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Why Breweries Are Mastering Canned Cocktails

March 22, 2019

By Joshua Bernstein, March 22, 2019

Jesse Ferguson took a spirited approach to starting a brewery. At Brooklyn’s Interboro Spirits & Ales, Ferguson fashions both hazy IPAs and gin botanically jolted with coriander and juniper, bouncing between the brewing and distilling equipment huddled beneath the same roof. If you visit the taproom—where old-school hip-hop is likely spitting from speakers—you can drink a double IPA chased by a gin and tonic, both served on draft and sold to go by the four-pack.

Canning pre-mixed cocktails makes perfect sense when you consider Interboro’s position as a brewery that owns a canning line and has mastered carbonation. “Most distilleries that opened as flat-out distilleries don’t have the luxury of storing large amounts of liquid cold and carbonating it,” says Ferguson, Interboro’s co-founder. “Breweries have that in their DNA. It was a logical conclusion to can cocktails.”

As beer sales continue to slump and drinkers’ eyes wander to natural wine, cider, kombucha, hard seltzers, and CBD, breweries have begun broadening their portfolio by offering ready-to-drink canned cocktails. It’s both a response to customers’ drinking less beer and a smart utilization of a brewery’s infrastructure and intellect, especially when it comes to flavor formulation. The result is breweries are elevating an overlooked sector.

“Canned cocktails are very developed in Europe and even in Canada, but when you look at the U.S. there was just that dusty shelf in the liquor store,” says Phin DeMink, the co-founder of New York State’s Southern Tier Brewing Company. “They were really generic and there wasn’t a lot of creativity—rum and cola, vodka ginger. I don’t know how that category would really attract anybody except for the convenience shopper.”

DeMink had long loved brown spirits and cocktails, mixing them at home when he wanted a break from beer. This led Southern Tier to launch a distillery in 2016, primarily utilizing New York State corn, wheat and rye to make whiskey, bourbon, gin, and vodka. At the same time, DeMink watched as complex cocktails became commonplace at bars. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is resonating so strongly on-premise,’” he says. “Why can’t there be an off-premise play and really dress up the category?”

On the brewing side, Southern Tier historically played big and offbeat with flavor. It made Crème Brûlée Stout years before pastry stouts became all the sugary rage, and helped popularize potent pumpkin beers with the spiced Pumking. “If you look at our history dating back to the early 2000s, we were one of the innovation leaders,” DeMink says. “When we looked forward with our canned cocktail line, we wanted to follow suit.” Last summer, Southern Tier released a trio of canned cocktails including the bourbon smash; a gingery relative to the mint julep; and vodka Madras, containing cranberry and citrus juices in tandem with cardamom and chamomile. “Everything we do needs a unique twist or an alternative ingredient, because that fits the brand,” DeMink says.

We have a team of really talented people who are experts in creating flavors. We have everything we need to do a variety of really interesting beverages.”

Over the past 30 years in Kansas City, Missouri, Boulevard Brewing has built both a brand known for innovative, well-executed beers and a state-of-the-art facility. “Most importantly, we have a team of really talented people who are experts in creating flavors,” says president Jeff Krum. “We have everything we need to do a variety of really interesting beverages.”

This spring, the brewery debuted Fling Craft Cocktails, the first product line in its Boulevard Beverage Co. offshoot. Brewmaster Steven Pauwels helped lead a team tasked with formulating four different varieties of canned cocktails including a blood orange vodka soda and a cucumber-lime gin and tonic, utilizing liquor sourced from local distilleries such as Restless Spirits. The 12-ounce cans will debut at the Kansas City Royals opening game, highlighting Fling’s unique sales positioning at high-volume venues where rapid service is king. 

“Fling is not meant to replace the really delicious cocktail made at the best cocktail bar in town,” says Natalie Gershon, Boulevard’s vice president of marketing. “It’s an on-the-go, ready-to-drink, festival-friendly offering.”

Recently, Interboro reformulated its canned gin and tonics, including a hibiscus-lime variant, to make the format friendlier to cost-conscious consumers. Originally, Interboro’s canned cocktails contained 10 percent ABV and sold for $24 per four-pack. “We were originally trying to market it as two drinks in one can, and that was a complete failure,” Ferguson says. “A 12-ounce can in America is a single serving.”

Now, the brewery has dropped the ABV to 7 percent and the price tag to around $16 a four-pack. Interboro signed on with a distributor and will send its canned cocktails to Connecticut, New Jersey and elsewhere, finding new markets and, ideally, customers.

Whether or not there’s a market for brewery-made canned cocktails is unclear. “There’s always the risk that these things are industry-driven,” Ferguson says. Moreover, canned cocktails are not likely to stoke the same desire as a rare beer release. “They’re not the next thing people line up for, like a double IPA,” Ferguson says. “It’s not this sought-after commodity that will get traded.”

Maybe they will be. Stranger things have occurred in this glitter-sprinkled beer world. As the industry grow more crowded and complicated, brewers will be smart to try to attract customers that may not care for the latest dry-hopped IPA. “It’s a differentiation factor that we’ve baked into our business model,” Ferguson says. “The question is, how do we really maximize the opportunity?”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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