Budding epicureans were bursting with ambition and optimism at the springtime start of sheltering in place. Sourdough mothers had a baby boom. Green onions regenerated on windowsills. And new home mixologists were stocking liquor cabinets with rare elixirs and offbeat liqueurs, long silver spoons and overflowing bowls of citrus — everything needed to make perfect cocktails at home.
By now, many of those bar tools and bottles are collecting dust. (And those sourdough starters? Dead.)
Minnesota distilleries to the rescue.
More local craft spirit-makers are creating bottled or canned cocktails, adding to a rapidly rising trend of premixed hard beverages.
Known as RTD (for ready to drink), premade, shelf-stable adult beverages are the fastest-growing segment in alcohol, and analysts see even more thirst for them since the pandemic initially closed bars and forced cocktail drinkers to fend for themselves. While malt beverages — think hard seltzer — have blown up in recent years, spirit-based cocktails are also expanding: U.S. sales grew 40% from 2018 to 2019.
“They’re trending extremely well,” said Tom Schneider, the liquor buyer for France 44 in Minneapolis.
Schneider recently sold a customer 400 canned cocktails from Minnetonka-based distillery Dashfire, which the customer distributed to co-workers for a Zoom happy hour. “We can’t go to bars right now, so people are going to the park and tossing their friend an Old Fashioned in a can,” he said.
Ready-to-drink cocktails aren’t new, but in the past they were marketed as low-calorie margaritas or came in big jugs of creamy, sweet drinks from chain restaurants with only a dash of alcohol.
“There have always been premade cocktails, but they’ve always been bad,” Schneider said.
Suddenly, it seems, things have changed. “These are actually well-made, foolproof cocktails,” many of them with a higher content of alcohol by volume than your mass-market mudslide, Schneider said. “They’re the real deal, and Minnesota is on the forefront of these things.”
Here are seven Minnesota distilleries making ready-to-pour cocktails. No fancy spoons needed.
What they make: Bottled Old Fashioneds.
The St. Louis Park distillery is the newest Minnesota spirit maker to join the fray with its line of Copperwing House Calls. The first release is a bottled Old Fashioned, a spirit-forward classic utilizing Copperwing’s bourbon. Coming soon: a barrel-aged Negroni and the Wilderness Downtown — bourbon with maple syrup and fernet.
Plans for bottled cocktails were in the works for years, but “once the pandemic happened, it became clear that it was more important than ever to start the RTD program,” said Toph Heubach, Copperwing’s beverage director.
“I just saw a lot of people wanting to serve things at the same quality they get at a cocktail bar, but not getting the equipment or keeping simple syrup in stock in the house,” Heubach said. “It’s so easy to take a well-made cocktail and pour it over a cube of ice.”
What they make: Bottles of Negroni, Boulevardier and Manley’s Old Fashioned.
Heather Manley didn’t want to make another Skinnygirl, the wildly popular and often-derided low-cal margarita launched by a reality television star.
“I don’t ever want to make money selling my soul,” said the owner of Crooked Water Spirits, which is based in Minneapolis (and produced in Wisconsin). Instead, she’s been selling bottles of cocktails made with her company’s bourbon and gin. Currently, there are three: the Manley’s Old Fashioned, a Negroni and a barrel-aged Boulevardier, for which she collaborated with a California winemaker to nail the ingredient of sweet vermouth that could survive the liquor store shelf.
It’s all her contribution to elevating this segment of spirits.
“There’s a lot of crappy ready-to-pour out there,” Manley said. “But with growth in our industry, over time, and growth of craft, I believe the craft distillers are raising the expectations of the consumer on what a beautiful canned cocktail can be.”
What they make: Six flavors of classic cocktails and three kinds of hard coffee in single-serve cans.
It took six years for the bitters brand to realize its dream of offering craft cocktails in a can. Among the holdups: finding a canner that could seal a mixed drink in a petite 100-milliliter can (with a flashy gold top). Eventually, Dashfire owner Lee Egbert installed his own canning line, and it worked wonders. Dashfire makes bottled cocktails, too, but the tiny cans are bestsellers.
“For us and for consumers, having a cocktail in a can is a completely different story,” Egbert said. “When you put it into a can, it turns it into a day-to-day experience.”
Dashfire produces six cocktails at its Minnetonka distillery — everything from a lemon and lavender martini to a chai White Russian. And they’ve just added three hard coffee cocktails — Rum Golden Latte, Bourbon Cold Brew Coffee, Rum Cafe Mocha.
“This is a way cooler version of a vodka Red Bull,” Egbert said.
What they make: The Northern Cocktail, a bottled Old Fashioned.
Three high school friends from the Twin Cities mixed up a recipe for their favorite cocktail that includes bourbon, local raw buckwheat honey, bitters and citrus for a spin on the Old Fashioned. They partner with a Minnesota distillery to make and bottle their concoction.
The name? It’s inspired by the friends’ outdoor wanderings near Duluth. “Having bonfires on the beach and getting out in nature, that’s the whole theme behind the brand,” said owner Andrew Fischer.
“It definitely seems to be an emerging area in spirits, and we thought this was our best way to offer a unique product,” Fischer said. “We’re hoping to keep catching on more and more.”
What they make: Three flavors of low-proof cocktails in single-serve cans.
After seeing the rise in canned cocktails’ popularity, the Minnesota organic spirits brand launched a new line of sparkling cocktails in April, just as people began staying home. “We cannot produce them fast enough,” said Meghan Murray, vice president of marketing at Phillips Distilling Co.
Cucumber lemonade and grapefruit are both made with vodka, and Minnesota Bootleg with gin; all are a low-proof (and low-calorie) refreshment on par with hard seltzer.
Another new release: three flavored vodkas called Sustainable Seasons that only need soda water to turn them into mixed drinks.
“With individuals staying home more and socializing through things like virtual happy hours ... RTD cocktails offer an easy way to enjoy great cocktails,” Murray said.
What they make: Bottled Old Fashioned, Salty Dog and Bootlegger.
The northeast Minneapolis distillery found a wildly successful formula for re-creating the Minnesota Bootleg cocktail without the little bits of mint that get stuck in your teeth. The idea was for bars to serve a fast and easy cocktail to a large crowd at events like outdoor music festivals (remember those?). But Tattersall’s Bootlegger — just add soda water and ice — was a hit in liquor stores. “Obviously, there was an appetite there,” said co-founder Dan Oskey.
They’ve since added the Old Fashioned with a Tattersall spin: It uses their 100% Minnesota rye whiskey and sour cherry liqueur. As the pandemic got underway, Tattersall came out with a well-timed third bottled cocktail, the summery Salty Dog.
“They’re performing really well during the pandemic,” Oskey said. “We’ve seen people’s habits change, drinking more at home. Those habits are going to be a little more permanent and it’ll take a long time to break them once we come back to a normal world.”
What they make: The Frenchie, a canned effervescent gin cocktail.
Emily Vikre’s favorite cocktail is a French 75, one she couldn’t quite whip up with one hand. (She had just had her second child and never had both hands free.) So, the owner of Duluth’s Vikre Distillery decided to come up with a solution.
It took her 18 months to develop the Frenchie, a canned gin cocktail made with sparkling rosé, elderflower liqueur and clarified grapefruit juice that hints at the classic French 75.
Four-packs of the cute cans — with a bulldog in a beret — are catching on, but Vikre says customers can still be wary of trying premade cocktails, especially one with citrus, which is notoriously finicky when it’s not fresh-squeezed.
“Unless you’re seeing a martini or Old Fashioned where you know it’s going to be boozy, people see a canned cocktail with fruit and assume it’s going to taste like pop, and it’s going to be cheap.”
Not the Frenchie. “It’s strong,” Vikre said.
The distillery has two more canned cocktails in the works, and, after installing its own canning line, is experimenting with even more.