Ready-to-Drink Cocktails Reaching New Heights

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Ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails once bared little resemblance to made-to-order cocktails Canadians could order at a bar, but the RTD category is getting a craft makeover. “It’s taken off from nothing,” says Denzil Wadds, co-founder of Toronto-based Georgian Bay Spirits Co. In fact, according to the LCBO, sales in the RTD category grew from $250 million in 2017 to $292 million in 2018.

Experts credit the premiumization of cocktails in a can. “There was a big gap in the sector for premium quality,” says Brent VanderVeen, co-owner of BarChef. “A lot of the

already known as ready-to-drink cocktails had fake flavours and were too sweet. They weren’t things people [associated] with a modern cocktail.”

BarChef’s bottled cocktail, the Toasted Old Fashioned, looks to recreate the cocktail-bar experience. The bottled drink incorporates Stalk and Barrel premium red-blend rye, BarChef’s signature toasted-chamomile and saffron bitter and local Ontario maple syrup. “We wanted to create something you’d want to stick your nose into repeatedly,” says VanderVenn. “It’s got aromatics that evolve and loads of length and complexity on the palette.”

BarChef is part of a growing wave of bartenders and distillers that are reinventing RTD cocktails using elevated ingredients and expert mixology techniques. “We make delicious-tasting cocktails; they just happen to come in a can,” says Wadds, whose Georgian Bay Spirits Co.’s RTD cocktails are made using the brand’s small-batch craft gin or vodka as a base — both spirits have taken home awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

RTD cocktail producers are also leveraging the health trend by offering consumers low-alcohol or low-sugar alternatives to beer and wine. Last year, Georgian Bay Spirits Co. introduced a Strawberry Smashed Soda that has three grams of sugar (compared to the 21 grams found in its other Smash products).

Similarly, Nütrl, a B.C.-based distiller, recently released Nütrl3, a flavoured-vodka soda with 65 calories and 3.3-per-cent alcohol content. Nütrl’s creative director, Paul Meehan, says this lightened-up version of its original vodka soda, which clocks in at 98 calories and five-per-cent alcohol, is “flying off the shelves.”

While liquor stores have traditionally been the foundation of RTD sales, as the category continues to thrive, foodservice establishments are also beginning to take an interest. “Nütrl is showing up in lots of bars and restaurants now,” says Meehan. “The main reason it’s succeeding is because, with no carbs, customers have more room for food,” he adds.

Although Wadds says Georgian Bay Spirits Co. still focuses its sales efforts on liquor stores, it’s beginning to shift its focus to foodservice. “We’re listed in more than 2,000 restaurants in Ontario and it just happened organically,” says Wadds. “So, we’re going
to start to partner with some of them.”

As producers continue to innovate in response to consumer tastes, the growth of the RTD category is only just beginning. “This is a new category that’s not going away,” says Wadds. “It’s exciting as hell to be in it.”

Written by Jessica Huras

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