For many, summertime means going to the beach and lying by the pool. Unfortunately, packing a bottle of traditional craft spirits means bringing glass, which is cumbersome and typically prohibited. One viable option for a convenient, portable and refreshing summer adult beverage is to pick up the latest trend in craft distilling: canned cocktails. For some craft distillers, dabbling in canned cocktails could mean a new source of revenue. Several distillers have already sharpened their teeth, launching successful canned spirit brands. They are eager to share their experiences.

Consumers are always looking for the next big innovation. Canned cocktails with Ready to Drink (RTD) spirits offer consumers a refreshing and economical way to enjoy an adult beverage. Canned cocktails can be an alternative to traditional beer and wine options.

Whit Bowers, director of marketing at Black Button Distilling, believes the recent rise in demand for canned cocktails is all about innovation meeting changing consumer tastes. “Those who prefer cocktails have not had accessibility to convenient or transportable options. Lugging mixers, shakers and spirits to a boat party or backyard cookout is not the most feasible, so beer or wine become the immediate alternative. The craft-beer movement has trained consumers to appreciate higher-quality alcohol. Those brands have become status symbols for the drinkers themselves. Canned cocktails are an uncharted territory where now everyone can discover something new and drink on an even higher level.”

Jason Ebel, co-founder at Two Brothers Brewery and Distillery, believes that increased consumer demand for canned spirits is about technology finally lining up with convenience. “The convenience and the quality factors for canned spirits have finally lined up. Before, it felt like you had to sacrifice one or the other. Canned cocktails didn’t have the quality of a true cocktail, and cocktails with mixers and ingredients didn’t have the convenience of a can. We’ve gotten to the point now where the quality of the product inside the canned cocktails is leaps and bounds better from where it was. Now, you can grab a premium cocktail on the go.”

Adam Quirk, CEO of Cardinal Spirits, notes that increased consumer demand is about convenience but has already seen  some crowding in the market. “Convenience is the biggest driver, I think. Innovation in flavor and packaging has been big, too. There have been tons of new flavors and formats for RTDs the past few years. It’s getting pretty crowded already, which is crazy considering how few brands there were just a couple years ago.”

Getting into canned cocktails to meet the demand can be easier said than done. There is a significant amount of hardware and canning equipment required for distillers to do it entirely in-house. However, there are several options for craft distillers looking to get into the space.

Lee Katrincic, head distiller and co-founder at Durham Distillery, balanced leasing hardware and utilizing a co-packer. “When we started about a year ago, we leased a few 7.5-barrel brite tanks and bought a 3-HP chiller. We used a mobile canning business to come in and knock out the canning. With the popularity of the cans, we made some additional investments recently. We purchased our own tanks from a local brewery, bought a bigger chiller and purchased an entry-level canning line. Having our own canning line has made our life a lot easier, so we could can on our schedule. Container Logic made it very easy (and affordable) to lease brite tanks instead of putting up $5-10K to buy your own. Our canning line is from Twin Monkeys, and for about $70-75K, you get a 20-can-per-minute line. We have been pleased with it so far.”

Whit Bowers of Black Button Distilling is focused on research and development, leaving the canning to the experts. “Our process will be through a co-packer, so no additional equipment will be needed at our facility. It does require staff time to develop the recipes test, and refine, which can be an investment in and of itself.”

Jack Baker, owner of Litchfield Distillery, went big with his investment. “We batch 1,200 gallons at a time so we needed new tanks, agitators, pumps, hoses and storage space for new raw materials, production and finished goods. We bought a Rudolph analyzer with integrated refractometer to deal with the obscuration. We also bought a tunnel pasteurizer to ensure quality, safety and to prevent a second fermentation in the cans. We use maple syrup and raw honey for sweeteners. Any ambient yeast or yeast in filling lines will cause a second fermentation. Cans will rupture from the second fermentation, which is common in the craft-brewing industry. We also invested in third party shelf-life testing. We use Iron Heart Mobile Canning. They will provide package material sourcing, canning line and other expertise.”

Jason Ebel, from Two Brothers Brewery and Distillery, had the benefit of a fully equipped canning line in his backyard. “We were fortunate enough to already have a lot of the resources and equipment in place with our craft brewing company, Two Brothers Artisan Brewing. We already had a production facility, a lab and all the equipment and staff needed to create, batch and package our canned cocktails.”

Adam Quirk, at Cardinal Spirits, tried outsourcing the canning process but ultimately decided to bring production back home. “We used a co-packer for the first year, which allowed us to build the brand without investing in overhead. There were some big trade-offs, though, and we’ve moved production back to Bloomington.”

Mike Seestadt, territory sales manager for PakTech, says hardware considerations don’t stop at new tanks and can-filling equipment. You also must consider secondary packaging for the can handle applicators, which can range from free (hand-applying) to a $200,000 high-speed application for up to 875 cans per minute.

Ask craft distillers for suggestions and they are quick to share what they would have done differently. In the new and exciting world of canned cocktails, there is no shortage of advice for distillers considering getting into cans.

Jack Baker, at Litchfield Distillery, says the hardware investment isn’t the only investment distillers have to make when getting into cans. “Don’t underestimate the time, expense and expertise needed to bring a great cocktail to market. There is a big difference between canning a lower-alcohol product with complex ingredients compared to bottling a high-proof spirit. Investing time and attention away from other core products is definitely a huge consideration. Developing formulas, product design and marketing materials is expensive.”

Lee Katrincic, at Durham Distillery, hopes their experience can help distillers avoid common pitfalls with some quick technical tips. “Test your batches in five-gallon pony kegs, verify your product pH to make sure you have the right cans, learn about carbonation techniques, be diligent with sanitation of tanks, purge your products well enough to reduce your dissolved oxygen and keep your product cold to carbonate easier and reduce foaming.”

Jason Ebel reinforces the importance of making a quality product and being unique in a crowded market. “There are a lot of options in the market now, so you need to figure out how you are going to set yourself apart. For us, that meant a lot of research and development. We spent over a year perfecting recipes, working with vendors and testing these products to ensure they are shelf-stable and flavor-forward. Put in the time and effort to create products you are truly proud of and excited about.”

Whit Bowers knows getting into canned cocktails is a marathon and not a sprint. “Be thoughtful in your approach and map your direction. This is a hard path, and you need to be committed both financially and mentally to pursue. Find good partners who you can trust and keep those involved consistent.”

Adam Quirk warns that canned cocktails are not for everyone. Deviating away from a core competency may not be in a distiller’s best interest. “It seems to be a land grab out there, with dozens of new brands hitting the shelves every quarter. If you can be nimble and already have canning capabilities, it could be worth trying to get some market share. If not, you may be better off focusing your attention elsewhere.”

In the end, craft distillers interested in getting into the canned cocktail or RTD space should approach the decision with the long view in mind. Consumers excited about high-quality craft beer and new canned wine options see canned spirits as the next great frontier and are excited for innovation. Even though there are a variety of investment ranges and co-packaging options, a distiller should be aware of all that goes into building a canned brand. But, for now, consumers are beating the summer heat and enjoying a cold, refreshing canned spirit and all the hard work that went into it.

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Donald Snyder
Donald Snyder, Founder and President of Whiskey Resources LLC and Whiskey Systems Online, has more than 12 years of experience in the alcohol and beverage industry including holding senior management roles at the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, and MGPI in Lawrenceburg, IN. After leaving the corporate world, Donald now helps craft distilleries of all sizes in a variety of areas including creating start-up business models, automating distillery operations tracking and ensuring TTB reporting compliance and audit preparedness.