Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Nick Gillett: Don’t listen to the snobs – RTDs have a lot to offer

Published:  21 November, 2022

You’ll not find many in the spirits industry praising the rise from the grave of the humble RTD – and to those who are disparaging of ready to drink products, I say, get over yourself.

My love affair with the Ready to Drink category started with a misspent youth – great days and nights spent as a student sipping Woody’s Grapefruit or Smirnoff Ice. Yes, I’ll admit I was sad to see them go out of fashion. But miraculously, the past few years have seen a resurrection in the category – one which I can wholeheartedly support.

The clever folks over at Statista calculated that between 2015 and 2020, RTD sales in the UK almost doubled, rising to a healthy £412 million. What’s more, IRI data for the year ending April 2022 shows that sales of RTD cocktails in the convenience sector grew by a staggering 27.5% YOY.

Now, we don’t have tailgate parties in the UK, like they do in America and Australia, nor the free and festive licensing permissions that allow liberal get togethers where RTDs and seltzers really thrive. But still, this category is growing to a size at which it can no longer be ignored.

A changing demographic

Long gone are the days of RTDs being the tipple of choice for a restricted demographic. Yes, I’m talking about older teens and twenty-somethings up the park or other equally as conspicuous places. Partially thanks to the gin boom and the pandemic, the audience for these drinks has diversified. It’s not just fresh-faced youths with unrefined palates, but also more sophisticated drinkers and those looking for convenient, but delicious, alcoholic beverages.

As a result, the fascinating evolution of the category has begun. Combos born from brand partnerships have popped up left, right and centre (Jack Daniels and Coke as an example). From there, the category moved on from just spirits and mixers to include cocktails, and all of a sudden, the RTD profile had so much more to offer than just ‘sweet, colourful, and simple’.

As the move from classless cans in the park to posh picnics in the park came about, we saw new ranges launched by the stalwart retailers of the middle classes. Marks & Spencer and Harvey Nichols for example, launched their own RTD ranges – the majority of which, I have to say, are exceptionally good quality and value for money. But this in turn spurred on newer, infant brands to take to the can and experiment by themselves, and not all the results were good.

If there’s so much as a category criticism to come in this particular piece, that would be it. Right now, RTDs don’t quite know what they are or where they’re going. The category is so diverse, so abundant, that there’s a fair bit of refining to do. And if you’re a consumer, you’re going to need to drink your way around the category to filter out the finery from the fluff.

A question of quality

Which leads us on nicely to the question of quality. Let’s step away from spirit and mixer combos and focus on cocktails.

Let’s say your cocktail of choice is a negroni and it’s your go to order every time you’re in a bar sophisticated enough to have it on the menu. Pick up two ready to drink Negronis, made by two different brands, and there’s a fair chance you have two completely different beverages, with few similarities between them; and the chance that either of these are as good as what’s on offer in your local watering hole is slim.

The reality is that not all RTDs are made equal. There’s some real quality craftsmanship being carried out by a few brands, but for every master of their craft, there are 10 companies canning up 5% abv ‘cocktails’ that I would argue shouldn’t be labelled a cocktail at all. Filled with sweeteners, preservatives and other unnecessary additives, these counterfeit cocktails risk falling onto the tastebuds of a discerning palate and damaging the reputation of the category altogether. In fact, I’d say it’s probably why we have so many in the industry who are loathe to compliment RTD as a dynamic category.

So, how do you separate out the quality products from the sub-standard dupes? First of all, look at the abv. If it’s between 10% and 15%, it’s a good sign. Second, look at the price point. Quality RTD cocktails aren’t going to come cheap.

An industry solution

Pre-mixed quality cocktails aren’t just an exciting prospect for the consumer. I foresee RTDs bringing a potentially transformative solution to the on-trade, too. We’re facing a crisis when it comes to talent in the hospitality industry. It’s an industry plagued by understaffing, recruitment issues, and an ever-decreasing talent pool, which makes delivering great service and quality products, even harder.

RTDs however, have already made their way into venues. Pre-mixed and packaged concoctions are springing up in popular establishments nationwide, including high-street names like Wetherspoons and Brewdog. The best part? These ready to drink cocktails are unexpectedly stunning. They offer truly quality drinks, at the right abv, with just the right amount of sweetness and complexity.

Not only is it a solution that fits in perfectly with the speed, service, and consistent quality offered by these venues, but it also allows complex drinks to be served up by someone who only needs to shake the contents over ice and pour. Simple, efficient, delicious, and quite frankly genius in my opinion.

What’s the conclusion, then? Once again, if you’re snobbish about RTD as a category, I say, get over yourself. There’s heaps of exciting stuff going on, here. It’s dynamic, intelligent, creative. For an example of someone doing it well, check out Empirical for some serious inspiration.

Second of all, if you’re new to the category, tread carefully. There are some really poor products out there. Walk past the low price points, the low abv, dig a little, inform yourself and you are bound to find a gem.

Once you’ve found that elusive favourite, you’re rewarded with complexity, creativity and convenience – all consumable at a time and place that suits you (within legal reason, obviously).