High-end mixers give retailers another chance to capture consumers as they trade up. They offer alternatives to grocery-store brands and can make at-home mixology a simple process with only a few steps. Premiumization has brought the spirits world to new levels of prestige and prominence, and as consumers become more accustomed to higher-end spirits, interest in craft or premium mixers has grown in tandem. Despite the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the on-premise shut down, premium mixer brands fared well, with many reporting growth and successful pivots to DTC and retail sales. Retailers, meanwhile, report growing interest in the vast category, pointing to craft tonics and sodas, as well as fruit-based mixers and specific cocktail mixes as profitable categories. Austin, Texas-based Twin Liquors’ director of marketing Sandra Spalding points to a few important characteristics shared by the most successful mixers in the company’s stores. “Offerings with great packaging and good color that are shelf stable, as well as visually appetizing offerings, make the most impact,” she says.
While the Covid-19 shutdowns had the potential to seriously disrupt the retail alcohol world, states across the U.S. classified liquor stores as essential businesses, giving brands the chance to pivot and retailers the opportunity to gain ground.
“People went into a pandemic, but they didn’t stop premiumizing or experimenting with new drinks.” says Fever-Tree USA CEO Charles Gibb. “They didn’t go home and just sit there and drink beer and wine. They actually opened up their spirits cabinets and they started making more and more interesting drinks.”
The leading brands in the loosely defined category are Fever-Tree and Q Mixers, with retailers nationwide pointing to those two as the leaders among higher end mixers. Other brands, including Regatta, Fresh Victor, the Perfect Puree, and Zing Zang, are eager to grow market share and show the world that there can be far more than two brands expanding what premium mixers can be.
“We really drive a lot of volume through Fever-Tree and then Q,” says Jeff Feist, category lead for spirits and more at BevMo, which has more than 160 units across the West Coast. “Fever-Tree out-sells Q at our stores, but when you add those two brands together, for anything above that $5 a 4-pack price point, they’re about 80% of the category.”
Last year, Fever-Tree saw its sales in the U.S. jump by over 20% to nearly $81 million. Globally, the brand moved 546 million bottles and cans (of various sizes), according to Impact Databank. Gibb attributes the growth to a wellspring of success in the off-premise, even as much of the company’s on-premise sales withered during the worst of the pandemic. “I think the greatest challenge for all of us was the loss of 30% of our business overnight that we didn’t see start to recover until the last three months,” he says.
While Fever-Tree’s flagship is its tonic, Feist says that FeverTree Ginger Beer does particularly well in the chain, remaining competitive in the stores’ thriving ginger beer section. He adds that it holds its own against companies dedicated to ginger beer like Bundaberg, a million dollar brand for BevMo.
Gibb notes that, despite the odds, Fever-Tree managed to successfully launch new varieties during the pandemic, including Fever-Tree Pink Grapefruit, which was just reaching retail shelves as the on-premise shut down. “We had a launch plan for Pink Grapefruit that had events where people were going to use the product with Tequila or vodka,” he says. “We had strong on-premise programs coming to light, including a big plan around Cinco De Mayo in key bars and settings. We had all these great plans for last year that we had to basically just shred overnight. But we saw people premiumize and experiment a lot more at home.”
Despite the setbacks, Fever-Tree successfully pivoted its focus to the off-premise and at-home consumption through digital and social programing, like bartender videos and “how-to’s,” as well as targeted placement on search engines. “The most Googled topic last year was how to make drinks at home,” says Gibb. “We made sure that we were buying the appropriate search terms, be that going to Amazon to sort of drive purchase or just on Google so that we could actually drive people to our websites.”
While Fever-Tree and other premium mixers still have a quite a ways to go before overtaking lower-priced brands like Schweppes, retailers say that the demand is there. At Twin Liquors, Spalding says there is great interest in the premium mixer category. “They’re the right size, price, and they continue to innovate their flavors which makes them an easy mixer to make a quality cocktail,” she notes.
Sparring with Fever-Tree at the top of the premium mixers category is Brooklyn-based Q Mixers. Founder Jordan Silbert says he started out by improving on the tonics he was drinking with his friends and, after picking up some early placement in New York City cocktails bars and restaurants, the portfolio spiraled from there to cover tonics, sodas, and more. “It was really just an entrepreneurial journey, trying to keep up with demand,” says Silbert.
Leading up to Covid-19, Silbert says the brand was making exceptional connections in the on-premise, especially in hotels, having secured placement in Marriott, Ritz Carlton, and W Hotels, among many others. “Our bar and restaurant business was growing like crazy—around 85%—in the years leading up to Covid-19,” he says. “The pandemic obviously shut down a lot of bars and restaurants and our restaurant business went almost to zero.” But Silbert also saw the off-premise surge, noting that retail volume was up 73% year-over-year.
In May of this year, Q refreshed its packaging, centering a variety of drinks on the brand’s boxes and partnering with actor Joel McHale to bring new consumers into the fold. Overall, Silbert describes the refresh as the brand exuding more confidence and showing consumers what they can do with Q rather than just showing Q itself.
Silbert sees a bright future for Q, citing a roughly 90% reorder rate for the mixers. The brand is currently doing best in the U.S.’s largest spirits markets—California, Florida, and Texas, specifically—but as the world returns to normal, Silbert says Q is aiming to boost its developing markets, too.
Knocking At The Door
While Fever-Tree and Q are the biggest brands in this growing category, they’re far from alone in offering quick and easy cocktail solutions. The mixer market, Spalding notes, is diverse and goes well beyond sodas and tonics. “Fever-Tree leads the pack in sodas, while Stirrings, Master of Mixes, Liber & Co, Republic, Zing Zang, Barbeque Wife, Monin, and more make up the fruit & cocktail base flavorings, depending on the brands’ specialty,” she says.
Affinity Beverages’ Regatta Craft Mixers presents a portfolio of ginger beer, club soda, tonic, and ginger ale, aiming to be a simple and essential step for home cocktail making, according to Affinity CEO Sam Zarou. “We want to provide step two,” he says. “Step one is the spirit, and the next step is the mixer.”
Zarou highlights Regatta’s club soda as an example of what it means to be a great step two. Made with evaporated Pacific sea salt that helps the mixer stand out on the market, Zarou says the club soda pairs very well with mezcal, blanco Tequila, and vodka. He adds that sourcing non-GMO products for Regatta is also core to the brand. “We want you to be able to take your spirit and our product and a garnish and make an elevated cocktail-making experience easy for yourself or for your guests or for your family,” he says. “We’ve seen that that resonates with people.”
Like the rest of the brands in the premium mixer space, the pandemic created uncertainty for Regatta, but Zarou says the brand performed well in the DTC channel and exceeded expectations as the on-premise, where Regatta is focused, reopened. He adds that careful supply chain management has set Regatta up for continued success.
High-end mixers come in a variety of formats and uses, with straightforward examples being higher-end and craft tonic waters and colas. Brands like Agalima and Barsmith offer craft options for easily making sours and drinks like Bloody Marys, Margaritas, and Old Fashioneds. These brands both offer options for conscious consumers looking for organic or non-GMO mixers, respectively. And brands like Taffer’s Mixologist give consumers the chance to make cocktail classics and flavored Margaritas easily at home, while also giving calorie conscious consumers an easy option for a low-calorie Margarita.
But more unique offerings are coming in the form of fruit purees and drink additives that allow mixologist to spruce up a classic cocktail or create something entirely new.
Napa Valley’s the Perfect Purée offers bars and restaurants high-quality fruit purees for both cooking and cocktail making. The company, founded in 1988, was primarily focused on the culinary side of the on-premise until co-president and CMO Michele Lex came on board in 2008 and believed that the Perfect Purée fit just as well behind the bar as it did in the kitchen. She says the key for Perfect Purée is knowing exactly what makes the purees appealing to beverage directors and mixologists. “Instead of just taking our concentrates and mixing them, we went ahead and mixed it with a little bit more sugar added so instead of having to add the simple syrup, it’s one and done,” she says. Currently, the Perfect Purée lineup includes nine blends, ranging from a Chipotle Sour that brings earth, spice, and fruit flavors, to a Red Sangria blend designed to ease on-premise production.
As a company focused on supplying the on-premise and the trade with ingredients, 2020 was a challenging year for the Perfect Purée. Lex attributes the company’s success to the strength of its relationships and rise of cocktails to go, along with some help from craft brewers, who frequently reach for the Perfect Purée’s products to add fruit flavors to their beers. Though the pandemic forced Lex and her team to get more creative, 2021 has been a boon for the Perfect Purée. “We can’t keep up with the demand; it’s unprecedented,” she says. “Thank goodness we have the depth of relationships and that people get it.”
San Francisco, California’s Fresh Victor splits the difference between an on-premise focused purveyor of ingredients like Perfect Purée and open-and-pour mixers like Q by selling consumers freshly made, lightly pasteurized blends of fruit juices, ready to mix with spirits and other ingredients for cocktails that range from bar basics to trendy mixology.
The company’s portfolio has seven flavors including Mexican Lime & Agave, Cactus Pear & Pomegranate, and Lemon Sour, among others, and serves retail, on-premise, and DTC clients. “2020 was an odd year. We were tracking incredibly well on-premise,” says CEO Ken MacKenzie. “We were forced to pivot earlier than we thought we would really need to. We brought it back to grocery and it was welcomed with open arms, which I was incredibly grateful for. The buyers understood it.”
This year has been quite strong for Fresh Victor, MacKenzie says, with the brand’s on-premise business rebounding and the company receiving off-premise and DTC boosts from social media and podcast features that have driven new consumers to the brand. While MacKenzie is happy to see on-premise and DTC continuing to grow, he has big plans for retail channels. “We have Fresh Victor refrigerators that we’re putting in grocery stores. We’re strategically putting it in a wine and spirits section where no product like ours has ever lived before,” he says. “It’s fresh, it’s low calorie, and it goes with anything.”