Over the past year, the dark cans of stout in the corner of my local grocery store’s craft-beer fridge have given way to lighter, smaller containers. I didn’t stop to inspect these new offerings until a pink box with a palm-frond print—a Bat-Signal for middle-class Millennial women—caught my eye. What I found wasn’t beer at all, but a four-pack of rosé spritzers from a local brand called Flora, nestled among several other cocktail options in bright, crisply designed packaging.
After a moment of self-loathing at the predictability of my desires, I plunked the spritzers into my cart. At $12, the four cans cost less than a single cocktail at the bars near my Brooklyn apartment. They were also more convenient than opening a bottle of wine just to drink a glass or two. The little pink box provoked a question I’d never thought to ask: If beer connoisseurs can cover their bases at any decent grocery store, why has it always been impossible for me to take a six-pack of wine spritzers or canned gin and tonics to a friend’s cookout?
Lately, plenty of young people seem to have had a similar eureka moment while standing in front of refrigerator cases. As canned cocktails, including ready-to-drink fizzy wine concoctions and portable hard-liquor classics, have become more available across the country, their sales have climbed more than 40 percent in the past year. Sales of boozy seltzers have nearly tripled in the same period.
The past 15 years have been a rickety, terrifying roller coaster for the U.S. alcohol industry. Millennials have spurned the former cash cow of cheap, mass-market beer to careen among a series of unpredictable booze trends including flavored malt beverages such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade, craft beer, rosé, whiskey, and fancy cocktail bars. With canned cocktails, brands seem to have finally arrived at a trend in time to meet consumer demand instead of chase it. The middlebrow fanciness of cracking open a cold Moscow mule in a friend’s backyard might be just the thing to satisfy a generation whose desires often outpace its disposable income.
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According to Eric Schmidt, the director of alcohol research at the industry consulting group Beverage Marketing Corporation, the tricky thing about selling booze to young people right now is that they know too much about the alcohol options available to them. “The amount of information that this generation can get is huge,” he says. He credits the shift in knowledge to social media, where you can easily track celebrities and other cool, affluent, influential people to see what they’re doing—and consuming. Young people have “become a little bit more discerning, and what they look for is things off the beaten path,” Schmidt says. “Baby Boomers were drinking Budweisers at this age.”
That burgeoning sophistication fueled an explosion in cocktail culture and craft beer, and the big challenge for brewers and distillers has been making that experience portable. “Canned cocktails are the final frontier,” says Laura Johnson, the owner of You & Yours Distilling in San Diego. “We’ve put high-quality wine in cans and people have come around to that. We have craft beer in cans and that’s the norm. But having a high-quality canned cocktail that’s not a Smirnoff Ice is very new.” Until recently, canning a well-balanced, fresh-tasting cocktail was prohibitively difficult with the techniques and equipment available. Thanks to advances in packaging technology, getting high-quality results is less arduous, and more manufacturers are giving it a shot.
Johnson’s distillery launched three flavors of ready-to-drink vodka and gin cocktails in October, and she says consumer response has been so enthusiastic that the company is expanding its distribution to the East Coast and adding five new flavors this year. But that expansion still faces obstacles. Distribution laws vary widely by state and frequently keep products containing actual liquor out of grocery stores. Meanwhile, hard seltzers, a spiritual cousin of canned cocktails that are malt-based like beer and contain less alcohol, don’t face similar restrictions or the higher taxes often levied against distilled spirits. Looser regulations have undoubtedly helped fuel hard seltzer’s own meteoric rise: Schmidt says that 100,000 cases were sold in the United States in 2013, but that this year the number could hit 50 million.
Even real-liquor cocktails such as those packaged by You & Yours tend to keep the alcohol content pretty light, which is a selling point that might feel counterintuitive to older, harder-drinking people. Adults under 40 are reshaping America’s relationship with booze, and for many of them, that means seeking out low- or no-alcohol options. “You can have a couple [of canned cocktails] and drink responsibly, which is a huge thing now,” Schmidt explains. The popular seltzer brand White Claw is 5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV, which makes it comparable to Budweiser. You & Yours is a little heavier, at around 8 percent ABV, but that’s still not as alcohol-dense as a glass of wine or a cocktail at a bar. Millennials are frequently described as preferring “experiences” to “things,” and in this case, the “experience” might be having a couple of well-made G&Ts at the beach and then driving home sunburn-free instead of passing out drunk in direct sunlight.
Keeping alcohol content in check also means that manufacturers can reduce or eliminate the sweeteners in their drinks—another plus for a generation rife with health anxieties. Canned-cocktail makers are “not only marketing a product and a flavor, but they’re also marketing calorie counts, because people are more sensitive to what they’re putting in their bodies than ever before,” Schmidt explains. He says that signaling is why so many canned-cocktail brands favor slender cans and a bright, simple aesthetic: They want to avoid looking like sodas or cheap beers, which young people think are unsophisticated and unhealthy, yet remain exactly as accessible as sodas and cheap beers.
That accessibility might be the real key to these drinks’ success. The lifestyles of the rich and famous used to be opaque fantasies, but thanks to the internet, young Americans have seen and occasionally experienced many of the things they might never have known existed two generations ago. The tension between young adults’ bleak financial outlook and their broad, diverse, frequently upscale tastes has helped put hummus and sushi in grocery stores across the country and turned inexpensive Champion sweatshirts into fashion statements.
Canned cocktails, which cost a few dollars per can to emulate an experience that can easily cost $15 a drink in a bar, reflect the beverage industry reading the writing on the wall. “They have that feel of something on the premium scale,” Schmidt says. “There’s a lot of trading up in the spirits industry, but this is one segment of the market where you’re not going to get that.” Instead, Millennials and their new favorite drinks seem to be staying put at medium-fancy.