How spirits brand owners can ensure the home-cocktail trend sticks

While the coronavirus pandemic forced consumers to stay at home, the thirst for cocktails has remained unsated. Spirits commentator Richard Woodard looks at how home cocktails could be made to be here to stay.

Rather like the boom in RTDs and e-commerce, the home cocktail-making craze has become one of the great, oft-repeated clichés of the pandemic; pantry-loading consumers splurging on premium-plus spirits in a bid to recreate the style bar experience in their own living rooms.

It’s messy, it’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, it’s too much of a faff

As with most clichés, it has its roots in truth. Yet, as with most clichés, it also has its limitations – in this case, in terms of how it’s likely to mould longer-term trends. Just because a bunch of consumers spent lockdown perfecting their own personal Manhattan recipes doesn’t mean they’re going to continue to play amateur mixologists forevermore.

For many, I suspect, as life moves on to whatever form of ‘new normal’ the post-pandemic world affords them, meticulously sourcing the right ingredients and kit, then going to the trouble of painstakingly making their own cocktails isn’t going to be anywhere near the top of their priority list. It’s messy, it’s expensive, it’s time-consuming. In short, it’s too much of a faff.

So, how to fill that Martini glass-shaped hole in your drinking habits? You could go back to your favourite bar - assuming it’s survived 18 months of intermittent closures - but, even if you do that, you’re probably still going to like the idea of quaffing a homemade Old Fashioned or Espresso Martini in front of Netflix.

Today, there's an increasingly impressive range of pre-mixed cocktails, some from the very bars we’ve all missed since early-2020, and these will certainly have a role to play. But, they’re not exactly involving; what can fill the gap between open-and-pour and DIY mixology? This is where technology, and the insatiable human passion for gadgets, comes into play.

The history of Drinkworks - a Nespresso-style machine for booze, developed as a joint venture between Anheuser-Busch InBev and Keurig Dr Pepper - easily predates the pandemic, having taken its bow in November 2018 (and has been in development for some years before then). Like Nespresso, the system works with ‘pods’ - in this case, all the main ingredients for a cocktail, in concentrated form - to which the machine adds the right amount of water and, if needed, carbonation. Drinkworks can do cocktails, but also beer and cider (A-B InBev’s Stella Artois Cidre is one of the pods available).

In November 2019, Brown-Forman signed up to sell a range of Drinkworks-compatible branded cocktail pods, with Jack Daniel’s Lynchburg Lemonade launched the following April. Since then, a Chambord French Martini, Gentleman Jack Manhattan and Herradura Margarita have joined the fray. Then, last month, Pernod Ricard confirmed its intention to dip its corporate toe in the Drinkworks waters too, in the shape of pod versions of an Absolut Pineapple Martini and a Kahlúa Espresso Martini (a Malibu-based cocktail is set to follow).

The equity of brands is a hugely powerful consumer draw

The involvement in Drinkworks of two of the spirits industry’s big hitters is vital. The Nespresso comparison has its limitations: while there are branded pods (Starbucks, Costa), it’s much easier to sell coffee by origin, strength and flavour. Spirits, however, is a different matter - the equity of brands such as Jack Daniel’s and Absolut is a hugely powerful consumer draw.

Drinkworks sells generic, non-branded cocktail pods in various guises, but these are the equivalent of own-label supermarket spirits: price-competitive, but lacking the cachet of their branded rivals. If you’ve splashed out US$300 on a fancy machine, you want it to make a decent drink.

So, Drinkworks has signed up some brands from Brown-Forman, and now from Pernod Ricard, as well as Heaven Hill-owned Deep Eddy Vodka. But, the platform will need more big hitters if it is really to take off: brands, for instance, from Diageo, Bacardi, Beam Suntory…

Okay, maybe not Beam Suntory: The company has already invested in a rival venture, Bartesian, which recently secured an extra US$20m in investment funding. Bartesian differs from Drinkworks in one vital aspect: the cocktail pods contain all the other essential ingredients, but not the alcohol.

Will the battle be the equivalent of the VHS/Betamax face-off?

On one side, we have Drinkworks, which does pretty much all the work for you but looks heavily dependent on attracting more big-name brands to give it widespread appeal. On the other, Bartesian, which isn’t at all brand-dependent, and lets you choose your own spirits - but isn’t quite as convenient. Both could attract their own devotees, carve out their own market niches and survive, but I wonder if the battle might end up being rather more Darwinian than that – the drinks equivalent of the 1980s face-off between VHS and Betamax.

The rival videotape formats co-existed for a time but in the end, there was only one winner… Well, actually, in the end, there were no winners, because VHS has long since been usurped by DVD, and DVD by streaming, and streaming by whatever technology devises next/

I guess that’s the point about Drinkworks, Bartesian and any other rival cocktail-making gadgets that might emerge in the near future: they’re not the finished article. There will be glitches and inevitable obsolescence. Winners (and losers) will emerge, and brand owners will have to do an awful lot of homework and research to back the right horse.

But the essential concept? Something that combines the 21st-century human’s fascination with gadgetry with the post-pandemic love of making a fancy drink in the comfort of your own home?

To use another cliché: what’s not to like?