No longer sugar-laden, watered-down lackluster sips, the new evolution of canned and bottled RTD (Ready-to-Drink) cocktails are gaining traction in restaurant beverage programs. Touted benefits range from complex flavor profiles and elevated can design and presentation to speedier, more simplified service. Growing in consumption by 104 percent since 2021 (reports Nielsen), RTDs’ high-quality spirits, expert recipes flaunting premium ingredients, and traditional cocktail-esque drinkability are propelling interest, sales, and category expansion in restaurants and bars.
“Customers aren’t just paying for the drink, but for the experience, and you want to give them something more elevated,” explains Jess Goldfarb, managing partner at New York City’s Due West. “We have a lot of pride in our cocktail program so we want RTDs that represent what we do.”
Even though they’re in-demand, alcoholic and nonalcoholic canned and bottled RTDs are “really difficult to make because the recipes aren’t standard,” says Melkon Khosrovian, co-founder and spirits maker at Los Angeles’ Greenbar Distillery.
“You can’t just turn an alcoholic cocktail into a nonalcoholic cocktail by mixing because the replacements follow their own rules,” he adds. “And more restaurants and bars are beginning to incorporate RTDs because they’ve discovered just how difficult it is to have bartenders pull off a worthy nonalcoholic cocktail experience.”
RTDs’ consistent presentation and quick service, waste reduction from over pouring and spills, and tiny storage and training time are attractive perks for restaurants, says Neal Cohen, co-founder and chief brand officer at Atlanta’s Tip Top Proper Cocktails.
“If an order of six espresso martinis backs up your bar for 10 minutes, that’s a meaningful amount of time where you could put out six espresso martinis in one or two minutes with canned cocktails,” explains Cohen. If you’re pricing alcoholic beverages at $5 to $7, by simply offering RTDs, guests can trade up to a $12 or $14 canned cocktail because “you’re giving them an appealing option, which increases what they’re spending,” he says.
For Tip Top’s 10 high-proof, non-carbonated ready-to-pours, “it was really about positioning our brand as canned cocktails that come from the bar and speak the language of those who spend time in great cocktail bars,” Cohen says. This led to a strong focus on loyalty to traditional recipes in an espresso martini, Boulevardier, jungle bird, Bee’s Knees, margarita, daiquiri, gin martini, Manhattan, Negroni, and Old Fashioned.
“RTDs definitely save a lot of time for execution of service,” says Sam Penton, director of bars at Rosewood Miramar Beach in Montecito, California. “That improves the guest experience, and elevates their mood and our ability to deliver hospitality from the very beginning.”
Rosewood’s six RTDs fit in by the beach, on a patio or terrace, or poolside with an RTD featuring gin, honey, passionfruit, pineapple, and lemon; an almost-Aperol Spritz with strawberry, wine, and orange; and a mostly-Margarita mixing tequila, coconut water, honey, habanero, tahini, and lime.
“When an RTD comes to the table, if you have elevated ingredients and packaging, whether it’s a can, a bottle, [or] large format, it looks nice and it’s a great talking point for the guests; it’s interactive and fun,” says Goldfarb. “It’s going to be a higher price point, but you’re taking away all that service labor so customers pay a little more. [So] if you price your margins properly, it’s going to save you in a variety of ways.”
Fresh in-season ingredients, clarified juices, and just-made cocktail-quality spirits comprise Due West’s RTDs like the Tepache (fermented pineapple, spices, tequila), the brand’s play on a Collins with gin, local red bitters, blood orange, Chinese five spice tea, and vermouth, and the Apache Highball with vodka, calamansi juice, white tea, and honey.
“If you can’t drink it right out of the can, we shouldn’t be selling it in the can,” explains Goldfarb, who adds that because Due West does everything in-house including recipes, carbonation, artwork, and canning, staff are trained to educate guests on RTDs, which not only drives purchases, but immediately shows the time, effort, and care put into the canned cocktails.
“If someone wants to not drink alcohol and they’re sticking with water, I’d much rather they buy eight to 10 RTDs that we’ve curated as minutely as our menu,” explains Ryan Pernice, owner/operator at Roswell, Georgia’s RO Hospitality (Table & Main, Osteria Mattone, and Casa Robles).
RO Hospitality went out of its way to present compelling options to welcome every guest, especially those who aren’t drinking alcohol, which Pernice says “is certainly a widening category these days.” That means top-of-the-line Negroni and Old Fashioned RTDs, since classic Old Fashioneds are the restaurant’s highest-selling cocktail, “so it’s not like we’re trying to convince consumers to drink something they’ve never heard of and it’s approachable,” he explains.
Through the RTD formulation process, Khosrovian discovered the quality threshold for nonalcoholic cocktails was higher than traditional. “And because we focus on balance, quality, depth, and structure of a cocktail that feels real to customers who drink alcoholic ones … we sell more RTDs because ours stand out better compared to the competition,” he says.
“Your profitability is quite enhanced because you’re getting a professionally-made RTD out to customers quickly with little restaurant space used and the potential for a second or third cocktail sold,” Khosrovian explains. “One or three RTDs, consumers can drive away without any worries, so the potential to make customers happy and have them make you happy are magnified … they’re like, ‘I’ll have a treat and I’m willing to pay more money for it.’”
Greenbar’s organic, clean-ingredient RTDs needed “palate memory” and “luxury quality” that felt like imbibing at the best cocktail scene, and at a reasonable price point—around $20 to $22. Consumers had to experience the same senses as freshly-made cocktails, so Greenbar built on black, smoke, and rooibos teas to “provide additional structure to make our RTDs feel more like real cocktails,” Khosrovian says.
And the as-real-as-possible cocktail formulas continued by boiling alcohol out of gin and rum to “still capture the smell and taste.” It’s why Greenbar’s RTD gin and tonic is a top seller—“because it smells and tastes frighteningly close to a real gin and tonic since we make it with real gin,” explains Khosrovian.
When integrating RTDs into your operations, Pernice provides steps to success: consider your concept and what’s highest selling or popular to figure out the RTD beverage best fit. They’re delicious, as easy as serving a beer, take minimal training, and “streamline your process while making a craft beverage offering a lot easier,” he adds.
But even if it’s a trusted spirit, perform a taste-test to ensure a match on your restaurant’s quality standards, says Cohen, because “creating these RTD formulas and putting them in a can doesn’t always translate in the ways you expect … and many established spirits brands aren’t doing them well.”
There’s no doubt the RTD demand from consumers is growing, Khosrovian adds, but they’re looking for elite quality offered only by the best canned brands. “The only reason to drink canned cocktails is for the journey, so if the journey is bumpy and not beautiful, there’s no point,” he says. “The experience has to be exquisite or it’s not worth it for any amount of money.”