The Surging Popularity of Ready-to-Drink Cocktails

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, sales of premixed cocktails have exploded.

ready-to-drink cocktails
Photo courtesy of Cardinal Spirits

Making cocktails at home can be fun, but it can also be inefficient. Perhaps you bought a bottle of orgeat syrup only to use a few ounces and watch the rest spoil in the fridge. Or maybe you shelled out for black-pepper bitters, never using them again.

Recent improvements to ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails may be changing the game. Upgrades include better quality spirits and a wider range of cocktails. Just unscrew a cap or pop open a can and enjoy a bar-quality crafted drink, minus the bar.

Sales of RTD cocktails have grown steadily over the past five years. But this year, since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, premixed cocktails have exploded in popularity, according to market research firm Nielsen. Off-premise sales were up as much as 90.4 percent for the month of June, compared with the same month in 2019. Sales for the year ending February 2020 were up far less—just 21.5 percent over the previous 12-month period.

“They usually do well during the summer, but I can say without a doubt that sales have increased this year,” says Laura Marchetti, owner of Riverview Wine & Spirits in Jersey City.

Their popularity is easy to understand. They require no expertise or special equipment, and are tailor-made for the new normal of people spending most of their free time at home. And with restaurants and bars unable to seat people indoors for the six months that indoor dining wasn’t allowed, “The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of them for sure,” says Jeff Wuslich, cofounder of Cardinal Spirits. The Indiana-based distillery sells canned cocktails with neutral spirits, including the Bramble Mule (raspberry, ginger, hibiscus), Maui Mule (passion fruit and ginger) and vodka soda. “They’re now our single bestselling SKU.”

[RELATED: The Rapid Rise of Hard Seltzer]

Cardinal launched the line more than three years ago, but Wuslich says their time has come, calling them “a sippable solution for walking around the neighborhood.” Dallas-based On the Rocks, a relative newcomer to New Jersey, partners with leading spirits brands to offer RTD cocktails like an old-fashioned (made with Knob Creek bourbon), a mai tai (featuring a blend of Cruzan rums) and a cosmopolitan (with Effen vodka) in sleek 100 ml, 200 ml and 365 ml glass bottles. The brand launched in 2016, aiming for airlines and hotels. “In mid-March, when the country sheltered in place, we lost a major channel of our business,” says owner Andrew Gill.

The company saw opportunity in states permitting takeaway cocktails, including the Garden State. Now, says Gill, “New Jersey is the state with the biggest growth since Covid-19 started.” He cites Ed & Mary’s in Jersey City, Tommy’s Tavern & Tap in Freehold and Sea Bright, and Ugly Mug and Delaney’s Irish Pub in Cape May as establishments with the highest sales.

You’ll find other brands—such as San Diego-based Cutwater Spirits, which offers Bloody Mary, margarita, mint mojito, paloma and other options in four-can packs—at your local liquor store.

“This is not just a trend,” says Riverview’s Marchetti. “They are going to stick around all year.”

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