In Atlanta, sometimes it’s hard to tell if we’re early or late to consumer trends, especially when it comes to booze. Honestly, anyone who here in Georgia before 2004 that was looking for a craft beer or a grocery store that sold beer, wine or liquor on Sunday can tell you we tend to run a little behind.
That said, we’re catching up quickly, at least when it comes to canned cocktails. Canned, or “RTD” (ready-to-drink) adult beverages are on the rise, even with lots of folks spending more time at home.
Maybe the absence of music festivals kept you from noticing the trend. After all, one of Atlanta’s biggest canned cocktail brands was launched by two natives who saw the possibilities through their own involvement in two of the most well-known live music events in America.
Neal Cohen is co-founder of Tip Top Proper Cocktails, which he launched in summer 2018 with childhood friend and business partner Yoni Reisman, both of whom attended Greenfield Hebrew Academy in the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs.
The lifelong music fest fans also attended the first Bonnaroo together, after finishing high school. Cohen says it was that 2002 festival that made them realize putting on those kinds of shows was what they wanted to do with their lives.
Reisman ended up co-founding the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York, while Cohen went on to work as marketing director for Superfly, the company that puts on Bonnaroo.
Both of them were noticing a trend in terms of concessions: Folks could not get a really good drink at a music fest.
“People want a good cocktail,” Cohen said in a telephone interview with The Churn, “and high volume spaces like music festivals do not allow for careful preparation, whether that’s speed, efficiency, or training of staff.
“We looked at the cocktail space and said, ‘You know, there’s a lot of shit coming out, but if you were just looking for an honest, straightforward version of the cocktail you love at the bar, you’d be hard-pressed to find a good offering.”
Tip Top differentiates itself by being based on the classics, such as the old fashioned, the Manhattan, and the negroni, according to Cohen. “We chose cocktails that had always been in demand, repackaged them, and made them on-demand,” he says.
“It doesn’t take a lot of market research to know that the old fashioned Manhattan, and negroni are popular drinks that people want. It’s pretty easy to deduce from that, ‘Hey, let’s build a brand that promises that familiarity in a consistent and convenient fashion.’”
Andrew Rodbell is the co-founder of Post Meridiem Spirits, another ATL-based RTD cocktail brand. A third-generation Atlantan, with an MBA from Emory and career experiences that include Turner and Coca-Cola, Rodbell says one of the largest challenges to the growing industry sector is convincing consumers that something delicious and authentic can come from can, but once consumers get it, they get it.
“Historically, the canned cocktail category has been filled with engineered, artificial and poorly proportioned drinks that frankly tasted bad. That’s why we’re so excited to disrupt this category by using real ingredients in the right proportions.”
Like Tip Top, Post Meridiem comes in 100mL cans, which helps both Atlanta brands secure coveted display space in liquor store shelves. Their smaller size makes them ideal for POS (point-of-sale) designation, making them impulse buys.
And since launching in Atlanta in May 2019 they’ve been flying off shelves, according to Robdell. “We were fortunate to have immediate success locally and are excited to have expanded to South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee, with future expansion throughout the Southeast in the works.
“We are thrilled the ready-to-drink category is growing at such a rapid pace,” he continues. “We are even more thrilled to be truly differentiated in this skyrocketing category by using real ingredients.”
Rather than sticking mainly to stirred cocktails like Tip Top (whose recipes come from Miles Macquarrie, partner of Decatur’s 5x-James-Beard-Award-nominated restaurant/bar Kimball House), the majority of Post Meridiem’s cocktails — they’ve got a margarita, a vodka gimlet, a mai tai and a Hemingway daiquiri are made with real lime juice. That means they’re meant to be shaken before consumed.
Both companies also smartly include the ingredients for each cocktail right on the can, letting consumers know exactly what they’re drinking, and perhaps learn just how badly they’ve been tricked by chain restaurants serving old fashioneds mixed with cherry syrup and Sprite.
“Formerly if you wanted a good Manhattan, you would need to seek out a fancy bar and be willing to spend $15 just to find out what a Manhattan is. Or you would need to go do your research on the recipe, go to the liquor store and buy at least three bottles of product, then try to mix and pour it for yourself,” Cohen says of Tip Top’s customer convenience play.
“And, you know, in the end, that’s a pricey experiment. Here, for less than $5, you have a chance to understand what this cocktail is all about.”
Whatever it is that’s making people so thirsty for canned cocktails, it’s adding up to real liquidity. A June 2020 Forbes story quoted data from Nielsen to report that RTDs grew as a category by 80% between April of 2019 and 2020. Wine Industry Advisor said in August that despite a decrease in production and other pandemic-related factors, the global canned cocktails market is expected to surpass a valuation of $146 billion by 2030.
In preparation for rising demand, Tip Top recently began selling its cans in 8-packs, and is even shipping cans around the country, from Texas to Colorado, on its own website and elsewhere online. It’s also holiday shopping season, and changing laws around outdoor alcohol consumption mean more opportunities to get more palm-sized adult drinks in more hands.
That’s the goal, Cohen says. “They’re not going to drink themselves, you know?”
In case you’re drinking like we are these days, here are a few other recommendations, including a non-alcoholic version.
Ole Smoky. Calling itself “the leading distiller of premium moonshine in the world,” this Tennessee-based distillery is now putting its unaged spirits into RTDs, which hit stores in Georgia last week. Flavors mirror the company’s existing moonshine styles, including blackberry lemonade and apple pie ginger.
Long Drink. Originating from Finland, this gin-based soda cocktail comes in four versions, three of which are variations on its traditional grapefruit and juniper berry mix. There’s also a “Strong” version, which takes the usual 5.5% ABV (alcohol-by-volume) up by three percentage points.
Wild Leap. Another Georgia-based canned cocktail company, this LaGrange beer company started distilling vodka not long ago, and even more recently debuted its fruity, pre-mixed cans of vodka drinks. They may be sweeter than others, but at 10% ABV (thanks to three ounces of vodka per can) they’re also stronger, and we say quite a few folks walking around with them during Big Boi’s recent concert in Centennial Olympic Park.
Curious Elixirs. You’ve gotta love the tagline “Shaken not slurred.” That’s how this non-alcoholic canned cocktail company from New York’s Hudson Valley describes its products, which are made expertly enough that you realize you’re drinking something that incorporates actual mixology rather than your run-of-the-mill bottled juice or beverage. They’re complex, flavorful and great options for a fancy night of teetotaling, or, you know, an Election Week break from boozing yourself into madness.