On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Joanna Sciarrino and Zach Geballe question whether or not the drinks industry is going too far with creative innovations and trends. Spurred by a pair of viral videos, the two discuss why, at this exact moment, these innovations are resonating with drinkers and brands alike. Tune in for more.
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Joanna Sciarrino: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
J: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Listeners, we are missing our third this week, Mr. Teeter.
Z: First in our hearts.
J: First in our hearts, yes. But he’ll be back soon enough. He is gallivanting around Italy right now, so let’s not feel too bad for him.
Z: Yeah. You can follow him on Instagram if you want the deets.
J: Yes. You should follow him on Instagram.
Z: Probably. He could follow us too.
J: Pretty good stories there. Yeah, follow us too. So Zach, what have you been drinking lately?
Z: So the inspiration for my drinking lately has been me buying a sh*t load of limes and then being like, “Oh, I have to do something with them.” I have this problem with citrus. And I think limes in particular where I buy a lot of them when they’re on sale near me. And then I’m like, “Oh yeah, I guess you kind of have to use them or lose them.” And the good news is that many of my favorite cocktails incorporate lime juice. So I’m not suffering from my decision exactly. I think the two drinks that I’ve been making the most often are, I’ve made a couple of Last Words, which I’ve talked about on the podcast before, definitely one of my favorite drinks, but really, and truly the thing I’ve been making a lot of is Daiquiris. And Adam has of course expressed his love for the Daiquiri, which I think probably you and I share, but a thing that I found in this last week where I’ve probably made five or six of them in total, is that honestly, and truly, I really love the very classic 1:2:3 formulation. And I’ve tried playing around with it, because that’s the thing you do when you have a sh*t load of limes. And to me, it’s like, it’s been this great reminder that the drink is really at its best, at least in my personal opinion, when you don’t mess around with it much. And so that’s for me, a half-ounce of simple syrup, an ounce of lime juice, and an ounce and a half of white rum. And my go-to because I think it’s so expressive and really delicious is a bottle of Clarin. That’s a Haitian rum.
J: Oh, I don’t know that one.
Z: Yeah. It’s really wild. So Clarin is this kind of fascinating category of rum that I won’t go too deep into. I wrote a piece a while back about Clarin as a spirit that, because of Haiti’s relatively distinct history in the Caribbean as an independent nation for several hundred years, its distilling history is much less developed. There aren’t many major distilleries in Haiti, despite obviously growing a lot of sugar cane. What’s really cool about it is instead you have all these very small scale distilleries, which are in some cases really just kind of a still, not much else. And people working with many different varieties of sugar cane, some of which are only still grown in Haiti because again, because it was an independent country and wasn’t as sort of heavily industrialized as much of the rest of the Caribbean, you don’t have a kind of monoculture. I mean, you have a lot of sugar cane, but you have a lot of different strands and varieties of sugar cane. And that and the topographical and geographical and climatic differences throughout the portion of the island that Haiti occupies leads to some different expressions. So that’s a lot. Clarin is super interesting. There’s not a lot of it available in the States. As far as I know, there’s maybe only one importer that’s working with it at the moment, but they bring in a few different bottlings. And this is the Vaval, which is the extent of what I remember of the bottle is the name, but from one of these small distilleries, that again, it’s essentially just one person, from what I gather, doing the distilling. And so it sort of sits somewhere flavor-wise between rhum agricole being made from sugar cane juice as opposed to molasses or anything like that. But it also has a sort of wildness and expressiveness that is reminiscent of mezcal, even if it’s not exactly the same. Obviously, the distillate is totally different, but there is a sensibility to it that reminds me and others, too, of mezcal. So that’s been kind of my favorite drink of the last week. How about you, Joanna?
J: Wow, that sounds really interesting. I’m really curious to try that now.
Z: I feel like Tim might have a lead on some Clarin. It’s available in New York, so maybe you can get him to make you one.
J: Yeah, maybe we can get some. Yeah, so for me, what I’ve most notably had in the last week, had a few beers. Evan and I went to a local beer shop called Beer Witch in Brooklyn, and they have a really nice selection kind of organized by type of beer and flavor profile. And we got a few different sour beers and other types of beers, but a few that really stood out to me, one was the Ritterguts Gose. It’s called Bärentöter Sour Gose Bock. And I guess Ritterguts was like the original gose. And I like goses for the most part. This one was really delicious and really rich and a little less… I feel like sours these days, we’ve talked about this before, are just so acidic and really catch me in the throat. But this was really delicious. We also had a Flanders red ale from Brouwerij Verhaeghe. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly. I hope I am.
Z: We won’t check your Flemish.
J: Yeah, please don’t. Please don’t. It is called Duchesse de Bourgogne. That was really delicious. And then one last interesting one that we had was a lemon-lime lager from Modest Brewing Co. in Minneapolis, which tasted very limey, but didn’t have that sourness that you would get from a sour beer.
J: Yeah. So those were really interesting. We went there. I was looking for something specifically that they had run out of, but we got a bunch of different bottles and that was fun to try all those or a bunch of them over the weekend. We still have a few left. But yeah, that’s what I’ve been drinking lately.
Z: I have a question that this prompted, which is not related to our topic, but it just made me curious. So I feel like one thing that has maybe declined in prominence in the drinks world over the last decade or so has been these kinds of beer bottle shops. And not that they are all gone, but I feel like there was a period in time maybe almost two decades ago now, when I was first getting into drinking and into beer, and bottle shops were really the only place you could go discover new beers, especially if they were imports or from outside of your region or whatever. And there were so many fewer breweries in Seattle in the first place that you just didn’t have this kind of profusion of taprooms and places for people to go drink. And so people who were into beer, yeah, they went to some breweries, but there were the beer bars and the bottle shops. And they were the hub of the beer community. And I am going to plead some ignorance here. Listeners, if I’m wrong, please correct me. But I do feel like, with some exceptions, a lot of those kinds of places have, if not disappeared, I think have sort of diminished in their centrality to the beer conversation. And I’m not sure why, other than maybe it’s just the proliferation of taprooms that have kind of soaked up a lot of that business, frankly, because people like going to breweries and drinking beer at them as well. And maybe also some kind of amorphous, the internet/social media has also kind of provided another way for people to learn about and discover beers in a way that they had to go in person before. I don’t know. Does that ring true at all?
J: I think yeah, I agree with that. I also think that from my perspective, we’re now also able to find a lot of beers and craft beers, at least regionally, in places like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. And I think that’s also kind of changed the need to have a bottle shop like these for discovery too.
Z: Yeah, that’s probably true too, but…
J: Because the Whole Foods in New York City especially has a very robust — I mean, they have a really big, hard seltzer section these days, but I feel like they have a pretty big craft beer selection too. I mean, I love going to these shops and Top Hops was one of them on the Lower East Side. And they closed up fairly recently, but then reopened in a marketplace. So to your point, not going away fully, but kind of downsizing and finding other places for themselves. I hope they don’t go away completely, though, because I think they’re really cool places to visit.
Z: Yeah. And maybe the only way you could have had the experience you guys had the other day where you went in looking for one thing and walked away with a bunch of other things and hopefully mostly enjoyed them. Because that’s hard to do in a grocery store.
J: Yes, exactly. I mean the staff was extremely helpful too and they were like, “This is really good. Oh, get this one instead.” So that was really nice.
J: Okay. So jumping into today’s topic. I approached Zach with this idea earlier based on a few things that we’ve noticed recently.
Z: I mean you really approached me with this topic based on a viral video.
J: A very specific thing. Yes.
Z: That is amazing and horrible all in one.
J: Okay. The video in question is a Yankee fan piercing a hole through a hot dog to fashion a straw for his beer. So what I wanted to talk about.
Z: That is technically correct, but I feel like it does not do this video justice.
J: Is there a better way to put it?
Z: No, no. I think no one needs to play by play. They can go watch it. It’s not very long. But there’s a lot of subtext that Joanna is flattening, necessarily, to get us into this topic.
J: So what I wanted to discuss was, well, should there be a limit to ingenuity in the drink space, but what we want to talk about is, this is a very small example of it. And we’re certainly seeing it in a realer way in just doing what we do here at VinePair and the types of products that come across our desks on a regular basis. But why are we seeing this type of innovation in the drink space right now?
Z: Okay. So I have three interrelated theories that I’m going to pitch at you, Joanna, and you tell me if you buy any of them. And if you don’t, that’s okay. So the first one I have is hard seltzer is to blame or at least is a big factor here. I think now looking back, we all kind of take hard seltzer’s presence, as you just mentioned previously, it’s a very large shelf space share at a place like Whole Foods. Here in the latter half of 2022, we’re like “Yeah, of course.” But five years ago, that notion was absolutely unfathomable to people, I think. And when you look at something that is both extremely simple, it existed five years ago, but as a tiny fraction of what it is now. And if you were to tell people then this category, which was essentially invented out of nothing, is going to become a major category of beverage alcohol in a very short period of time, I think that would’ve been hard to fathom. And the success of hard seltzer has led everyone to both get into the hard seltzer category, but also to say, “Well, what is the thing that can be the next hard seltzer?” And so that’s everything from very, very adjacent products like a lot of RTDs and canned cocktails that saw the convenience and the packaging of hard seltzer as a big part of its selling point. I think it’s also some of the flavor-forward, relatively simple kind of appeal of especially the early hard seltzer brands. White Claw was mostly rolling out pretty straightforward flavors. And I think we’ve talked about it on the pod before, there’s no denying that part of its appeal and part of its success was that there were no tasting notes. You got it from the jump. And I think the third piece is this sort of idea of, “Okay, well, can we look at something that’s already popular, seltzer, add booze to it, and make a thing that will also be popular?” And I think this explains hard soda, God help us, hard milk. I don’t know what else is coming down. The hard lemonade and all these, I mean obviously, hard lemonade…
J: Hard coconut water.
Z: Yeah. Hard coconut water, exactly. Right. Basically, could you put booze in it and was it already something that people bought? Sure. And obviously again, some of these things predate seltzer, but their viability in the marketplace seems more plausible now. Okay. What do you think of this theory, Joanna?
J: I was thinking about this myself, I thought immediately about hard seltzer and how that happened. It was an experiment back then. People were reluctant to take it seriously. And then it took off in a very real way. So I totally understand people wanting to replicate that in their own way with something else. And I do think we’ve seen it with hard kombucha maybe to a lesser extent, but we’ve certainly seen that model work in a similar way.
Z: For sure. And I think that to elaborate on this really quickly, and then I’ll get into my second theory, I also think that it’s also, we hit this point a couple years ago where it went from relatively small or at least not major companies that were putting out hard seltzers into all of the biggest beverage companies have one, or more often, many different lines of hard seltzers and adjacent things. Then not only do you have that bandwagoning effect for these brands or for these companies, but then you also have their whole R&D departments that are like again, well let’s not get caught flat-footed because they were and are still really playing catch up to White Claw, to Truly. And I think that’s also what drives. I’m pretty sure it’s VinePair contributor, Dave Infante, who’s talked about this before, that there’s a sort of cycle of innovation and stagnation in beverage alcohol and at the biggest companies where, by their very nature, they tend to enter periods of homeostasis where they don’t really do much differently because they’re just kind of making the money. And then something changes, and that change could be a competitor, it could be a new product, it could be changes in the global economic landscape, whatever happens, a pandemic, say, and suddenly they enter this flurry of development and new products and all that. And then they, again, settle down. And I think we just have been living through this sort of period of hyperactivity at that level of the market as well that’s again driven not just some of these specific products, but also again, if you’re someone who’s an entrepreneur type, you might be looking to catch the eye of some of these big companies. So you’re going to start a brand with the goal of selling it — again, something we’ve talked about on the podcast before. And so I think that we just have been living through this period over the last couple years where that has really been going on.
J: And also with those bigger companies, too, it’s figuring out when exactly that moment is to put resources behind that kind of R&D. And I think we were talking about it in the context of the rum and Coke or a canned soda alcohol.
Z: Okay. So here’s theory number two: It’s all social media’s fault.
Z: And so to me, this is partly connected to hard seltzer, but what it’s really connected to is I think one of these fascinating trends that we’ve seen throughout the drinks world, and it has a lot of different sort of tentacles as these things tend to, but it’s really been the role of Instagram and TikTok in particular, I think, at driving drinks culture. On the Instagram side, I think we’ve talked a lot about it, about how cocktail bars are designing their drinks to look good on Instagram and less perhaps concerned about how they taste or certainly the decor to the bar itself. There are these spaces that have been created that are essentially designed for you to post on Instagram and who cares what else is going on? They look cool in that format. And I think more than anything on TikTok, you’re seeing this whole second — it feels like a second wave. I’m not really active on TikTok. So I’m probably wrong on this. Again, [email protected]. Tell me I’m a moron, but some of the initial waves of cocktails on TikTok in particular were about the pandemic — let’s make a drink. You don’t know how to make a, I don’t know, an Old Fashioned or you don’t know how to make a Daiquiri or whatever. I’m going to show you. I, a bartender, am going to show you. Now I think a lot of what you’re seeing bubble up are the drinks version of, I don’t know what you would call… There’s probably a term for them. Joanna, you might know. But there’s been this couple-years-long trend of these food videos that are essentially horrific to watch. They’re like 8 million steps of the grossest ingredients or the most incongruous ingredients combined.
J: Like gummy bears and soda.
Z: Yeah. They’re wrapping things in one thing and then baking it. There’s just this… Again, there’s probably a term for these. I am terminally too old to know, but I have started seeing these in the drink space. There was one that crossed my feed the other day that was basically someone making what they claimed was, I guess, some kind of skinny Margarita where they used a coffee maker and put Starbursts in the filter and boiled their tequila. And the whole thing was just astonishingly horrific and misguided. But again, this thing has hundreds of thousands or probably by now millions of views. And I think, again, we’re in this space where on TikTok in particular, the key to becoming a viral hit is doing weird, compelling sh*t that makes people respond, and if they respond negatively, that’s almost better I think for engagement. I mean, this is not unique to TikTok, of course, but I think the video format sort of necessarily lends itself to people having to do weird sh*t. You just can’t go viral anymore making a classic cocktail, I don’t think. Unless you’re already famous, no one really gives a sh*t about a bartender’s recipe for a Manhattan. It’s just a thing that people can go look up, there’s YouTube tutorials. But if you’re doing a Manhattan, and you’re shaking it in a bowling ball or something, that’s an idea someone could take if you want. I don’t know. That’s going to get attention. And I think that’s always been sort of true. Gimmickry has always been a part of the bar industry and the drinks industry, but TikTok in particular brings it into everyone’s face all the time and I think heightens the importance of gimmickry.
J: Yeah, I’m also not big on TikTok myself, but I think…
Z: We needed Adam for this one. I’m sure that’s all he’s doing on his Italian vacation is f*cking scrolling TikTok.
J: Yeah. But I think we kind of went through that initial phase of bartender flare doing really well on TikTok. And then the pandemic hit, and it was the basic bartending skills 101 and cocktails 101. And now, yeah, to your point, we’re at this gimmickry that people just love to watch. So I agree with the social media idea, but I also think that media and publications also contribute to this because the things that we see on social media that are going viral, we then decide we want to cover them for our own readership. Like, “You should know about this hot dog straw.”
Z: I was going to say, does VinePair have a list of the best beers to drink through a hot dog coming?
J: Not yet. But…
Z: Okay. If you see your folks, I came up with this idea.
J: But can’t you see some brand, oh, Sabrett or something launching a special-edition collaboration hot dog straw next summer or this fall or something for tailgating season? And my goodness, we would probably be the first ones to cover that. So I think something like that, but also we’ve talked about the Dirty Shirley in the past too. And so I think we have to take some responsibility as a publisher in why these types of trends proliferate, arguably, to the extent that they do.
Z: Yeah. But I also think that there’s in there, and I don’t want to be too navel-gazey here because I think that’s kind of a little boring, but I think there is this very difficult thing to grapple with in this modern landscape of media and social media and in trying to be attuned to the fact that for our listeners, for our readers, inevitably, what they are seeing on TikTok, on Instagram is very relevant to their life. It might not be relevant to their life for long. A lot of the things that are trends, I think, come and go very quickly. They’re not as long-lived as trends that exist in, for lack of a better way to put it, the real world, but they are still relevant. And I think that there are ways in which just for those of you who also are not following VinePair on Instagram, the VinePair Instagram feed has a lot of memes and stuff like that. And that’s what Instagram is good for and what I think the VinePair Instagram account should really be doing. And it’s not like here’s kind of very serious photos. I mean, there’s some of that too, of course, but the company has multiple platforms, and they serve slightly different purposes. And so I think it is not invalid to say here’s a thing that’s big on TikTok because big on TikTok is big to people. It’s not an irrelevant thing. And again, it’s hard to know what of these kinds of viral TikTok videos what in there might make its way onto drinks list or into the sort more broad drinks culture, but as we talked about not long ago, Empress Gin, I think, is one great example of where a lot of their success has been driven by the fact that it doesn’t just photograph well; in fact, I mean it photographs fine, but it’s a colored drink. That’s no different than most other things that you see on Instagram, but it’s really in the video format where you watch the color change that people go, “Oh sh*t, I want to buy that.” And so that’s obviously a very specific example, but I think it would be, in some sense, irresponsible of us to not be aware of these trends. Now, is someone making Margaritas in their coffee maker going to be a thing that goes beyond this? Probably not, but you never know.
J: You never know. And I think it’s really up to who deems it so, or who makes it so. Something else just to mention before you get to your last one in the context of this point. Evan and I were discussing the hot dog straw last night, and he mentioned that he thinks it was a whole setup. And that it was done so the person capturing it could have this moment. And while I don’t think that’s necessarily true — this man genuinely seemed to want his hot dog straw to enjoy his beer — it does make me think of what you said earlier before we started recording about this, throwing anything against the wall and seeing what sticks, and how we’re in that moment right now, with the Margarita through the coffee maker thing as well.
Z: Okay. So this actually ties perfectly into my last theory, which is that, okay, the pandemic broke everyone’s brain. Basically, we are in this weird quasi-post-Covid landscape. I am not saying this only because it might be an issue in my family at the moment, but we are in this weird, two-and-a-half years on, space where for a lot of people, life has returned to something like what it was pre-pandemic, and that people are in offices. Some people are going on vacations. And again, this is depending on where you live and your own personal risk tolerance and stuff like that. That may have been the case for the last two years or maybe the case for the last six months, or it may not be the case for you. Everyone has a sort of different level of risk tolerance and where they live can have a lot to do with that, etc. But I think the point I’m making is that these periods of upheaval, as I was describing with this sort of major beverage companies, do tend to be times when, because everything is so unsettled, you see many, many, many ideas being thrown out there because no one has a good grasp of what a year from now will look like. And we have just been living through this incredibly tumultuous time, not just the pandemic, although that’s obviously a huge part of it, but the direct effects of that to the economy, to the specific drinks economy, political instability in this country, you have just a lot going on. And you have individual people who are, I think, really struggling to find equilibrium in a certain way. I mean, maybe not in a broader sense. I mean, again, not really the purview of this podcast, but even specifically with their relationship to drinking and what they want out of it. And I think this is something we talked about on the Friday episode with high-ABV beers. I know this coming Friday’s episode will sort of touch on this in a way too. And I think it’s going to be a theme that we come back to because it’s so pronounced in drinks right now. But people are really unsure of what they want. Do they want drinking to be something they do socially with friends and family and in a kind of convivial atmosphere? Is it something that they do at home alone because they just need a drink to get through the day? Are they looking for a drink that is an effective means to intoxication, but is very low-calorie otherwise? Are they looking for something that’s super flavorful and sort of sensuous and they don’t give a sh*t about whether it’s 400 calories? We are in this very topsy-turvy period of time. And it does not surprise me that no one can get a handle on what is going to be big next because it’s very hard to know what two months from now is going to look like.
J: Yeah. And I think we’ve also talked about that now, more than ever before, there is so much choice and consumer choice and so much available on the market that you can, depending on your mood, get whatever you want at that moment. It’s an overload. I think this is really interesting, just like you said in the context of the past two and a half years, how we’ve seen so many new brands launch in that period of time, too. And we saw it most predominantly with the canned cocktail space and category. So many of these brands and these RTD brands seeing the success of others, getting companies off of the ground in a very short period of time. And we don’t know what will happen with them in the next couple of years.
Z: Exactly. Well, and I think that’s the really hard part about operating in this space. Makes me glad to be reporting on it and not trying to launch a business in it.
J: Do it, yeah.
Z: Because facts on the ground change so quickly. And I think maybe at some point, maybe for the third anniversary in March of next year, we should really take some time and look back at just the various stages of the evolution of what seemed most pressing and vital in the drinks industry throughout this trajectory, because it really has changed. I mean, again, we’ve got the podcast archives, you can go back and listen. I stand by pretty much everything I’ve said. Some of it was maybe a little bit more time-limited than I imagined at the time. Again, living through crazy times means you’re not always going to understand the long view very well, but I don’t think I, or we, are alone in that. But it is really interesting to me to think about how things that seemed so critical in certain ways or things that seemed impossible in other ways now no longer seem important at all, or are totally doable. And think about to-go cocktails from bars. You think about Zoom wine tastings and all these various things. The various phases that this industry went through, has gone through, over the last two and a half years and continues to go through as we continue to grapple with what the current landscape looks like and what it will look like moving forward. It’s definitely shaky ground, but there’s possibility in there as well as some abject terror.
J: Yeah. So let me ask you then, Zach, should there be a limit to ingenuity in the drink space?
Z: So I’m going to crib from biology here, and I am not a biologist. So please also, if we have some biologists out there listening, [email protected], tell me I’m wrong. I’m going to get a lot of corrections, I’m sure. But basically I think there is this notion in evolutionary biology that in periods of great sort of turmoil, whether that’s ecological or climactic or whatever, species with a lot of diversity, genetic diversity within them, tend to survive better.
J: Oh, survival of the fittest.
Z: Well, but especially when the fittest part is really, you have to be very specialized. And I think that is what we are seeing. So in some sense, while there are some very cringeworthy elements to this level of ingenuity, I guess. If you can call using your hot dog as a straw “ingenuity,” I guess it is. I mean, I think they also just gave you a straw, but whatever. As much as some of it might be cringeworthy or unappealing to you or I or to most, I actually think that the vitality of the drinks industry is better maintained when there is an attitude of let’s try sh*t and see what happens than with an attitude of like, we already know how to do this, because it’s those kinds of industries that are brittle, and when subject to strain, especially on unexpected lines of stress, now we’re getting into engineering. Sorry, I’m all over the place today. That’s when they break apart. And so I think that there is actually real value in people continuing to innovate and try different stuff. And even if it seems weird or ill-fated and much of it probably is, there’s benefit in there because you never know what’s going to be the category, the product, the approach, whatever, that moves things forward. What about you, Joanna?
J: Yeah. I mean, I agree. I think that, like you said, even if we don’t go for things ourselves or if they ultimately don’t stick or move forward, it’s what inspires interest. And like you said, there are some categories that are far behind. We obviously work on them ourselves, and it’s hard to watch them struggle with reaching a new generation because of that lack of innovation or resistance to change. So I think overall, we should have more hot dog straws.
Z: You heard it here first, folks.
J: I think this was a nice chat, Zach. And I look forward to chatting with you on Friday. And then of course, Adam’s eventual return, but tune in then folks. And we’ll talk to you Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast, the flagship podcast of the VinePair Podcast Network. If you love listening to this show, or even if you don’t, but I really hope that you do, as much as we really do love making it, then please drop us a review or a rating wherever it is that you get your podcast, whether that be iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, anywhere. If you are listening to this on a device right now, through an app, however you got this audio, please drop a review. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
And now for some totally awesome credits. So the VinePair Podcast is recorded in our New York City headquarters, and in Seattle, Wash., in Zach Geballe’s basement. It is recorded by Zach, mastered and produced by Zach. He loves all the credit. Keep giving it to him. Drop his name in the reviews. He’s going to love hearing how much you love him. It is also recorded in New York City by our tastings director, Keith Beavers, who is the managing director of the entire VinePair Podcast Network.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.