On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss what is happening in the world of RTD and RTS cocktails. Now that large spirit companies are coming out with their own bottled and canned cocktails, what does this mean for smaller, craft brands and their products? For this Friday’s tasting, your hosts try Campari’s bottled Negroni. Tune in to learn more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And it’s the Friday “VinePair Podcast.” Hello, friends.
J: Happy Friday.
Z: Happy June.
J: Happy June.
A: The best month.
J: OK, birthday boy.
A: The best month.
Z: You and my son are in agreement on that point.
A: It’s a great month. I like July as well. I just like summer. Summer’s just great until it becomes oppressively hot. You’re like, “I hate that so much.”
J: Yeah, it’s the worst.
A: Yeah, but for the most part, I enjoy summer. So we’re going to talk today about canned and bottled cocktails, which we talked about in the past. But the reason I wanted to bring this conversation back up now is we have a battle coming to the fore. The battle is that you had first-mover advantage brands that launched five or six years ago, even two or three years ago pre-Covid. They were these brands that were like, “You know what? No one’s making bottled Aperol Spritz.” I can’t use Aperol, but I’m going to make a bottled spritz. And I’m going to call it the New York spritz or whatever. And I’m going to make it and start selling it or I’m going to create a line of cocktails and name my line something — not to call out anyone’s specific brand — but we could say maybe X, Y or Z. And I’m going to make a bottled Old Fashioned, a bottled Manhattan, a bottled Negroni, etc. And that has been successful for a lot of these brands, although only one brand that started as indie has been bought. That would be On The Rocks, which was bought by Beam Suntory. They were one of the first, if not the first, really to do this. Lots of other players are out there in the market all across the country. And now you have the big companies who are coming in and saying, “Cool, cool, cool. So y’all are doing this. But we actually have the spirits that most people know for these cocktails. And we’re going to now make these canned and bottled cocktails with our brands attached.” Whether we’re going to make a Knob Creek Old Fashioned or we’re going to make a Bombay Sapphire Gin & Tonic or a Tanqueray tonic.
J: Or an Aperol Spritz.
A: And the question now becomes, what are consumers going to be more interested in? Are they going to be more interested in the brand? And by brand, I mean this indie cocktail brand that has a bunch of different SKUs of cocktails. Are they going to say, “These people know how to make canned cocktails or bottled cocktails, so I’m going to go to them?” Or are they going to be more interested in the brand of spirit and say, “You know what? I really trust Bombay. It’s my gin of choice. I’m going to trust that their Gin & Tonic is better.” What do we think?
Z: Not to weasel out of this, but I think it really depends on the drink more than anything else.
J: But I think that answers the question, though. Because if a brand has a whole range, you only like some of them because you have a specific cocktail in mind that you would prefer to have a big name attached to.
A: Is that what you’re saying, Zach?
Z: Not exactly. For something that’s a Gin & Tonic, where you’re going to say, “I like Tanqueray and tonic,” I don’t think we actually see these as an example, in part because I think people have shied away from that kind of canned or bottled cocktail because it’s hard to do generic gin or generic tonic. I mean, it would have been interesting if Fever-Tree or something put out their own.
A: We see a lot of generic Gin & Tonics.
Z: OK, yeah.
A: Now it’s usually a brand that even maybe launches with a generic. It’s like, this is the Gin & Tonic, and then now they also happen to have a gin they’re selling. But they started as a canned Gin & Tonic brand. We’ve seen a lot of those.
Z: So I think those are the ones that are more likely to get displaced as the big spirits brands get into this space. If you’re someone whose ideal Gin & Tonic is a Tanqueray and tonic and you want a canned version, you’re going to opt for that conversion versus any other, because people are spirit loyal. When you get to cocktails that are a little bit less closely associated with a specific brand of spirit, that’s where I’m not sure. As we’ll talk about with the thing we’ll be tasting later, and tying back into our Ranch Water conversation from previously, where people might not have an established preference yet is where there might be space for some of these established brands of canned cocktails but not established spirits producers to still have success.
J: I think it’s interesting because there’s been enough time now where these canned brands or canned cocktail brands have been around for a while now. For some of the canned cocktails, it does feel like they’re lacking, like, I really wish this had this particular liquor in it. It doesn’t taste as good. It doesn’t taste quite right. So I think that’s where it will be really interesting to see if, in a Negroni, for example, the specific brands will make a difference in people choosing them.
A: It’s going to be really interesting. My gut is that it will.
J: People will opt for the spirits brand versions?
J: Think of the Aperol Spritz, for example.
A: Why are you going to buy a spritz brand if Aperol Spritz is everywhere? And also, I think the big brands will have marketing dollars behind them. Campari has a very easy campaign they could run: Drink the original. This is the original Negroni made by the spirit that is the quintessential ingredient in the original Negroni. Yes, you can make a Negroni with any bitter red liqueur or whatever, but this is where it was created. This is how it was created. And the majority of Americans will say, “Cool.” And then the ones that are in the cities will be too cool for that. We’ve been drinking at cocktail bars that haven’t been using Campari for years. Fine, maybe those people will drink something different. But I think that on the mass market, it will be the Campari Negroni. What this is going to do — this is my bold prediction — I think that in the next five years, you’re going to see a lot of these upstart RTD brands go under. I think the space is way too crowded, and I think they’re all making the same cocktails. And the only brands that will survive are the brands that have invested very heavily in branding themselves and in figuring out how they get placements where they are everywhere and they’ve become a brand.
J: Well, that’s what I was going to say. How can they even compete when you have brands like Campari or Aperol putting them in every liquor store when some of these smaller brands can’t get that distribution or placement?
A: Then it just doesn’t matter. We don’t have it in front of us to taste. But another large spirits company just came out with their version of what I would call On The Rocks. They kind of look very similar to On The Rocks, actually, but it’s called Batch & Bottle.
J: We were just talking about it.
A: So I believe it’s William Grant. And they look very similar, and it’s their own brand they’re creating with their liquids inside the brand. And again, how does another brand like that compete? The only brands I think of that can compete against this are brands that have gotten massive placement like Tip Top, which is on every Delta flight.
J: Those partnerships.
A: Those massive partnerships. Maybe someone makes a deal with Live Nation, and they can be the cocktail that’s in all of their owned concert venues and people are just naturally seeing that brand. This is where I have that intel that I tease you guys about. I had lunch with some pretty prominent VCs that invest a lot in the alcohol space. They may even be connected to a pretty prominent alcohol VC. And they told me that this is why they’re shying away from the RTD category right now, because of this. Because if you’re a brand that’s already kind of blown up, people are looking to acquire you already. You almost don’t need to have that funding. And If you haven’t blown up yet, there’s no way to tell that they’re making the right bet. Your liquid could be delicious. You can have the best liquid of anyone out there. But if you don’t have the relationships or have the ability to get on every American Airlines flight or whatever and compete against the massive alcohol companies that are already coming on to these flights with their branded spirits, it’s really hard to decide to make those investment bets now, where it wasn’t hard five years ago. Even three years ago, they were still looking at these deals. And now the deals for RTDs are not as interesting. They’re instead looking at RTD adjacent. A brand that would stand out here is a brand like Long Drink. It is a well-known cocktail in Europe, in Finland, but no one knows it in the U.S. Arguably, no one knows it in the rest of Europe, either. But they took it, brought it here, owned it, and have grown it really quickly. So they own that drink, even though that drink traditionally has gin in it. But no one knows about it here in the U.S. So they’re able to say, “No, we are Long Drink, which is why that’s something that’s investable.” Maybe there’s another cocktail that’s bigger somewhere else that someone could bring and say, “We’re going to build our brand around this.” But I think it’s going to be really hard, in the next few years, for any of these brands to continue to build their brands around generic cocktails.
J: Zach, I think you mentioned this earlier. I think the opportunity is in cocktails that don’t have specific brands associated with them. Now, I can’t think of any examples. A Sidecar, perhaps.
A: Rémy Martin could come out with a Sidecar.
J: Yes, of course.
A: Hey, we’ve put a ton of money into our Sidecar campaign and we’re a great Cognac. And Hennessy could do the same thing.
Z: There’s a big difference between a spirit that people already associate with a cocktail. Like I said, if you’re a Gin & Tonic drinker, you probably have a gin preference. If you’re a Margarita drinker, you probably have a tequila preference. That’s a hard thing to push someone away from brand loyalty. If you’re a whiskey and cola drinker, you probably have a whiskey preference. But where I think you can make inroads is with, as we have been talking about, cocktails that don’t have a super-clear spirit preference that people think of. I like a Sidecar. OK, sure. Or a Painkiller or something. People are not going to necessarily be super brand loyal there. The problem becomes, of course, now you’re starting to work on more and more obscure cocktails. OK, but how do you suddenly create a super-huge demand for one of these more esoteric cocktails? I totally get why the VCs are not interested because the space for this is always going to be kind of niche. The other thing, to come back to what we’ve been talking about, is, to what extent are big groups going to start using their heft to displace the others? I don’t know if they’re going to come after Tip Top’s placement on Delta, but there’s always a tension in these areas. It’s the same with any concession at any large-scale venue or set of venues or whatever. The big boys want all of it because that’s their M.O. And I do wonder if there’s going to remain much space except on smaller local scales. With almost everything we talk about on this podcast, in some way, the local share is going to be relatively strong for some of these brands. But if you’re trying to be a regional or national player, you have to be there now. I don’t think there’s a lot of room left.
A: Yeah, you have to be there now. One of the cocktails I think of that you could maybe still own, but it’s maybe even too late, is the Espresso Martini. Could you come out and build a canned cocktail brand or bottled brand around the Espresso Martini? I don’t know anyone who has a specific one.
J: Kahlúa did it, right?
A: But then you have Kahlúa. And then Kahlúa is like, “No, we have it. It’s not that good.
J: It doesn’t matter.
Z: It raises a question, too, with this. Those kinds of drinks are fascinating to me as canned or bottled versions because you can’t really replicate the look. If you want to head on the drink, you can’t just pour that. Unless it’s the Guinness nitro thing.
A: Like a nitro Espresso Martini.
J: That’s brilliant.
A: Three little espresso beans on the side of the can for the top of the drink.
Z: I mean, we’re not running this podcast. I am taking this idea.
J: Like the yogurt thing on top.
A: Yeah, like the yogurt on top.
Z: Yes, this is brilliant.
A: We just workshopped that for somebody. You’re welcome. But I think it’s becoming really hard. Look, we always saw this coming. It’s just that the big brands move so slowly that it takes them a while. But once they’re in the space…
J: It’s easy, then.
A: If your drink is Crown and cola, are you going to buy a random whiskey cola drink? Or are you going to buy Crown and cola? I will also say, the Tanqueray and tonics are great. I think they’re very well done. And I also happen to like Tanqueray with my Gin & Tonic. So I think those things become very, very hard to compete against. Very hard to compete against.
A: Well, do we want to try?
J: It sounds like Zach’s already trying them.
A: Zach’s ready to go. Zach, are you mixing it up?
Z: I was moving my glass.
J: It sounds like your’e opening a thermos.
A: Let’s do it. So what we have in front of us is the new Campari Negroni. It comes in a really nice 375 bottle. And it basically says to pour over ice straight from the bottle and then stir and garnish with an orange slice. Where are the orange slices?
J: So sorry. This is for Tim. Swirl it for Tim.
A: Wait, we brought one for Tim?
J: Yes, of course.
A: Can you dump your ice? I just don’t like that there’s water in it.
Z: Behind the scenes for listeners, the Kold Draft system has not been set up at VinePair HQ quite yet.
A: Tim’s building it for me.
Z: So I will say this: It definitely looks correct. It better be right.
A: In the glass, it looks like the right color. Joanna is banished from the studio. She just dumped Negroni all over my brand new pad that I just bought. It’s a felt pad and it’s artisanal. It took a while for it to come from Germany.
J: Between this and the Dirty Shirley last week, I really am destroying everything here.
A: You’re banished.
J: So sorry. We should have done a White Negroni.
A: Gosh. Ooh, those would be good. Suze could own that. But anyway, it is the right color. The thing that people have said to me who own the smaller canned cocktail/bottled cocktail brands is that they thought that the brands haven’t gotten right is the proof. But this actually is 26 percent alcohol, so 52 proof. The brands that say they do it well have it as their proof. So they did not lower the proof. Let’s take aroma first. It smells like a Negroni.
J: Because a Negroni is a Campari drink, not a gin drink.
A: It is a Campari drink.
Z: I would say this is a perfectly acceptable Negroni.
A: There’s something about it that I can’t put my finger on that I don’t like about it.
Z: Do you want my take? It doesn’t have enough gin.
J: It doesn’t have enough gin.
A: Yeah, it’s too much vermouth.
J: It’s sweet at the end.
A: Too much vermouth and Campari. But it’s a perfectly fine Negroni. This goes back to our Monday episode. If you gave me this at a family restaurant, I would totally drink it and I’m fine paying $12, $13 bucks for it. This is a perfectly good thing.
Z: That’s one of the main target audiences for this. Again, they’re putting it in a bottle, so they’re not intending it necessarily for some of the same uses that a canned version would be, although maybe they’ll also be putting it in cans eventually. As we talked about a while back with RTSs in general, the absolute optimum placement for this is everything from T.G.I. Friday’s up to your neighborhood joints. We have a bottle of this on hand, someone orders a Negroni, perfect. Pour 3 ounces of it into a glass with ice and hand it to them. You can knock out a Negroni in 9 seconds. And I think that’s a big selling point.
A: You’re right, it doesn’t have enough gin character in it. But besides that, you would buy this to have a dinner party. Start with a round of Negronis, and you don’t have to worry about mixing them up before people come over, pour them in the glass, and then go on to your wine or whatever.
J: It’s fine.
J: I feel like we felt the same way with the bottled Aperol Spritzes that we tried earlier in the year. They were fine. But I get it. I get that people want that brand name to go along with that drink. And it’s easy.
A: And it’s easy. It literally says on the back: Campari bitter 33.3 percent. Vermouth Rosso 33.3 percent. London Dry Gin 33.3 percent, .1 percent — God’s tears. No, just kidding. They don’t say, I don’t understand. So where’s the .1 percent? It’s missing.
Z: That’s what we’re missing in the drink, apparently.
A: Water? They also made a very classic equal-parts Negroni, which some people don’t like. Some people like a Negroni with a little less vermouth or with a little more gin. Perhaps there are flavor preferences. It is a very run-of-the-mill Negroni. This is the kind of Negroni that I would not be mad at if I got this at an airport or when going to a casual restaurant. I wouldn’t be mad at this if most of my friends who had me over made this. It’s a fine Negroni. Curious what the host of “Cocktail College” thinks. He’s sitting here engineering for Keith’s absence, and he’s just making faces at him. What do you think of this Negroni, Tim?
Tim McKirdy: This may surprise you here, but my take on the Negroni is that I think that the difference between a bad Negroni and a good Negroni is so small.
J: Do you like a Negroni?
T: I think it’s fine.
J: His baseline is that he doesn’t love the cocktail.
T: I think it’s a massively overrated cocktail. I think it’s good. But I don’t think it’s a cocktail you can enjoy a lot of nuance in. What do I think of this? I think this is good. This is a fine Negroni. Again, I can’t think of many other Negronis I’ve had in my life where I’ve been like, “Oh, my God, that was an amazing Negroni.” Do you know what I mean? And I think the reason that this Negroni is not very good, as you guys mentioned, is because Gruppo Campari does a lot of things very well. Gin is not one of them. It doesn’t take a lot of Googling to work out what gin they’re using in this. And I cannot find a bartender in the world that’s going, “This is the one.”
A: “This gin is my favorite gin.”
T: “This is my Negroni gin.”
J: But I agree that it was a smart move for them.
A: This is very smart. It’s totally fine. I would tell a lot of people to buy this. If you want to have Negronis at your dinner party or in the evening, I would gladly have this at the house and be able to have one once in a while. I actually find some of the craft ones I’ve had to not be as good as this. They are way too aggressive with the bitterness or even more aggressive with the gin. This is pretty good. And I think Tim’s right.
T: Because they’re trying to have an identity. And as Joanna rightly pointed out, the Negroni is a Campari cocktail. If you’re using anything other than Campari, it’s not the same drink. And again, there is a reason why all the bartenders you speak to say that they drink Negronis at dive bars. Because it’s so dependable. That goes back to, OK, why aren’t you ordering a Martini there? Because a bad Martini really f*cking sucks. And a great one is amazing. A Negroni is really safe, which is good. But again, I struggle to get excited about Negronis.
A: Well, thank you for your thoughts, Tim. This is now out in the market. So if you pick it up and give it a whirl, shoot us an email at email@example.com and let us know what you think. Also, if you have craft canned or bottled RTD brands that you like, shoot us an email and let us know what they are. Let’s try them out. We love checking all of those new emerging brands out when we can. Joanna and Zach, I’ll talk to you on Monday.
J: Have a great weekend.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.