Alcohol-enhanced seltzers have enjoyed massive growth recently as consumers embraced their easy-drinking functionality. New players and established brands alike jumped into the category, creating a flurry of activity in this emerging and surging RTD segment. Along with gaining a strong customer base at the retail level, seltzers quickly started appearing on-premise, both on beer lists and as an ingredient on cocktail menus, and that’s accelerating as more restaurants and bars reopen after Covid-19 closures. Throughout 2021, alcoholic seltzers continued their meteoric growth and many brands are focusing on the on-premise as a key sector moving forward.
Brands like White Claw, Truly, and High Noon dominate the craft seltzer category, but big-name players like Bud Light and Smirnoff also have seltzers that are doing well, even on-premise. “The hard seltzer category is constantly evolving and growing, and White Claw continues to spearhead the category as the nation’s top-selling hard seltzer,” says John Shea, CMO of White Claw. “White Claw’s largest channel is the convenience store segment, but White Claw has a large volume share of hard seltzers in the on-premise and a large opportunity to grow distribution there.” Shea adds that bars are White Claw’s biggest on-premise channel, followed by restaurants, and he estimates that through the first half of last year White Claw’s on-premise volume was up 60%.
White Claw is available at a variety of on-premise venues around the country, from small corner bars to large-scale restaurant operators like Shake Shack and Buffalo Wild Wings. The traditional White Claw offering is available in 15 flavors, including iced tea-based extensions, at 5% abv in 12-ounce cans. The brand recently added a higher-proof line extension to its portfolio, launching White Claw Surge in two flavors at 8% abv and in a larger 16-ounce can. Original White Claw variety packs retail for roughly $17 for a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans, while White Claw Surge retails for $3 a 16-ounce can.Shea says most consumers drink White Claw straight out of the can, but some bartenders experiment with it in mixed drinks. At Chicago tavern The Frontier, owner Mark Domitrovich offers the White Claw Skinny Punch ($35), a 32-ounce bowl comprising Hangar vodka, lemonade, a house-made fruit juice blend, and the guest’s choice of either Black Cherry, Mango, or Lime White Claw. The bar also offers White Claw by the can for $7. Domitrovich says his guests routinely asked for White Claw at the bar last year, so adding a cocktail made with the seltzer was important.
“Seltzers have really taken off,” he says. “We added the White Claw Skinny Punch so we could incorporate hard seltzer into our beverage program. During summer we expect to sell out of our seltzers every weekend. And it’s not just women who order them, they’re a hit with everyone.”
Shea echoes this, noting that White Claw focuses on gender-neutral marketing to attract a wide swath of consumers. “The hard seltzer category blew up last year and White Claw has some of the most engaged and creative fans in the world,” he says. “They’ve created a whole subculture around White Claw. We’ve seen our share of viral drinks recipes with White Claw as a key ingredient. With the rise in cocktail culture and mixology, hard seltzers are viewed as a versatile product.”
Beer behemoth Bud Light launched its first seltzer product in January 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic threw a lot of unforeseen challenges at its first year, but brand executives are pleased with how Bud Light Seltzer is performing. Andy Goeler, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, says Bud Light Seltzer led the Bud Light family of products to its best performance in five years in 2020. The Bud Light Seltzer portfolio includes four flavors in its original line and several line extensions for lemonades, iced teas, and cocktail-inspired flavor offerings.
“We anticipate, with the ease of Covid-19 restrictions across the country, that Bud Light Seltzer will continue to grow on-premise,” Goeler says. “The seltzer category has so far been primarily an off-premise business, but we’re seeing an increased demand for on-premise consumption. Bud Light Seltzer is available at bars and restaurants across the country in 12-ounce cans, and we’re also starting to introduce it on draft in several key markets. There’s a huge opportunity for Bud Light Seltzer in the on-premise.”
Diageo launched its first seltzer product for vodka brand Smirnoff in 2016, and six years later the seltzers are excelling in restaurants and bars. The Smirnoff Seltzer portfolio spans ten flavors, including several rosé offshoots ($13 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans). Because of its focus on mixol- ogy with its core vodka line, Smirnoff puts a big emphasis on cocktails, even for its vodka seltzers. The brand lists several easy and approachable drinks recipes on its seltzer website that incorporate the sparkling RTD offerings and Smirnoff vodkas.
“Our formula for success has been based around the idea of a flavor that can be delivered in a variety of formats and that provides a drink for any occasion,” says Lisa Lee, director of Smirnoff’s flavored malt beverage portfolio. “The growth of hard seltzers in the United States in the past few years has been phenomenal. We see tremendous opportunity in the on-premise and we’re happy to support our friends in restaurants and bars.”
Smaller seltzer players are also pushing on-premise sales, especially on draft. Colorado-based craft brewer Oskar Blues debuted Wild Basin in late 2018 and today it’s available nationwide. The brand offers 12 flavors ($18-$20 a 12-pack of 12-ounce cans) and supports draft pours of its seltzers in many markets. Brand manager Lauren Carroll notes that on-premise seltzer sales were slow in 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic, but adds that they’re picking up now. “We believe seltzers can be wildly successful both on-premise and off-premise,” Carroll says. “The on-premise is gaining momentum as it opens back up, but it’s still in its early stages. Wild Basin is delicious on draft, straight out of the can, or mixed into a cocktail. We have a mixology page on our website and mixology has always been part of the Wild Basin brand.” She adds that Wild Basin’s sales grew by more than 300% in 2020.
Vermont-based cider company Citizen Cider added seltzers to its product lineup in 2020 and now has four flavors that use its cider as a base ($12 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans). Cheray MacFarland, the company’s director of sales and marketing, says the on-premise segment is picking up as pandemic restrictions loosen. She says most consumers drink the seltzers straight out of the can but adds that some bartenders do use them in cock- tails, including Citizen Cider’s own on-site pub. The brewery bar offers a Hibiscus Lime Margarita ($8) made with Hornitos Plata Tequila, Cointreau, and orange juice, topped with Citizen Seltzer’s Hibiscus Lime.
“We’re seeing bartenders do some really awesome stuff with our seltzers,” MacFarland says. “There’s a lot of growth to come from the on-premise. Before Covid-19, seltzers on draft were just starting to pop up, so it’ll be interesting to see where that, as well as seltzer cocktails, go now.”
Because of their approachable drinkability and their light, flavorful, and effervescent qualities, bartenders are experimenting with seltzers in a variety of ways. Laura Luciano, the beverage manager for BR Guest Hospitality’s upscale Mexican concept Dos Caminos, touts the versatility of alcoholic selt- zers. She says they work as mixers in cocktails and that they can complement a wide variety of spirits because of the vast array of flavors within the hard seltzer category. Dos Caminos, which has four locations in Manhattan, offers The Last Jaja ($15), a drink made with Jaja Reposado Tequila, house-made hibiscus-ginger syrup, and fresh lime juice, topped with Truly Wild Berry Hard Seltzer. The restaurants also sell Truly Wild Berry by itself for $8 a can.
“With its popularity and variety of styles, alcoholic seltzers are absolutely on the rise as a cocktail ingredient,” Luciano says. “They can be used year-round to help achieve flavor profiles that otherwise might only be available during certain seasons. Alcoholic seltzers are essentially mixers by themselves, and they can be mixed with just about any spirit.”
Over-the-top restaurant and dessert concept Sugar Factory, which has 16 venues in the United States, is well-known for its oversized and decadent cocktails served in large goblets. The company partnered with rapper-producer Travis Scott in 2021 to incorporate his Cacti Agave Spiked seltzer into its drinks program and now offers two cocktails with the product. The Strawberry Hustle ($39) is made with Voli 305 vodka, SelvaRey White rum, DeKuyper Triple Sec and Peachtree Peach Schnapps, watermelon juice, lemonade, and Cacti’s Strawberry seltzer, topped with gummy candies and fruit, while the Astro Fizz ($39) comprises SelvaRey White rum, Teremana Blanco Tequila, and both Pineapple and Lime Cacti seltzers, garnished with gummy candies and frozen popsicles.
“Our patrons absolutely love these new goblets,” says Sugar Factory COO Beshoy Rizk. “Alcoholic seltzers have been popular for a while, so it was easy for us to add these to the menu. The seltzers provide a natural sweetness and a fizzy, bubbly taste to complement the traditional smoking goblets we’re known for. They’ll be served year-round.”
Rizk notes that the Cacti seltzers are not available for sale at Sugar Factory by themselves and says they’ll be used solely in these cocktails. “With more brands creating their own versions of seltzer, I think we’ll continue to see a rise in popularity in the category and see them used more in cocktails both seasonally and year-round,” he adds. “We’ve discussed making drinks with spiked seltzers for some time, so once we had the opportunity to use the Cacti brand, we were excited to add the drinks to our menu.”