As RTDs come of age, Rachel Badham explores how brands are innovating and diversifying in line with key consumer trends to help the category continue on its upward trajectory

While hard seltzers struggled to capture consumer attention in the UK, despite their popularity in the US, RTDs – and in particular premixed cocktails – are continuing to gain popularity with both retailers and consumers, with more RTDs appearing on shelves than ever before. 

Lauren Priestley, Diageo’s head of category development for the off-trade, says: “The RTD category is currently the fastest growing in total beverage alcohol, a reflection on the nation’s increasing demand for quality drinks and convenience. “Cocktails are driving forward this trend, being the fastest growing category in the past two years (according to NIQ data), with premium cocktails accelerating the growth by 82%.” 

Andrew Birdsey, buyer at the Co-op, has seen the same trend in the retail space: “The ready-to-drink market has shown rapid growth in the past few years, and as a convenience retailer we’re treating this trend with serious anticipation.” 

With RTDs performing particularly well in the off-trade, Rob Wallis, co-founder of Moth Drinks, asserts that “the convenience factor continues to be a major driver, with consumers appreciating the ease of enjoying premium cocktails without the need for numerous ingredients”. 

However, it is apparent that convenience is not the only consumer priority when it comes to RTDs. As the category evolves, RTD brands are now paying close attention to other consumer needs. From mindful drinking to the “quality over quantity” approach, RTDs are drawing inspiration from industry-wide trends to make the category relevant for every occasion. 

THE RISE OF RUM 

“The popularity of classic RTD variants is currently driving consumer demand in our stores,” says Birdsey. “However, we’re also dedicating more in-store space to the category in the coming years, and this will see the introduction of a more varied product selection.” 

Traditionally a space dominated by simple spirit and mixer combinations, such as gin and tonic, RTDs are now making the most of the growing market for rum. Sharon Kearney, impulse controller for Bacardi, says that, while “the most mixable spirits like gin and vodka still have the lion’s share of the RTD category, we are now seeing considerable growth in rum-based cocktails.” 

With rum gaining more attention in the spirits category as a whole, this appears to be trickling into RTDs, with Jo Taylorson, head of marketing and product management for Kingsland Drinks, mentioning two launches – Coffee Rum & Cola and Apple Rum, Lime & Ginger Ale – in Kingsland’s Mix Up range last year. 

“Total rum sales now amount to 13% of the overall spirits category,” she explains. “The new launches tap into this, as well as established and emerging flavour trends such as coffee-flavoured drinks.” 

To encourage consumers to experiment more with their RTD choices, particularly when stepping outside of gin and vodka, Bacardi’s Kearney recommends retailers stock drinks that offer “twists on classics”, mentioning the brand’s Mango Mojito and Raspberry Mojito. 

MINDFUL MEETS RTDS 

As both RTDs and low/no consolidate themselves as categories in their own right, Paul Sullivan, managing director of 6 O’Clock Gin, says “it’s no surprise to see low/no alcohol options gaining traction” in RTDs. 

Mentioning “diversification and innovation” within the category, Sullivan also notes a rise in low/no RTD offerings in retail. “We recently gained listings for our Light & Low Gin & Tonic in both the Co-op and Ocado as consumers seek more mindful drinking choices,” he says. 

Laura Willoughby, founder of Club Soda, says RTDs offer the ideal solution when it comes to consumer experimentation with low/no. “RTDs are at a great price point for consumers. It allows them to dip their toe into both categories without spending too much and then come back for full bottles of their favourite low/no spirit.” 

And with spring and summer on the horizon, Willoughby says that now is the perfect time for retailers to expand their low/no RTD range: “We always up our cocktail selection for the summer. Classic cocktail styles always do well – think Dark ‘n Stormy or Espresso Martini – and more fruity offerings (like a Mojito or Cosmopolitan) are a hit with younger consumers.” 

PREMIUMISATION 

Across the off-trade, the trend of consumers opting for higher-quality serves is becoming more prevalent, and RTDs are no exception. 

Rob Breakwell, Niche Cocktails chief executive, says: “We’re finding that, despite the cost of living crisis, people are trading up to really treat themselves when they can. When the price of beer and wine is going up, cocktails aren’t the same jump in cost as they once were.” 

While many drinkers are yet to venture into RTDs, Breakwell believes that quality products will resonate with drinkers. “As the RTD cocktail market becomes more competitive, attention should turn to the quality of the brand.” 

Moth Drinks’ Wallis agrees, saying that quality is becoming more of a driving factor when it comes to influencing consumers’ purchasing behaviour. “Drinkers are slowly starting to trust that the liquid in a can is as good, if not better, than what you find in your local bar or can make at home.” 

For RTDs to maintain their momentum and garner more consumer appeal, 6 O’Clock Gin’s Sullivan says that a focus on quality is essential: “The future of RTDs is balancing quality and convenience together to create a clear role for RTDs.” 

Ben Anderson, marketing director at Funkin Cocktails, adds: “Ultimately, cocktails have got to be the most versatile segment across alcohol. And as innovation continues to surge within the category, this adaptability remains more relevant than ever.”