via Food Trends by Nicole Potenza Denis

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Riding the wave of unprecedented liquor sales from the COVID-19 pandemic, new and easy-to-access forms of alcoholic beverages, along with their complementary food counterparts, will keep the booze boom going this holiday season.

When COVID-19 had the entire country hunkered down at home, virtual happy hours and cocktail classes via social media platforms and video conferencing technology became the new norm. As socializing at home spurred consumers to stock up on their favorite alcoholic beverages, cocktail components and liquor sales soared.

According to a June 2020 report from Drizly, an alcohol e-commerce marketplace that services the U.S. and Canada, consumers not only ordered more frequently, but also at a larger quantity per order, with average order size up 50 percent higher than baseline going into the week of March 16.  This included sales of beer, wine, and liquor.

During the last week in May, New York City experienced some of the highest week-over-week growth above baseline, according to the online platform—jumping from 190 percent to 260 percent. Some markets have steadily experienced growth well above the national average, including Westchester, New York; Norwalk and Hartford-New Haven, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; and Minneapolis. Houston and San Antonio experienced a higher amount of growth above baseline, as did Seattle, Newark, New Jersey, and Boston.

Drizly also reports the biggest success stories heading into the warmer months included mezcal, (accelerating 1,064 percent growth above average). Subcategories that were dominating the week of Memorial Day included hard seltzer, ready-to-drink, and cocktail accoutrements and ingredients.

Old Fashioned with Tillen Farms Syrup

According to Nielsen data, off-premise sales of spirits in the U.S. were up 34.1 percent from last year for the nine-week period ending May 2, while wine sales grew 30.1 percent during the same time. Beer sales were up 12.6 percent.

And spiked seltzers, which last year were just emerging and showing strong promise, were up an astounding 456 percent year-over-year during the week of March 21.

While alcohol sales continue to soar, the fate of entertaining culture for both food and drink continues to evolve. “The future of entertaining will be about creating unique experiences at home that replicate the diversity and expertise we typically see outside of the home,” says Kalyn Rozanski, co-founder and innovation trend expert of Ebco, a consumer trends and insights company based in Austin, Texas. 

Rozanski says she is seeing consumers investing in appliances that help to create a more expert-level experience at home—from fancy ice and bread machines to pasta makers and outdoor pizza ovens—as well as restaurants that are selling their condiments, curated kits, and beverage kits to provide a restaurant-quality experience at home.

“These new ‘mixing and matching’ behaviors (like buying high-end condiments or cocktail kits to supplement an otherwise ordinary/average meal) create a unique take on something as well as meet specific budgets—all reshaping how consumers entertain,” she says.

A Smoky Manhattan with Bitters Lab Smoky Cedar Currant Bitters

Fast forward to June when COVID-19 quarantine restrictions loosened: Socially distant outdoor gatherings were more prevalent and specialty food bites became a trend that will move swiftly into the holidays.

From the burgeoning canned cocktail category to an increased interest in bitters and other make-at-home drink components, here are some beverage trends to look out for this holiday season.

Can Convenience
Thanks to the pandemic, alcoholic beverages in RTD canned form are quickly becoming favorites. “You don’t have to have another person pour you a drink and touch your glass, and you don’t have to touch a shared bottle—your can is yours,” remarks Lindsay Martin, vp of marketing for Reed’s Inc., which recently launched an RTD ‘Ginger Mule’ in partnership with Oregon-based craft brewer, Full Sail Brewing Co.

According to a Nielsen report, sales of canned cocktails grew 80 percent from April 2019 to April 2020. “The canned cocktail trend is poised to help with the cocktail culture especially as we are trying to get outdoors, and keep social distancing a priority,” says Kara Nielsen, director of food and drink for WGSN, a global trend forecasting and consumer insights group.

Nielsen says we will see both classics and new flavors evolve in a can especially as we approach the holidays. “Expect flavors such as maple syrup and winter spices like cinnamon and clove,” she notes.

Onda Sparkling Tequila, Reed’s Craft Ginger Mule, Tip Top Proper Cocktails Negroni

According to a WGSN analysis, the category has accelerated in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and is projected to grow globally at a rate of 3.32 percent from 2019 to 2027.

At Hyde Park Gourmet Food & Wine, Cincinnati, Ohio, Two Chicks Vodka Elderflower & Pear Cocktail, a sparkling vodka fizz, and a sparkling Apple Gimlet cocktail made with gin, apple, and cucumber, are widely popular along with Social’s organic sparkling sake ‘wine-style’ cocktail in Toasted Coconut & Almond.

“These are not like Boones Farm in a can but, instead, ready-to-drink beverages with high-quality ingredients, authentic spirits, and innovative flavors,” notes Hyde Park’s owner Evelyn Ignatow.

Hard Seltzer
The hype over hard seltzer may be just that, but craft breweries are jumping on the bandwagon, consumers have an increased desire for lower alcohol and healthier-ish drinks, and socially distanced entertaining is still a reality. Retailers can expect to see new launches and holiday flavors. According to analyst Kevin Grundy of Jefferies, U.S. sales of these malt-based beverages are expected to double to $3.5 billion this year and reach $6.5 billion by 2024.

Evil Water Passion Fruit Lemon Coconut Hard Pastry Seltzer, Urban Chestnut Lime & Salt Hard Seltzer

“Craft seltzers are going to be huge for this upcoming holiday season,” says Kathryn  Preissinger, PR coordinator at Tavour, a nationwide craft beer delivery service. Tavour has been offering curated boxes of hard seltzer from breweries such as Evil Twin, Urban Chestnut, and Untitled Art. 

Preissinger says consumers want access to low-calorie refreshing adult beverages with sophisticated, craft flavor profiles including real fruit concentrates, tropical flavors, or fun flavors like marshmallow and gummy bears. “Seltzers are flavorless so companies can make them taste precisely as they wish,” she adds.      

Party in a Box
With the relaxation of liquor laws in several states, restaurants are creating cocktail boxes and kits that customers can pick up and spirit and spirit-related companies are collaborating with cocktail component brands to include products like simple syrups and bitters.

Companies like Columbus, Ohio-based ROOT 23 for example, makers of simple syrups made with organic cane sugar, feature its Blueberry Mint Syrup in a cocktail kit with Re:Find Distillery in California for a ‘Winter Blues’ gin cocktail, while Hella Bitters new Entertaining Kit will showcase Hella Bitters & Soda, Hella Bitters Bar Set, and Cocktail Kingdom bar tools.

“We expect this ‘kit trend’ to carry over to retail,” says Ebco’s Rozanski.  

“And for holidays, you could imagine gifting a curated holiday-themed mixology kit or ordering a kit to complement a holiday meal.”

Rozanski says also to look out for direct-to-consumer companies that take the guess work out of making a top-shelf cocktail like Sourced Craft Cocktails and On the Rocks that deliver same-day liquor and the batched ingredients needed to create an expert-level drink at home. “Think smoke and fire margaritas, smoky old fashioned, etc.,” she says.

Re:Find Distillery Handcrafted Gin, ROOT 23 Blueberry Mint Simple Syrup

It also behooves brick-and-mortar retailers to keep cocktail components in stock and offer suggestions about holiday-themed libations to consumers. “We have seen big increases in the purchase of bitters for a make-at-home Negroni,” says Matt Caputo of Salt Lake City, Utah’s Caputo’s Market & Deli. Caputo says the big names like Angostura, Peychauds, and Fee Brother’s are doing well but small-batch producers are seeing big growth too. He touts Mister Bitters Fig & Cinnamon for holiday-themed brown spirit cocktails, Bitters Lab Charred Cedar Currant for any classic like a Manhattan, and Bar Daddy Orgeat syrup especially for Japanese-type cocktails. 

Stocking the Bar and Pantry

With more socializing and staying at home this holiday season, stocking the pantry with quality specialty foods for appetizers and hors d’oeuvres such as tinned fish, charcuterie, crackers, and cheeses, will be a priority.

While consumers are getting on board with charcuterie and cheese trays, conservas or tinned fish are becoming huge add-ons. According to Bloomberg, the market for tinned fish is expected to reach $36.7 billion by 2021, up from $29.8 billion in 2016.

American consumers are moving beyond their familiar canned tuna and exploring the likes of products better known in Europe and Asia such as Spanish sardines, Italian anchovy fillets, Korean tuna in chili oil, as well as smoky octopus from Alaska. “We have never seen growth like we have in this category. It’s quite insane actually,” says Matt Caputo of Caputo’s Market & Deli.

Caputo says most brands he sells are growing like crazy, but standouts include Jose Gourmet, Espinaler, and Wildfish. “When Wildfish arrived, we didn’t even have a brand page set up. That did not stop it from selling out—the entire (full) pallet in four business days,” he recalls.

At Hyde Park Gourmet, cut-to-order cheeses like Brillat Savarin Triple Cream and Prairie Breeze Cheddar along with salty bites like Redondo Iglesias Serrano ham and Mitica Marcona almonds are a must, but it’s Arroyabe Bonito del Norte Tuna in a can that is flying off the shelves. “Customers are not balking at the higher price,” either, says owner Evelyn Ignatow.

When it comes to capitalizing on this new cocktail culture, experts say retailers can benefit from pre-packaging—making ‘to-go’ happy hour packs that include specialty foods like cheeses and crackers or dips and salty snacks, or merchandising garnishes with spirits.

“We may even see a resurgence in sales of familiar favorite garnishes likes olives and pickled onions or Luxardo Maraschino cherries or Amarena cherries,” notes Kara Nielsen, director of food and drink for WGSN.

Sable & Rosenfeld, which earlier this year introduced Bourbon Tipsy Dark Reserve Cherries, reports that its sales have more than doubled in the cocktail garnish and condiments categories.

“Our Bourbon Dark Reserve Cherries have really taken off and our new website shows off our products nicely with many suggested recipes,” says Mary O’Neill, vice president of sales at the Toronto-based company.

In this time of cooking and being at home more, engaging with social media is key.

“It’s even more important now for brands to leverage influencers to help promote holiday entertaining, especially since consumers are not having the same level of exposure to new brands at restaurants or stores,” says Kalyn Rozanski, co-founder and innovation trend expert of Ebco.

“Video content and live DIYs are extremely popular forms of micro-content right now,” she says. “We see brands having influencers show how they are creating their own spin with products, like showing how a Keto cracker brand can be made into a Keto cheese and appetizer board.”

Nielsen concludes, “It’s an amazing moment for consumers to learn and find brands online and see what these companies are doing and how it can translate into home experimentation for the holidays.”

New and Noteworthy for Holiday Cocktail Parties

21st Amendment Brewery SoMA Blackberry Hard Seltzer. This hard seltzer created by the San Francisco brewery contains 100 calories, 2 grams of carbs, and zero sugar. It’s made using a natural fermentation process and brewed with natural flavors from Virginia Dare.

Evil Twin Brewery Evil Water Passion Fruit, Lemon, Coconut Hard Pastry Seltzer. This hard ‘pastry’ seltzer is brewed with lemon zest, tart passion fruit, and coconut and is 4.5% ABV. Bright and effervescent with flavors of passion fruit, coconut, and lemon zest.

The Murph’s Famous Bloody Mary Mix Party in a Box. This convenient party pack includes a hot and spicy mix that is slow kettle-cooked to create a thick and zesty Bloody Mary. Pepperoncini included for garnish. Just add the alcohol for a holiday brunch cocktail with or without heat. 

Onda Sparkling Tequila. Unlike a hard seltzer, Onda is not malt-based. Made with blanco tequila, this sparkling drink in a can has 5% alcohol, 100 calories, zero sugar, zero carbs, and is naturally gluten-free. Available in Sparkling Tequila Grapefruit and Sparkling Tequila Lime in an 8-, 16- or 24-pack.

ROOT 23 Classic Cocktail Set. This set, a perfect hostess gift for the holidays, features four 4-ounce bottles of simple syrup including Vanilla Ginger, Cherry Almond, Maple Cinnamon and Grapefruit Basil. Each flavor combination is versatile and pairs with almost any type of spirit.

Sable & Rosenfeld Bourbon Tipsy Dark Reserve Cherries. These large, firm Oregon-grown Stardust cherries are packed in Sable & Rosenfeld’s exclusive syrup spiked with bourbon to create the dark reserve. Bourbon Tipsy Dark Reserve Cherries can be used to garnish a cocktail, cheese tray, or decadent dessert.

Simple Mills Roasted Red Pepper Veggie Pita Crackers. These gluten-free crackers are made with vegetable and seed flours including sweet potato, parsnip, flax, and sunflower. One-third vegetable serving per nine crackers.

Tillen Farms by Stonewall Kitchen, Old Fashioned Syrup. Sweetened with orange juice and spiced with bitters, this syrup combines with any fine whiskey to make the perfect Old Fashioned and other classic cocktails.

Tip Top Proper Cocktails, Negroni. This RTD cocktail in a can is bittersweet with flavors of orange, grapefruit, and juniper, and boozy with a 26% ABV (52 proof). Made with dry gin, red bitters, and sweet vermouth. Other classics available: Manhattan and Old Fashioned.

Wildfish Cannery Smoked Octopus. Caught in the Bering Sea, this tinned octopus is harvested, smoked, and hand-packed in Alaska. Smoky, briny, and succulent, it pairs well with a fine whisky and can be dressed up with olive oil and lemon for a holiday appetizer treat.

Unearthed Olives with Gouda. This prepackaged duo of queen green olives grown and hand harvested in a small Spanish town in the heart of Andalusia combines with Dutch Gouda. A convenient addition to a cocktail gathering.

Nicole Potenza Denis is a contributing editor to Specialty Food.

Photos: Mark Ferri; Food Styling: Leslie Orlandini; Props Styling: Francine Matalon–Degni

Cover: The Murph’s Famous Bloody Mary, Two Chicks Vodka Fizz, Wildfish Cannery Smoked Octopus, Unearthed Olives with Gouda