The alcopop redemption arc
Strip-mining soft-drink portfolios for booze crossovers is still a solid strategy... for now
This week, Anheuser-Busch InBev announced it had partnered with the parent company of Jarritos, a popular Mexican soda brand with a strong stateside fanbase, to launch an alcoholic version of the beverage called Cantaritos. Like you, I’m very angry that they didn’t call it Jard-ritos, but let’s set that aside for a moment and zoom out. We’re just three years removed from the Summer of White Claw and the subsequent flavored malt beverage deluge it unleashed upon the American beverage marketplace. The proliferation of hard seltzer proper has been insane: according to a July report from market-research firm IRI, the segment encompasses like 220 brands and over 1,000 SKUs within the United States alone. This is simply too many options, which you know if you’ve found yourself staring slack-jawed at a supermarket cooler, paralyzed by the seemingly identical choices at hand.1 At some point the hard seltzer category will stabilize, and I’m not particularly interested in arguments about when or how that will happen. I am interested in what this moment means for beverage alcohol moving forward. More so than the bajillions of dollars the hard seltzer boom has generated for early-moving brewers, I think hard seltzer’s legacy will be the sheer breadth of FMBs and (shortly after, spirits-based RTDs) it Trojan-horsed into American fridges, and the head-spinning speed with which the concept of alcoholizing a soft drink brand went from “wouldn’t it be crazy if” to “it would be crazy if not.”
Until very recently, this was not the case. FMBs that look and drink like soft drinks have existed for decades. They used to be called “alcopops,” and while they weren’t a total backwater in the beverage-alcohol business—some of them made good money in the pre-White Claw era!—they absolutely weren’t mainstream, either. In fact, they were such mostly such a joke that defunct concepts (wine coolers generally; Zima in particular) have survived for decades as punchlines. Even the FMBs that succeeded, like Smirnoff Ice, Twisted Tea, and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, struggled to shed the mainstream perception2 that they were “for chicks,” which limited profits and market penetration. They also drew a fair amount of criticism from public-health officials and anti-alcohol advocacy groups on account of being precision-optimized for ‘90s kids to drink five of and subsequently barf up behind Trevor’s Ford Explorer at junior homecoming. (This never happened to me.)
My point is that there used to be plenty of good reasons for major soft-drink companies (Coke, Pepsi, Red Bull…) to stay the hell away from alcopops. Doubly so for full-proof liquor. Hard seltzer helped to change all that.