV, high functionality

The vast majority — 90 percent — of today’s consumers say they’re interested in functional foods, according to Datassential’s Functional Foods Keynote Report. An opportunity to improve health simply by eating or drinking (and social drinking at that) is more appealing than ever to consumers in a fast-paced world.


Kombucha, the vinegary, fermented tea that originated in China as early as 221 BC (where it was known as the “Tea of Immortality”), is packed with plentiful bacteria that are said to improve gut health and promote digestion while having a relatively low amount of sugar. Having risen to Western consumer consciousness less than a decade ago, new flavoured varieties, floral variations and herbal infusions have entered the RTD space, often in vibrant glass bottles. In Canada alone, kombucha has seen 532 per cent growth on menus in a scant four years. Now, hard kombucha has taken the stage, usually maintaining a low ABV to refrain from negating all the health benefits associated with the beverage.


Kombrewcha, a pioneer in the hard kombucha scene, produces a canned, organic hard kombucha with 4.4 per cent ABV and flavours like royal ginger, lemongrass lime and berry hibiscus. After re-branding and lowering Kombrewcha’s alcohol content, the company plans to expand its product range this summer to further broaden its appeal. Functional, high-quality mixers have also become a sought-after offering, with some brands capitalizing on the trend. Along with its namesake, Ficks Hard Seltzer makes vitamin-infused, small batch mixers.


Interest in adult beverages that don’t do damage the next day is expected to keep increasing as functional drinks storm retail. Restaurateurs can play with how far into the crafting they want to go, making kombucha in-house and then pre-batching drinks, for example, or sourcing a craft mixer and creating a functional cocktail that skips the usual several-step assembly.


Spirit-forward classics

With elements that are easy to batch and don’t require minutes of muddling, classic cocktails have been on tap at cocktail bars for a decade or more. Barchef, a Toronto bar known for its innovative drinks, has partnered with Stillwaters Distillery on its own label, Barchef Project. The brand elevates the tried and true old fashioned with its Toasted Old Fashioned that incorporates some trending additions to its ingredient list, including maple syrup, which is up 118 per cent over four years on Canadian menus, and toasted chamomile, up 67 per cent in the same time. The desire for strong, spirit-heavy classics isn’t going anywhere, but the origins of its components are starting to shift on menus. For example, Japanese whiskey has risen by more than 400 per cent in four years on U.S. menus, leaving room to continue innovating.


Operators can rely on pre-batched tried and true cocktails to do much of the work during a busy night. Unique additions can help maintain guests’ interest, like a dash of sour cherry bitters to a canned Manhttan in a nod to the cocktail’s usual maraschino garnish.


Never-ending brunch

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day — well, at least that’s how the saying goes. Brunch, however, has seen a renaissance like no other, spurred on by Millennials seemingly keen on expanding the daypart and with no signs of slowing down. Tomato juice is a good indicator that brunch is nowhere near over. It has increased 27 per cent in just the past year and over 1000 per cent in the past four years on Canadian menus, thanks in part to steady growth of flavourful, RTD Bloody Marys and Caesars.


The RTD category has already capitalized on non-alcoholic, tomato-based mix-ins, but has now expanded to include the whole late-morning cocktail itself. Cutwater Spirits’ mild Bloody Mary with a 10 per cent ABV is a case in point, demonstrating the segment isn’t just left to larger brands like Smirnoff and Mott’s. Mimosas, another favourite of the daypart, also are having success across retail. After strong sales with a bottled classic orange mimosa last year, the discount chain grocery store Aldi recently introduced a new pineapple flavour.


For brunch, customers are more willing to opt in on beverages when they have premium qualities outside of basic juices. Restaurants can capitalize on this: Bloody Marys and Caesars still have endless iterations to go with an eye toward newly trending spices, peppers, and customizable add-ins, while mimosas can easily blend in the favoured juice of the hour.


Make it special, please

Not all drinks can be done in RTD format — forget egg whites — but just a few finishing touches, like a garnish or splash of fizz keeps the inspirations fresh and endless. Of course, not all customers will be pleased with what some consider a slightly pared-down experience, given that many consumers consider having a cocktail to be an event. Seventy-seven per cent go out of the home for drinks, according to Datassential’s The Future of Drink Keynote Report, which conducted an online survey of 3,762 consumers and 115 mixologists in the United States. Many appreciate feeling catered to, building a relationship with an attentive bartender and having an overall more elevated experience than cracking a can denotes.


Still, some may prefer the speed and efficiency that pre-made cocktails offer. The consistency that a thoughtfully batched cocktail provides, along with a splashy and aromatic or refined and elegant garnish, keeps just the right amount of intrigue for even the most selective imbibers. Change will likely be as much in operators’ hands as customers. Diners and drinkers will become more familiar with the RTD category as restaurants continue to menu it, and will likely seek out and even expect these same options in their favourite restaurants in due time.


Consumers are more in tune with their cocktail choices than ever before and willing to pay the premium if every box is checked on their personal list, including health, sociability, gluten free, paleo, sustainable sourcing and small batch artisanal, to name a few. Mixologists and distributors keen to develop for the RTD category or use it in-house can make easy and simple changes following basic principles that are likely to please discerning customers: make it functional and clean, or an über-premium classic. If you can, do both.


Samantha Biljan is an Analyst on the Product Excellence team at Datassential