In recent years, it has been hard to ignore the boom in the ready-to-drink (also known as RTD) market. Whether you find them at a tailgate party, picnic, or simply a family barbecue, you could be forgiven for thinking these products (worth $5.6 billion in the U.S. alone in 2022) have suddenly risen to prominence overnight — but their history actually stretches back over a century.
The definition of ready-to-drink varies depending on country, industry, and time period. Twenty years ago, RTD meant any alcoholic drink that was sold in packaging that the consumer could drink directly from; this is demonstrated in an article from 2001 where Smirnoff Ice is described as Ireland’s number two RTD, beaten only by Budweiser beer (bottles and cans).
Nowadays, the term RTD typically refers to drinks made using spirits. In some cases, particularly in the U.S., they can be malt-based; this is generally because malt-based drinks can have more favorable tax treatment compared with those that are 100% spirit-based. A similar concept is ready-to-serve (RTS) products, a relatively new term for a very old idea. In an RTS, the ingredients are pre-mixed, but the drink must be modified in some way before being enjoyed: for example, mixed with ice or lengthened with a mixer.
Making It Easy in England
RTDs and RTSs are all about convenience. Punch — a mix of spirits (e.g., brandy, arrack, gin), citrus juice, sugar, water, and spices originating from the 17th century — serves a similar handy purpose. Popular with all corners of society, punches were served in large bowls and then portioned out to individuals. It is even conceivable that at some point someone stored leftover punch in a bottle or container, making an early example of an RTS.
Another early ready-to-serve product is Pimm’s Cup. This quintessential drink of the British summer (or what little of it they get!) is possibly the most famous example of an RTS, at least in the English-speaking world.
James Pimm is credited with creating the original Pimm’s Cup in 1840, when he served it in his Pimm’s Oyster Warehouse. This mix of spirit (probably gin) and other wines, liqueurs, and infusions was served to patrons once it had been lengthened with a mixer. Today, the most common mixer used is sparkling lemonade.
Following much success, Pimm started to bottle the fruit cup for people to purchase and take away. This was a sort of bottled punch, but it still had to be diluted before being consumed, making it very much a ready-to-serve product. Apocryphal tradition passed down through generations of descendants of James Pimm suggest that the original cup was actually Port-based, which, whilst unproven, seems possible. Recipe books from the time are full of recipes for similar drinks, based on products such as cider or claret.
Samuel Moray, successor to James Pimm, released a Scotch whisky cup (No.2) and a brandy cup (No.3) in 1851. Some time later, the company followed these up with a rum cup (No.4) in 1933 and versions based on Canadian rye whisky (No.5) and vodka (No.6) in 1964. Tales of a commercially released No.7 cup based on tequila are false (no matter what Wikipedia says); the recipe was created by the author for ADI’s very own book, Forgotten Spirits and Long Lost Liqueurs, which has plenty of information on how to recreate all of the lost cups.
Whilst most of these variations disappeared in the 1970s, Pimm’s did also produce one of the first canned cocktails: a version of Pimm’s & Lemonade was first released in the 1980s.
The Ill-Fated Picnic in Hartford
Across the Atlantic Ocean and half a century after Londoners began sipping on Pimm’s Cup, another key event in the history of ready-to-serves was taking place in The Heublein Hotel in Hartford, Connecticut. In the late 1890s, the hotel was commissioned to make pre-batched Manhattans and Martinis (most likely with sweet vermouth) for a celebratory summer picnic. Bad weather delayed the picnic twice and so the decision was made to dispose of the pre-batched cocktails; however, upon tasting them, the bartenders found that they were still rather tasty and didn’t throw them away, but served them instead.
Following this, in 1892 the Heublein Brothers filed the first trademark for bottled cocktails under the name “Outing Club Cocktails,” which was then shortened to “Club Cocktails,” a brand which still exists today. Bottled cocktails survived both Prohibition and the Second World War and were given a boost by Gordon’s, which introduced a range in late 1924. Sold individually or in a mixed set of five, they included the Martini, Dry Martini, Fifty-Fifty, Perfect Martini, and the Piccadilly Cocktail. This would later be expanded to include favorites such as the Gimlet and the Manhattan. The cocktails were packaged in frosted bottles (both full and miniature sized) that were in the shape of a cocktail shaker, similar to a modern-day Tanqueray bottle. As tastes gradually changed, new lines were added or discontinued until Gordon’s final product, a Dry Martini in miniature bottles, was discontinued in the early 1990s.
The miniature bottles in particular found favor in the bars of trains and planes, where space limitations made having a fully-stocked cocktail bar impractical in all but the most salubrious surroundings. In recent years some airlines such as Delta have started to serve them again, starting out with the On the Rocks brand, before switching to the canned cocktails of Atlanta’s Tip Top Proper Cocktails.
The Continental Contribution
For decades, pre-mixed products for consumer convenience remained confined to still, bottled cocktails, but in 1932 Campari released small (around 3 oz.) bottles of Campari and soda water. These were conical in shape with a crown cap; the equivalent product today is almost identical to when they first launched.
It is worth pausing for a moment to visit Finland in 1952, where the summer Olympic Games were due to be held in Helsinki; they had been postponed from 1940 due to the outbreak of the Second World War. In preparation, a pre-mixed version of the Lonkero (a Finnish term for a long drink) was created at the behest of Alkoholiliike (Alko), the state-owned alcohol sales monopoly. Two varieties were created for the games: a brandy-based drink mixed with pommac (a soft drink flavored with fruit and berries that is aged in wood for three months); and a gin-based drink mixed with grapefruit soda.
The drinks’ popularity continued after the Olympic Games and state-controlled production continued until 1995, when it was liberalized. The best known brand of Long Drink in Finland today is Hartwall, which was actually involved in the original recipe development of the Lonkero.
An intriguing example from 1976 was released in the United States by Heublein: a selection of “hard” or alcoholic milks (as opposed to cream liqueurs) known as “Malcolm Herefords Cows.” These were bottled at 15% ABV and available in strawberry, banana, mocha, and mint chocolate flavors, later followed by French vanilla.
Launched in the 1980s, Burrough’s Mixed Doubles were one of the earliest spirit and mixer ready-to-drink packages; they were possibly named in reference to co-ed tennis matches. Burrough’s was the company behind Beefeater Gin and had recently been sold to a larger drinks company called Whitbred. By 1989, the Mixed Doubles range consisted of a gin & tonic, whisky & dry ginger [ale], whisky & lemonade, vodka & tonic, vodka & lemonade, and rum & cola. Each product was bottled in glass with a metal cap and contained a double measure of spirits, resulting in an ABV of 11.4%.
Gordon’s Gin followed suit around 1994 with a gin & tonic, and Bacardi released a rum & cola. In 1998, Gordon’s Gin reformulated and partnered particularly with Schweppes as the tonic of choice in their RTD. This practice is much more common now, with a variety of spirits and soft drink brands partnering on products.
Nowadays, a whole host of producers large and small around the world make ready-to-drink spirit and mixer combinations; all of the major gin players have at least one gin & tonic, whilst Jack Daniel’s is mixed with cola or ginger ale, and there are plenty of choices with rum, too.
On a smaller scale, Cutwater led the way with their RTDs, including whiskey highballs and Bloody Marys. They have been joined in the RTD market by the likes of Conniption, Heritage, and Black Button.
Alcopops & FMBs
On the face of it, alcopops (and the memories of alcopop-induced hangovers for people of a certain age) may seem a world away from the respectability of the canned cocktail or RTD. In essence, however, they are the same: a combination of spirit, or in the case of flavored malt beverages (FMB) a simulated spirit, flavors, and a mixer. Sounds a bit like a cocktail! Alcopops were sometimes referred to as coolers, pre-mixed, or pre-packaged spirits.
In the U.S., malt-based beverages are taxed at a lower rate than spirits and are subject to less restrictive laws on where they can be sold, making them an attractive base for RTDs. The minimum malt content for the base is 25%. Wine-based beverages had a similar advantage, but in 1991 the federal government changed the law, leading to the rise and unceremonious fall of the wine cooler.
Wine coolers were the first of this new breed of drink (alcopops) and consisted of wine, fruit juice, sugar, and typically, carbonated water, all bottled at 4–5% ABV. The most famous example — Bartles & Jaymes — was launched in 1984 by E. & J. Gallo Winery.
Bacardi launched Bacardi Breezers in 1993, which then dominated the U.K. market in RTDs for over a decade. Throughout most of the world, this was a mix of rum, fruit juice, flavors, and water, but in the U.S. (for the now familiar reasons) it was initially malt-based. It remains popular today and is the best-selling RTD in India.
Smirnoff first dipped its toe into the ready-to-drink market with the launch of the Smirnoff Mule in 1996. This was a pre-mixed version of the popular Moscow Mule: a mix of vodka, ginger beer, and lime. In 1999, this was followed by Smirnoff Ice, a lemon-flavored RTD. As with previous examples, the U.S. version was made from malt liquor, whilst the U.K. version was vodka-based. Today, Smirnoff Ice has over 27 varieties in the U.S., including hard seltzer, but has a much more slimmed-down portfolio elsewhere in the world.
Other examples of flavored malt beverages include Jack Daniel’s Country Cocktails (launched in 1992), Zima Clearmalt (1993), and Mike’s Hard Lemonade (launched in 1999). In 2017, the Long Drink Company was founded in Carmel, Indiana, and launched its own range of long drinks in the United States. Today, according to Neilsen, they are the eighth biggest RTD brand in the country.
Where Hard Seltzers Fit
Hard seltzers had their origins in the alcopops, in particular hard lemonades that were popular in the 1990s. They are largely a mix of alcohol (spirit- or malt-based, depending on market), flavor, and unsweetened carbonated water. They typically have a comparatively low sugar and calorie content compared with other RTDs. White Claw (malt-based), the longtime market leader, was launched in 2016 and contributed to the hard seltzer boom of 2018–2019, but has since been overtaken by High Noon, which is vodka-based.
With centuries of history behind it and a current global boom, the future of the ready-to-drink market looks bright. Exactly what form it will take remains to be seen, but this category has proven itself to be pretty resilient; after all, who doesn’t want convenience and an easier life?