As ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails continue to have their moment, surging in sales and finding increased competition with new brands, bartenders are experimenting with them on-premise, creating more opportunities for these retail-focused offerings to shine. The new breed of high-quality, pre-packaged RTDs are being lauded for their complex flavor profiles and are finding favor in a variety of venues, from sporting and music arenas to traditional restaurants and bars. The Covid-19 pandemic further boosted the RTD category, as on-premise operators looked for ways to keep their bar programs alive amid widespread shutdowns and an increased focus on takeout and delivery.
RTDs have recently become a key player at Old Pal Texas Tavern, a restaurant and bar with live music in Lockhart, Texas, about 30 miles from Austin. Tavern owner Travis Tober offers Canteen Spirits’ Ruby Red Grapefruit Vodka Soda ($9 a 12-ounce can) and says it’s popular with the under-30 crowd. “When we started pushing to-go drinks we added the RTD cocktail to help with sales and quick service,” says Tober. “Along with quicker service, RTDs allow for more variety, quality drinks, and more choice for our customers. The hardest hurdle is explaining the price, but they’re doing really well here, especially when we have live music.”
Old Pal Texas Tavern lists one or two canned cocktails at any given time. Tober adds that the Canteen cocktails are particularly popular because they’re flavorful and come in options that are different from the drinks on his normal menu. “Covid-19 helped the RTD cocktail category because people are now willing to pay the premium price that comes with these drinks,” he explains. “They’re becoming more popular at hotels and live music venues because they provide additional and accessible quality options. People identify with the classic ingredients and flavor combinations.”
RTD cocktails are also a great option for on-premise venues that can’t commit to having a full bar program, which is the case at Vegas Test Kitchen on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas. The concept allows up-and-coming chefs to experiment with restaurant life and test their ideas without committing to a permanent space. The Test Kitchen rotates chefs regularly but doesn’t have its own bar staff. However, founder Jolene Mannina knows the importance of offering mixed drinks, so she stocks a handful of RTDs. “Our bar program consists mostly of two-step cocktails and beer and wine, and we don’t carry a lot of inventory or have mixologists on staff,” Mannina says. She offers canned RTD drinks by Drifter Craft Cocktails ($10), including their Passion Fruit Caipirinha, Spicy Margarita, and Moscow Mule. “They’re fast, easy to serve, and they have a long shelf life,” she adds. “They taste great and have a good mouthfeel, too. They’re the perfect option for a restaurant like ours.”
Many established spirits brands are branching out into RTDs. Cazadores Tequila unveiled a line of three canned cocktails earlier this year, and they’re already doing well on-premise. The Margarita, Spicy Margarita, and Paloma drinks ($15 a 4-pack of 12-ounce cans) were developed with the help of bartending veteran Alan Ruesga-Pelayo, who now serves as a brand ambassador for Tequila Cazadores. He says he focused from the start on using real ingredients and no artificial flavors.
“Canned cocktails are hot right now and their popularity has been taking off in bars as consumers embrace the trend,” Ruesga-Pelayo says. “Bars and restaurants are offering canned cocktails because they’re convenient and easy to serve, and because consumers are looking for great-tasting, expertly crafted drinks. Outdoor events, stadiums, and festivals have been vital outlets for RTD sales, but more bars are now ordering RTD canned drinks. There are a lot of options in the market. Consumers are demanding quality and bartenders know how these cocktails are meant to taste. RTD drinks are booming.”