The Future of Cocktails
Written by Hilary McNevin.
Mixed drinks and cocktails in bottles and cans are nothing new, but lockdown life has stirred huge demand for top-shelf ingredients and exotic combinations in the liquor-to-go market.
We might not be able to visit our favourite venues, but we can have small bottles filled with grown-up concoctions delivered to our door, and we like it.
So how can hospitality businesses tap into this growing trend of top-notch ready-to-serve cocktails?
Food and drink writer Hilary McNevin asks the people behind five of Australia’s most innovative cocktail companies about the future of mixed drinks, and why boozy (and not-so-boozy) little containers of quality drink will loom large.
COCKTAILS IN A CAN
Maidenii is Australian-made vermouth, created by ex-bartender Shaun Byrne and winemaker Gilles Lapalus. It’s a popular drop, blending traditional wormwood with native botanicals to create a unique, hyper-local flavour.
The pair recently launched Maidenii Spritz – in a can – a heady mix of their classic vermouth, extra strawberry gum, cinchona bark and blood orange.
“Cans are for convenience mostly,” says Byrne. “We produce a Spritz in a bottle as well… packaging works depending on the occasion.”
Maidenii vermouths – Classic, Dry or Sweet – are also found in bottled cocktails with Australian distillers Archie Rose, Starward Whisky and Anther Gin.
“We work closely with so many producers,” Byrne adds. “We always play around the fringes of the industry and spread our net wide. It’s where we like to operate and gets our vermouth to people who may not have tried it.”
Canned cocktails have a retro appeal, according to Jeremy Spencer, co-founder of canned cocktail business Curatif.
“They remind me of cans of Fosters beer in the 70s and 80s,” Spencer says. “There’s an emotional connection, but really cans are about sustainability. They mean convenience and sustainability, they’re easy to recycle.”
Curatif produces a selection of classic cocktails, like the Negroni and Margarita, all served in 150ml cans.
Since launching in 2019, Spencer and his business partners, Sam Lane and Matt Sanger, have gained serious traction, scoring a deal to sell on Amazon in June last year.
Looking ahead for Curatif and pre-mixed cocktails in general, Spencer says the future looks healthy, literally.
“There’s a big focus on growing the low-ABV (alcohol by volume) market and wellness,” he says. “These days, it’s ok to say, ‘I’m not drinking’ and lower ABV drinks are more and more in demand.”
Sustainable packaging is also key.
“Packaging drinks is the future,” says Spencer. “Compostable sachets and pouches are becoming more visible. Sachets and pouches that hold whiskies and other spirits. I’m not hardwired to a particular material, can, bottle or pouch, they’re all relevant, it’s exciting.”
BOTTLES & KEGS
For Michael Bascetta and Roscoe Power, co-founders of the recently launched Homegrown Drinks, the future of cocktails lies in quality, Australian ingredients. Their drinks are ready-to-serve in 750ml bottles and 20 litre kegs.
“Covid lockdowns sped up the supply and demand for bottled cocktails because drinks couldn’t be served on-premises and a few tax implications were waived during the lockdown in 2020 that made it easier for businesses to produce them,” says Bascetta.
The Homegrown Drinks team saw this as an opportunity, but also realised many of the cocktails on the market were “old-school” and very high in alcohol.
“They’re great and they’re delicious but we wanted to create a lower ABV, carbonated, flavour-led drink that you could enjoy a few of and still feel good,” Bascetta says.
“(Our cocktails) help people stay connected to spirits, cocktails and cocktail producers and therefore, will only be good for bars and restaurants because more people are interested in cocktails.”
Pre-mixed cocktails are also becoming a convenient solution for hospitality businesses struggling to secure staff. Bottles, cans or casks of cocktails ensure standardised drinks, regardless of shift and time.
“We’re definitely looking at it,” says Aaron Clark, beverage director at Ghanem Group, which owns Brisbane venues Blackbird, Donna Chang, Boom Boom Room and Lord of the Wings, along with Byblos in Brisbane and Melbourne, and Melbourne’s Le Bon Ton.
“There’s a massive staff shortage and the skillset isn’t what it was, so it makes sense to have cocktails already made and poured by the staff rather than mixed-to-order.”
Ghanem Group made pre-mixed cocktails in a dark kitchen during the national 2020 lockdown.
“We had four venues operating from one commercial kitchen and we were batching and bottling up Negroni’s and Old-Fashioned cocktails to add to orders and deliveries, but that was very different to our regular operation,” Clark says.
They stopped bottling as Brisbane’s lockdown restrictions lifted, but Clark say he may reconsider.
“People love the convenience of bottled cocktails and we are looking at both cans and bottles,” he says. “They’re both environmentally friendly; cans are good for casual occasions, while bottles are a little more special.”
STORY IN A GLASS
Innovation has always been at the forefront at Melbourne’s Byrdi, where co-owners Luke Whearty and Aki Nishikura come up with game-changers like Fennel Pollen Sazerac and Wattleseed Negroni.
When they opened in 2019, they set up a retail licence within their business model which, considering what has happened in the last 18 months, was a very good move.
“When lockdown kicked in last year, we said to ourselves, ‘we’ve got this’ and we had an online store up within 24 hours,” Whearty says. “Our growth in demand for bottled cocktails has been significant. The bottles have kept us going, without them, we’d be dead in the water.”
Luke sees the future of cocktails deeply set in storytelling, whether they are pre-made or not.
“The public is so savvy and we, as business owners, are having to come up with drinks to surprise our audience,” he says. “There are so many drinks that can be made at home now, or taken home pre-mixed. People want to go out and have an experience around the drink, with the service, the ingredients and the environment all playing a role. We need to create a story around the provenance of the ingredients, the cocktail recipe and give the customer great memories that give a strong sense of place.”