In the super saturated world of canned and bottled RTD (ready-to-drink) cocktails, a huge differential in quality exists. Unsurprisingly, some of the best tasting RTD’s out there are created by actual bartenders, using recipes, techniques, and tricks that only years behind the stick can bring. “It’s easy to make a cocktail like 95% of the way great,” says Tom Macy of Social Hour Cocktails, “but that last 5% is what makes it really amazing.” Social Hour, a line of highballs and fizzes dreamed up by Clover Club founder (and DrinkMasters judge) Julie Reiner and bar alum Macy, consistently pop up on best canned cocktail lists. That last 5% might just be made up of experience and sweat, and the understanding of what factors impact the difference.
Mixing up drinks with quality spirits is one key factor. LA-based DrnxmythDrinkMasters, for example, uses the same MGP spirits, cold pressed juices, and Bittercube bitters a bartender might use at a craft cocktail bar. Their unique bottle, which, unlike most RTD’s, is not shelf stable and must be shipped and held refrigerated, stacks the ingredients separately until the consumer twists the bottle and shakes up the contents–just like an actual bartender would.
Charles Joly, internationally-renowned mixologist and co-founder of Crafthouse Cocktails, takes great pride in the quality of his creations. “Premium cocktails continue to grow, as hard seltzers are slipping. I think people appreciate quality spirits, real ABV’s and ingredients they can be proud to sip. We’ve worked hard for years to show people you can have a proper cocktail in a bottle. There are plenty of mass-market, convenience products out there. We hope to continue to show people that you can have an actual cocktail: real spirits (not malt or brewed cane sugar), real citrus and a true-to-proof ABV in a bottle, box or can.”
Macy agrees that proper ingredients and “proper ABV” are key to Social Hour’s success in recreating the craft cocktail experience from a can. “The Harvest Whiskey Sour is a collaboration with George Dickel…It’s like a whiskey sour you’d get at Clover Club in October–maple, apple, cinnamon, cardamom. It’s 20% ABV. It’s like an actual cocktail.”
Macy is in charge of developing all the cocktails for Social Hour, drawing from his years of experience at Leyenda and Clover Club. “Composing these recipes is totally different, it’s like a new skill set, but at the end of the day you are trying to get to the same place. I call it the internal tuning fork. I just sort of know when it’s right…After straw tasting drinks for 8 years…you know when it’s right and when it’s not right. I think that’s the value of the bartender-driven RTD.”
Lawrence Cisneros started Drnxmyth “because I didn’t know how to make cocktails.” “In a high end cocktail bar…you have someone in front of you making the drink and and you get that personal touch. So we went to these bartenders and said, ‘do you want to work on a cocktail with us? You could have your own recipe.’ And I think that’s what got them excited.”
The bartender’s involvement doesn’t stop at the recipe. “We literally come to their bar for in-house R&D, they make the drink and we just scale it up.” Drnxmyth currently offers 18 SKU’s, like Jason Yu’s Bourbon Sour and Richard Allison’s Ginger Drop, chosen from over 30 hits over the years, and the bartender gets a commission for every drink that’s sold, often amped up by their own promotion on TikTok and Instagram.
Aaron Polsky, founder of LiveWire Cocktails, draws on a record company business model by “licensing” drinks from bartenders, connecting them with their consumer “fan base” by bottling, canning and distributing the product, and even allowing them to choose the artist for their label, just like an album cover. Like the others, LiveWire works on the assumption that bartenders know intuitively what a good cocktail should taste like, and will promote their own drinks as such.
An Eye to the Future
No one knows better than industry folks how important quality, speed, and consistency are to bartenders with customers to please. In the current climate of labor shortages and supply chain issues many clubs, hotels, and bars are looking to RTD’s to help with facing high margins and dwindling talent.
“Finding ways to elevate on-premise,” says Macy “in places like hotels…that’s an area where I see a lot of opportunity.”
Cisneros adds, “We’re finding traction in a lot of hotels, night clubs and venues…that don’t want to delay a quick sale, but at the same time know that people are expecting more. We’ve been finding success being their cocktail program…and it’s a great way for people to try our product. [The bartenders] don’t have to learn all the different kinds of drinks. They’re just twisting it and shaking it.”
This article originally appeared on Alcohol Professor and was syndicated by MediaFeed.
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