Spirits

Spirits: The Rise of Ready-Made Cocktails

One of several newcomers to the pre-made-cocktail market aimed at home bartenders, Sauza's boxed margarita bears little resemblance to the real thing.
One of several newcomers to the pre-made-cocktail market aimed at home bartenders, Sauza's boxed margarita bears little resemblance to the real thing. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Last week I took a stroll in the liquor store down that scary aisle where I rarely venture, the one that stocks what the industry variously calls ready-to-serves, ready-mades, pre-mades or "prepared" cocktails. I hadn't been that way in a while, and I saw a lot more brands than I remembered. Apparently, more are on the way.

One of those is Sauza's Margarita-in-a-Box, which was unveiled this month and "is as easy as putting ice in a glass and pouring straight from the refrigerator," according to the company's news release. "As a leader and innovator in the tequila category, Sauza is committed to offering consumers fresh and unexpected ways to enjoy tequila." I lighted on the word "fresh."

Fresh. Really? My first thought was: I hope it's at least fresher than Sauza's earlier margarita-in-a-plastic-jug, which had an aroma of lemon-lime cleaner and tasted like Country Time Lemonade.

Well, I got to sample Sauza's new boxed contender. The smell is an improvement (there's a more pleasant tequila aroma) but the drink still tastes thin, tart and out of balance. Sure, it might be in line with the bad artificial margaritas you may have been served on Cinco de Mayo, but it bears little resemblance to a true margarita. It left my fellow tasters and me wondering, "What's the point?"

There is a reason for the proliferation of pre-mades. In 2008, sales of spirits in bars and restaurants dipped for the first time in 13 years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Spirits sales in general, however, showed steady growth, which led industry observers to the conclusion that more people are entertaining with spirits and cocktails at home. The response by liquor giants Diageo, Beam and Bacardi has been to launch more ready-to-serve cocktails, and they've done well in the market. Last year "they outperformed the rest of the spirits category," according to David Ozgo, the council's chief economist.

I guess I should be touched by the concern shown by these big liquor companies. They must be worried that many home bartenders -- or, as Ozgo puts it, "people who aren't necessarily interested in mixing a drink from scratch" -- are incapable of combining, say, the three common ingredients that go into a margarita.

Diageo has released a number of ready-to-serves, such as Jose Cuervo Golden Margarita (a mix of tequila and Grand Marnier with some artificial coloring) and its Smirnoff pre-made cocktail line, which includes Mojito and Grand Cosmopolitan. "They're very good at milking a brand for everything it's worth," Ozgo said.

Diageo, for instance, recently released Captain Morgan Long Island Iced Tea, a mix of rum, tequila, gin and vodka, along with some triple sec and caramel coloring, to replicate that lamentable cocktail. The company also launched a new Smirnoff ready-to-serve: Tuscan Lemonade, a mix of vodka and limoncello plus "natural citrus flavors" and "certified and caramel colors."

Brown-Forman has announced it will expand its Southern Comfort brand to include Southern Comfort Sweet Tea and Southern Comfort Hurricane. And Bacardi already has a prepared cocktail line.

I tasted a handful of those concoctions last week and can tell you that Jose Cuervo Golden Margarita is about the best of the pre-made margarita bunch. You actually get the barest hint of the orange liqueur's bitter undertones and the saltiness of tequila, and it approaches a balanced cocktail. Though "best," I hasten to add, is relative.

As I moved on to other pre-mades, I mixed up, ahem, a "classic" Long Island Iced Tea to compare with the ready-to-serves from Captain Morgan and Bacardi.

Yup. Congratulations, Captain Morgan. Your Long Island Iced Tea tastes a lot like the real McCoy, though I'm not certain that's worth bragging about. Bacardi's version is weaker, a little like Coke without the fizz.

Most ready-to-serves are low in alcohol, ranging from about 10 to 18 percent alcohol by volume (from 20 up to about 36 proof), and I think that adds to the problem. Please understand that I am not making a boozer's argument here. Instead, I'm suggesting that because these overly sweet, lower-proof concoctions taste like kids' fruit drinks rather than adult alcoholic beverages, they actually entice drinkers -- often younger, inexperienced drinkers -- to consume more than if they were sipping regular spirits in correctly measured cocktails.

Case in point is T.G.I. Friday's Margarita Blenders, only 12.5 percent alcohol. On its face, it seems like a lighter option than a traditional margarita, which is about 30 percent alcohol. But the label on the bottle says that it "Makes 8 10-ounce Drinks," which would be two to three times as big as a proper margarita. You have to read the small type on the back to realize that the 10 ounces includes a cup of ice in each drink. But will ready-to-serve consumers make it that way? Because there's a paradox at work here: Prepared drinks such as this one are supposed to be for people who don't want to read and follow a recipe in the first place.

Still, I at least give T.G.I. Friday's some credit for putting a little tequila and triple sec in the mix. Some pre-mades can't even be bothered with that. The boxed Daily's Ready to Drink Margarita, possibly Sauza's prime rival in the boxed-margarita category, boasts "ALCOHOL IS IN IT!" on the package. Do not be fooled. The fine print calls it a "Naturally Flavored Wine Product," meaning this "margarita" contains absolutely no tequila (as well as no triple sec and no real lime juice).

Instead, along with water and wine, we get high-fructose corn syrup, Yellow 5 and Blue 1 and a bunch of other chemicals. Tasting as I imagine watered-down Mister Clean does, it has no redeeming qualities. I can say with certainty that it's the worst alcoholic beverage I've tasted in more than two years of writing this column.

I realize that Captain Morgan and Bacardi and Smirnoff and Sauza shouldn't necessarily be written off because of horrible products such as Daily's. On the other hand, these brands have chosen to go slumming in the same liquor store aisle. As my mother always reminded me when I hung out with the stoners in the high school parking lot: reputation by association.

Jason Wilson can be reached at jason@tablematters.comor food@washpost.com.


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